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   Angels along my Path: the Love that Heals

All the passages below are taken from Pablo Martinez’s book “A Thorn in the Flesh,” published in 2007.

 

Love is the principal, the paramount, the pre-eminent, the distinguishing characteristic of the people of God. Nothing can dislodge or replace it. Love is supreme.1

 

What role does love play in the struggle against the thorn? Up to this point we have considered some of the therapeutic effects of grace. Maybe you are wondering why I have not yet mentioned love. Love is the highest expression of grace. That is why it needs a chapter all of its own. Grace is love in action and love originates in and feeds on grace. The supreme example of this inseparable relationship between grace and love is found in the person of Jesus Christ: he is the paradigm of grace incarnated in love. Beautiful Bible verses remind us of this reality: `For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son...' (John 3:16 NIV), or `He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all---how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?' (Romans 8:32).

Let us respond to two practical questions: who are the transmitters of this love and how does it show itself in its relationship to the thorn?

 

Who? The transmitters of grace

For a life in the dark, love is the surest guide.2

 

God uses key people, deeply meaningful in our lives, to help us fight against the thorn. They are specific people, with real names, who are like angels along our desert paths bringing us, above all, love. They are the transmitters of God's grace, because grace is not only something experienced, but also something shared. Grace is received, but it also needs to be transmitted. God never intended grace to be an individual experience, no matter how edifying it might be. We considered earlier how Jonathan was used by God to help David. Paul also had his `angels' who helped him in his most difficult moments. It is exciting to see how the apostle refers to Epaphroditus as `my brother, fellow-worker and fellow-soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs' (Philippians 2:25 NIV) and who `almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me' (v. 30).

In our situation, where are we going to find these servant transmitters of God's grace and love? Of course, God can use the person we least expect. Life is full of examples of anonymous men and women whose generosity, compassion and altruism are reminders of the divine image that every human being retains as an indelible imprint on their hearts. Nonetheless, there are certain spheres in which we are more likely to find these `angel' transmitters of grace and love. We will consider two of them: on the one hand, family and friends, and, on the other hand, the church---what we call the `supernatural help' because it contains ingredients that go beyond mere natural support.

 

Family and friends: the natural help

Our main support should obviously come from those who are closest to us---family and friends. Their love, commitment and empathy are irreplaceable. In fact, the thorn very often affects the entire family, parents, siblings and children, who suffer as much as the person directly affected, especially when the thorn touches a child, for example with a disability or a chronic illness. Although the parents and siblings do not literally suffer from the problem, in practice they do experience it as if it were their own. This is the high cost that comes with an identification that is as natural as it is necessary. Family life is like a delicate system of communicating vessels in which everything affects everyone. In fact, the emotional wear and tear that these situations create for caregivers---particularly the closest family members---makes it highly advisable that they also receive help. The classic question `Who cares for the carer?' takes on a particular relevance here. Much of this book's content is applicable as much to close relatives as it is to the person living with the thorn. Every day the family needs to experience the refreshing and renewing breeze of grace that in turn enables each member to continue giving that same grace to their suffering relative.

The lack of such support from closest family members is a major handicap in the acceptance process. Besides, it can cause fractures in communication with family members or among friends. This happened, for example, with Job: what his broken heart needed most was the support of his wife and friends, but he was soon to discover that those who should have been a balm for his wounds became in fact like vinegar. Instead of bringing hope, they brought irritation and disconsolation. Truly there is nothing better than a period of pain to test the levels of love and friendship. `A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity', we are reminded in the wisdom of Proverbs (Proverbs 17:17 NIV).

Suffering often provides good opportunities for strengthening relationships, but it is also a time of danger. When the storm rages, the bond of love can be reinforced, but dangerous leaks can also appear, letting the water in. Numerous studies have shown that the unexpected appearance of a thorn can detonate a crisis in a marriage. We must keep up our guard and think not only about the needs of the affected person but also of those of their spouse, children, and so on. I remember a woman who, weeping, told me, `When our son was born ---with cerebral palsy---somehow I lost my husband. It was like a wall that rose up between us. It wasn't that he shied away from caring for the boy---he did take care of him and did everything that would be normal in the situation. But he didn't have anything to do with me: he abandoned me emotionally. When I needed him the most, he inexplicably distanced himself. My loneliness became unbearable.'

