UNDER HIS SKIN. Whatever got under Paul's skin, albeit unwelcome and defining, it served him well. His "thorn in the flesh" kept him from becoming, as he puts it in 2 Corinthians 12, "conceited." He'd seen great visions, done great things, had mind-boggling experiences--the kind of stuff that would alter anyone's ego. Counter-balancing his spiritual insights and capacity for prophetic boldness is a tormenting thorn in the flesh. It's either unrelenting or cyclically returning to buffet him.
WHEN YOU CAN'T PRAY IT AWAY. Paul can't pray it away. Persistent, prevailing prayer--"three times I prayed for it to be taken away"--doesn't bring relief. "God, what are you trying to do to me?" he might well have pleaded. "What are you trying to prove by this suffering?" The response he receives from the Lord, ready or not, is profound: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness." Oh, that. Not the response Paul was looking for, but what he needed nonetheless.
STRENGTH IN WEAKNESS? This is likely the greatest insight Paul ever received. It was at least more useful in this life for him--and for us--than whatever it was that he saw and heard in the third heaven--whatever that is. Grace sufficient amid thorn-in-the-flesh torment: that's the promise. Weakness--so un-American, so dependency-oriented: that's the context of being buoyed by God's strength and making it our own. In light of this insight, Paul decided, instead of hiding his weaknesses, to glory in them. "When I am weak," he concluded, "then I am strong." What kind of spiritual formation is this?
Here's some insight my fresh contemplation of this ancient scripture yielded:
1. Don’t seek or glorify suffering. Suffering in and of itself is not “meritorious,” nor is there spiritual value in bearing self-inflicted wounds, whether physical, spiritual, emotional, or social. Suffering will come soon enough, don't go running after it.
2. When relief or deliverance of an unwelcome affliction doesn’t readily come through earnest prayer, explore the ways God’s grace is being provided through it all. Resist those "if you had enough faith" TV preachers. Tune out Job's friends. Instead of seeking the "why me?" answers, focus on the daily sustaining strength that is, against all odds, freely given.
3. Instead of always playing to your natural as well as spiritual strengths and hiding your weaknesses, create a space in your heart in which acknowledged weaknesses can build greater dependence on God and necessity of trust in God. I'll always put my best foot forward and look for the positive aspects of life, but I no longer deny my downsides, my baggage, my weaknesses. Neither do I trumpet them. But, acknowledging my weaknesses before God, I open a place for grace to address and heal.
4. Actively and creatively look for ways to serve God in the midst of “thorn-in-the-flesh” suffering as one way to grow in faith and glorify God. I'm thinking of Mother Teresa's 50-year experience of divine absence, all the while serving in light of the vision she received, the call she accepted, and the people she knew Jesus loved. If a thorn in our flesh immobilizes us, it accomplishes its underhanded purpose. If we choose to serve faithfully through it, however diminished or fragile we may be, a breakthrough beyond our ability to see or understand is made possible.