This woman's sad experience can help us outline some of the basic needs of the person dealing with a thorn,3 without forgetting that their family members have needs too.

 

• Companionship: emotional support

• Empathy: feeling understood

• Practical support: help in facing the new challenges that appear with the thorn. This is especially true in the adaptation phase, when one must learn to live differently

• Hope: the sense that life will regain its meaning and there is a future.

 

In fact, these four needs converge in a single one that can be defined in negative terms: not feeling alone. Loneliness is always hard to accept because people are not born for isolation but for relationship. However, loneliness is particularly painful at the time of the thorn. We should do our absolute best to make sure that the person suffering from the thorn---and his or her closest caregivers---should not feel like the Psalmist, who wrote, `My heart is blighted and withered like grass ... I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins. I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a housetop' (Psalm 102:4, 6-7 NIV). This leads us to consider another great resource of grace, the church.

 

Church, the supernatural support

For believers there is also another family, a family of families, which is a unique setting for experiencing love and grace: the church. How can the local church help the person suffering from a thorn, and also help their family? Above all, by offering them grace. Grace is the most distinctive contribution the church can make to those stricken by a thorn. Grace strengthens, encourages, comforts. In his excellent book What's So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey quotes Gordon MacDonald: `The world can do almost anything as well as or better than the church ... There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.4

Biblical teaching is emphatic about the idea that we are a body and belong to one another: `Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it ... its parts should have equal concern for each other ... If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it' (1 Corinthians 12:25-27 NIV).

The Christian life is not a matter of `God and me alone'. A solitary Christian is incompatible with New Testament teaching. Faith does of course have an intimate and personal dimension that must be respected, but it goes far beyond the private realm, with inevitable community and social implications. John Wesley often reminded his listeners of a friend's words: `The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.5 Whether we like it or not, when we experience the new birth---conversion---we come to form part of a family in which, just as in any other family, we do not have the right to choose our siblings. (I have never yet met anyone who has had the opportunity to choose his or her blood siblings!)

Thus being a support community is in the very nature of the church. Its natural solidarity---`for we are all members of one body' (Ephesians 4:25 NIV)---is strengthened by the supernatural love of grace: `because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us' (Romans 5:5 NIV). The love of Christ is the motivation that `compels us' (2 Corinthians 5:14 NIV). Indeed, it impels us to love those suffering from a thorn and their families. The church becomes a support community. This was such a natural characteristic of the church in the early centuries that the first hospitals were founded by Christians. As a matter of fact the concept of hospital is inseparably joined to Christianity. Concern for the sick was something so natural and accepted among Christians in the Middle Ages that a hospital was always built next to every monastery, as can be seen even today. Of course these hospitals were very different from hospitals today; they were used primarily for sufferers from leprosy, the blind, the infirm and the marginalized---in other words, men and women fighting against gruelling thorns.

Today, even non-believing professionals have admitted the relevant role that Christian communities can play in helping suffering people. This is one of the merits that the church can offer our society today. In a world where the family is in crisis and no longer constitutes a safe refuge, the local church is an alternative family. A church where members bear one another's burdens becomes a home, a family of families through which God `provides homes for those who are deserted' (Psalm 68:6, HCSB).

The church can be a healing community, a therapeutic instrument for a hurting world. Many people today who are discouraged owing to distress, depression or loneliness, hurt by broken relationships or dire family situations, wander through life as `injured' and `weak' (Ezekiel 34:16). It is these people who, exhausted by thorns, will make their way to a church in search of someone who will share their burdens. We must be on the lookout for them, willing to carry their `knapsack' for a while, i.e. listen to them, understand them and, above all, love them with the love of Christ who showed a deep interest in all who were `in need of a doctor'. Grace, expressed in love, should be the distinctive mark of a church that is alive.

 

How? Healing through love

We have considered the who, the transmitters of grace and love. Now we must focus on the how. How do we go about giving the support, the empathy, the practical help and the hope that are so vital? We could make a list of useful and commonsense suggestions. But this kind of information can easily be found in any counselling or self-help book. Because my desire throughout this book is to let the Word of God speak as much as possible, I prefer to focus on two exhortations from the apostolic teaching which are a mine of rich material on the practice of Christian love:

 

Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2 NIV).

Stir up one another to love (Hebrews 10: 24, ESV).

 

`Carry each other's burdens'

In this verse we find not only valuable psychological wisdom but also one of the most healing effects of grace. Grace is the supernatural strength that enables us to carry each other's burdens, and, even though Paul's exhortation is directed at the church, it also applies to individuals, including the family and close friends of the suffering person.

Let us notice, first of all, that this verse is a command, not an option. The verb `carry' is an imperative. If we belong to one another, the natural consequence is to `carry each other's burdens'. Caring for our brothers and sisters is not only a privilege to enjoy, but a duty to accomplish. Young's Literal Translation (1898) accurately conveys the emphasis: `of one another the burdens bear ye.' Paul places `of one another' in the genitive at the beginning of the sentence to indicate its emphasis.

So how do we practise this exhortation? The word `carry' or `bear' is the same as in John 19:17, when Jesus carried his own cross and started making his way to Golgotha. The idea conveyed in the original is that of carrying `something that weighs heavily'. The same word for `burden', baros, is used in Matthew 20:12, referring to the work and tiring nature of the day: `And you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.' So it can mean both a physical and a symbolic or moral weight---something that is burdensome and oppressive, such as a worry, a problem, a hardship or an illness.

I would like to illustrate this idea: all of us are travelling through life carrying knapsacks of different weights. The idea of `carrying one another's burdens' refers to taking your neighbour's knapsack and carrying it for a while. That is exactly what Simon did when the Roman soldiers made him carry Jesus' cross because Jesus was more than likely completely exhausted: `They seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus' (Luke 23:26 NIV). What a privilege for Simon to share Jesus' burden! Likewise, the word used in Isaiah 53:4---`Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows'---is the same one as in Galatians 6:2---`carry each other's burdens'. In the very act of carrying---and dying on---that cross, Jesus was bearing all our sins.

Obviously there is one sense in which we cannot carry the burdens of our neighbour as Jesus did: the substitutionary, vicarious element of the Lord's death that cannot be repeated. But, in a broader sense, we can and we ought to imitate Christ. The very life of Jesus impels us to do the same. In fact, the word `law', which appears in the second part of the verse `in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ', does not mean precept so much as model. It refers to the spirit, character and demeanour of Christ, who, `anointed ... with the Holy Spirit and power ... went around doing good and healing all...' (Acts 10:38 NIV). Every believer should desire to have this pastoral heart that causes us to approach a brother or sister and ask, `What's the matter? Can I do something for you? Can I carry your knapsack for a while?'

 

`Stirring up one another to love'

This second exhortation is placed in a context that accurately describes more practical ways of sharing the other person's burden: `And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another' (Hebrews 10:24-25 NIV). Notice the emphasis again on the Christian life as an experience to be lived as a body: `not neglecting to meet together'. Individual efforts are important, but they are not enough if love and good works are to be promoted.

Let us focus on the first sentence `... how to stir up one another to love'. The word for `stirring up', paroxysmos, is a significant term meaning `to incite'. As Donald Guthrie puts it, `it seems to suggest that loving one another will not just happen. It needs to be worked out, even provoked'.6

If we compare love to a fire, both starting and maintaining a fire require effort and a watchful attitude. The idea is to be proactive in showing concern for and promoting the good of my neighbour. It simply means taking the other person into account, not ignoring him or her. Sometimes a sincere and heartfelt `How are you?' suffices to show our love. At other times, words may be unnecessary and the same attitude of love is communicated through a penetrating and comforting gaze that speaks for itself, silently saying, `Can I be of any help to you? I'm by your side if you need me.' A handwritten note or postcard at special moments, a phone call or a visit to their home are other practical ways of considering one another that communicate valuable support to the person suffering with a thorn.

Also, we should not forget that one of the most effective ways of carrying the burdens is by listening to the other person. Listening carefully, not only with our ears but with our eyes, conveys a powerful message of love. Remember the story of Job's `comforters': talking too much was the main source of the mistakes they made. This is why God rebuked them at the end: `I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken ... what is right. ..'(Job 42:7 NIV). If they had remained silent, as they did for the first few days (see 2:13 ), and just listened to job's laments, their comfort to the tormented job would have been much more effective. In suffering, love is expressed much better by the warmth of a caring hand than by the eloquence of a long discourse.

Finally, this exhortation clearly refers to the reciprocal dimension of love. It is striking to see how in the New Testament there are more than fifty commandments that include the phrase `one another': love one another, comfort one another, encourage one another, serve one another, bear with one another, forgive one another ... as reciprocal commandments. There is no place for a passive attitude within the church. It is always a matter of giving and receiving. All these attitudes---works of love---are a practical expression of the grace of Christ. People suffering with a thorn need to experience this grace, made visible in their spiritual family. Love is like a fire with limitless energy. Undoubtedly it is the key ingredient in grace to transform people, relationships and situations. Hence its sterling value for helping the person dealing with a thorn.

 

Prayers that support: the therapeutic value of my brothers' and sisters' prayers

... we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength ... you also joined in helping us through your prayers (2 Corinthians 1:8, 11, ESV/NASB).

 

One of the most powerful ways we can show our support is through prayer. To pray for and with the person or family that suffers from a thorn has a soothing effect and constitutes an unfailing source of comfort. When someone prays for me, I feel accompanied, understood and supported. This is especially true in the initial stages of the thorn, when it seems that the world is crashing in on us. But also later on, when we have genuinely come to accept the problem, intercession by our Christian family continues to be important for experiencing renewed forces of grace. Paul referred to this idea in an emotive passage:

 

We know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death (2 Corinthians I:7-9, ESV).

 

And the apostle continues, sharing what their prayers had meant to him in such dire straits: `He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers' (vv. 10-11). The force of this passage is surprising, for Paul is in effect saying, `When you pray for me in my tribulation, you are fighting alongside me, helping me.'

And it is not merely of psychological benefit that `someone has remembered me'. Prayer does not operate as a placebo or a self-suggestion technique but by its enormous spiritual power. Prayer can change circumstances, but it also changes people, a phenomenon that medicine has studied in depth over recent years, with surprising results. Several independent research projects have shown how those patients who prayed or knew that others were praying for them (for example, after having an operation or going through cancer treatment) had a faster and better recovery rate than other patients who did not have prayer backing. Exactly the same thing occurs when suffering from a thorn.

 

The source of grace: `I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me'

Remain in me, and I will remain in you ... apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:4-5 NIV).

 

So far we have seen some of the transmitters of grace: the family, the church, friends: instruments in God's hands to dispense grace. In the words of the apostle Peter, they are `good stewards of God's varied grace' (1 Peter 4:10, ESV). The spring from which this divine gift flows is Christ himself, which is why grace is inseparable from a personal relationship with Christ. We receive this grace when we are in intimate communion with Christ, just as a plant receives its vital life sap from the main trunk. There are no shortcuts or substitutes. Herein lies the essence of acceptance: it is a supernatural spiritual experience. If I want to experience God's grace, I have to cultivate my relationship with Christ.

Let us now return to 2 Corinthians 12, the text dealing with the thorn. Between verses 8 and 10, where Paul's transformation takes place, there is a phrase worth noting. Seemingly insignificant, it contains nothing less than the secret par excellence of this profound change: `. .. but he [the Lord] said to me' (v. 9). It is not by his own efforts or through a personal process of psychological maturity that Paul comes to have an attitude of joyful acceptance, but in response to the encounter he has had with his Lord in prayer. Paul has known God's answer in the Hebrew sense, that is, he has experientially known what God has told him. This is not mere informational knowledge. It reminds us again of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, a man who also fought intensely with God in prayer. After hearing God's answer, and as an introduction to a memorable prayer, Habakkuk affirms: `O LORD, I have heard your speech and was afraid' (Habakkuk 3:2, NKJV). From the content of this prayer we see how God's answer had changed the prophet's attitudes, thoughts and feelings. The apostle's experience with regard to the thorn is the same.

The explanation of this spiritual reality is seen in Philippians 4:11-13, the text that was the basis for our discussion of contentment: `I have learned to be content ... I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me...'. Verses 11 and 13 are inseparable. There is no true contentment without Christ. This is the key to accepting the thorn and also to the entire Christian life. Famous people can encourage me by their example, inspiring me. The power of Christ goes much further than being an inspiration; he performs a transformation which energizes me on the inside, enabling me to face any situation. Christ is able to strengthen me because he is truly alive today and his power is delivered to me as the vine gives sap to the branches.

In the original, the preposition Paul uses is in: `I can do all things IN Christ'. It does not say `with' or `by' Christ. It is an existential position. It is not a sporadic experience, intense as this might be, but a permanent relationship. It is not an occasional encounter, like that of a patient with a psychologist or counsellor that enables the patient to leave after the therapy session `feeling encouraged and uplifted'. Contentment is possible only when we are in Christ because the sap will flow through the branch only if it is connected to the vine.

 

How does Christ strengthen me?

In the light of biblical teaching, Christ meets the three main needs of the person suffering from a thorn, which we described earlier.

 

• Christ is beside me: his companionship.

The last words spoken by Jesus before returning to heaven were: `Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age' (Matthew 28:20 NIV). The author of the epistle to the Hebrews likewise quotes God's promise to Joshua, applying it to every believer: `Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you' (Hebrews 13:5), the consequence of which is very encouraging: `So we say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?"' (v. 6). His companionship, his presence, is the source of encouragement and strengthening.

This was the experience of Henrietta, a woman who had spent fifteen years in a wheelchair after an accident had left her quadriplegic. She could not move her arms or legs at all. Her grandchildren, impressed by her immobility, wondered what she thought about all day long because she was always calm and peaceful. She shared her secret in a nutshell: `If I didn't have my Lord Jesus at my side, I'd ask that my days be shortened!'

The comfort of Christ's presence is expressed in the matchless lyrics of a hymn that, some time ago, was chosen in a survey as one of the ten most-loved hymns by Christians in the United States:

 

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.

The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, 0 abide with me.

 

I need Thy presence every passing hour;

What but Thy grace can foil the tempter's power?

Who like Thyself my guide and stay can be?

Through cloud and sunshine 0 abide with me.

 

• Christ suffers with me: his empathy.

Another great need of the person suffering from a thorn is to feel understood. And who can better understand than the person who has previously gone through a similar experience? God's participation in and identification with human suffering is unfathomable but at the same time it is what offers the greatest comfort to the suffering person. In the moving description of the sufferings of Christ in Isaiah 53 lies the ultimate answer to all suffering: `he was despised ... he was pierced ... he was crushed ... he was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter.' So much suffering had a purpose: `by his wounds we are healed ... after the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied ... for he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.'

For all these reasons, because he was an expert7 in suffering, we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are---yet was without sin' (Hebrews 4:15 NIV). Here also the author concludes in a passionate exhortation: `Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need' (v. 16). I quote this again deliberately because it describes amazingly the close association between our relationship with Christ---`let us then approach'---and the grace dispensed by the `time of need', that is to say, the necessary help, which I need at that very moment. Christ gives me not only his companionship but also his full understanding in view of my trial. He understands me because he has already experienced the pain and anguish of the thorn.

 

• Christ intercedes for me: his prayers.

Intercession for each one of us is another activity that Christ is engaged in right now, while seated at the right hand of the Father. We read in Romans 8:34, `Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died---more than that, who was raised to life---is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.' And in Hebrews 7:25 the Lord is presented as one who `always lives to intercede for [us]'. As we saw earlier, the prayers of our church family do us a lot of good because they communicate support to us, which is another great need of the afflicted person. Prayer also covers the other two needs, companionship and empathy. It makes us feel at the same time supported and understood as we live with our thorn. If all this is true with regard to the prayers of our Christian siblings, how much more must Jesus' intercession on our behalf comfort us? For me this was one of the most revolutionary discoveries in my struggle with a thorn: to know and feel that every day Christ is interceding for me personally. This is the best antidote to discouragement in the daily struggle with my thorn.

 

Growing in grace

If you know there is a medicine that heals, you will do everything possible to take it. So, as our final consideration, how do we receive this transforming grace?

Grace is not something that is obtained once and for all. It is not like a fixed capital that does not vary. This is why the Bible uses one verb to describe grace as something dynamic and constantly renewed: `to grow'. Of the Lord Jesus it is said, for example, that he grew `in grace with God and men' (Luke 2:52, literal translation by the author from the original Greek). Peter exhorts us to `grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ' (2 Peter 3:18). Similarly, Paul exhorts Timothy, `You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus' (2 Timothy 2:1).

Even though we may have reached an excellent level of acceptance, comparable to that of the apostle Paul who rejoiced in his weakness, our need of grace does not disappear but rather is constant. This is logical. We are talking about situations of prolonged suffering in which the thorn is not removed. Many things have changed, though God's answer has not been to remove the thorn but to give us the resources necessary to cope with it. As a result, just as a person with a chronic illness needs permanent treatment, we have to continue to take the divine medicine that invigorates us: `my grace is sufficient for you.' Thus, the spiritual experience of grace is not like an antibiotic that one takes for several days and that's it. No. Grace is rather like the eye drops that the patient needs to apply daily to his sore eyes. Discipline, perseverance and effort are required. We depend on grace to be well. It is indeed a marvellous dependence!

On the other hand, the idea of growth is a reminder that the forms of experiencing grace can be diverse. There will be special moments of intense fellowship with the Lord, moments that will leave an unforgettable memory. Such was Jacob's experience at Peniel. Every believer has some of these stellar moments that serve as milestones in his or her relationship with God. However, generally speaking, growth develops in a continual and gradual way, similar to the way a child develops physically and psychologically. Grace is like the sediment that a river deposits on its bed almost imperceptibly. With time, however, the sediment becomes quite noticeable. This is what mostly happens in our spiritual growth.

There is one final issue. The growth process in grace, and in the acceptance of the thorn, is not immune from oscillation or from apparent setbacks. It is never a straight, upward line, free from doubts and relapses into rebellion and protest. There are moments of defeat in which a person feels they have lost everything they have gained. These are moments when, for some reason, it seems that we are fighting in vain. We row with all our strength but the wind blows strongly against us and the waves prevent us from advancing. We ask ourselves whether indeed we have advanced at all.

A diagram can help us understand this concept better. Figure 1 shows what we might call 'never-failing' growth, without relapse, always in a straight, upward line. This kind of growth is unreal and reflects a non-biblical triumphalism. The struggle against the thorn does not operate this way.

 

               

Figure 1. ‘Never-failing growth          Figure 2. `Spiral' growth.

 

 

On the other hand, Figure 2, shows growth in a `spiral' fashion. There are ups and downs, but what is significant is that the relapses never return to the original starting point; there is clearly a growth process.

 

Finding grace in your own life

If the source of grace is in Christ, how can we cultivate the personal relationship considered above? What enables us to stay in him? A detailed treatment of this is beyond the scope of this book,8 so I will simply outline the answer:

 

Reading and meditating on the Word of God

The study of God's Word enables us not only to know the truth but also to meet the True One, the One who said, `I am the way, the truth and the life.' Seek to imitate the Christians of Berea, who `received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day' (Acts 17:11) and you will have an encounter with the living Christ. The Scriptures are filled with Christ: `And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself' (Luke 24:27).

 

·        Allow the Word to speak to you personally

·        Allow the Word to penetrate in your heart, that it may `dwell in you richly'

·        Allow the Word to change and fashion you.

 

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

 

Prayer

We have considered the value of the prayers of our brothers and sisters. What about our own prayers? Prayer is a most powerful instrument because it allows us to converse with God as our Father, naturally and intimately, knowing that he is the 'Abba'---Daddy---of whom Paul speaks to us (Romans 8:15). It is in prayer, more than anywhere else, that God ceases to be a distant `it' and becomes the nearby and knowable 'Thou' of whom the German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote.9 `In prayer one does not limit oneself to talking to God; one must speak with God, coram Deo, face to face with him10

If meditating on the Word implies listening to God, allowing him to speak to you, prayer is where you speak to God. But, even without realizing it, the Lord also uses this tool to mould us, to make us grow. Prayer has the power to change circumstances, but it also changes us. As Richard Foster has said, `Prayer is change. Prayer is the main avenue that God uses to transform us.’11 We have all experienced at one time or another how anxiety is replaced by the peace `that passes all understanding'; hatred and resentment by an attitude of forgiveness and even love; fear by trust; doubt by certainty, when we present ourselves before God with a sincere heart `in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving' (Philippians 4:6). Because `prayer is the vital factor of faith, the believer prays. The person who prays, believes'.12

These are the precious stones contained in the manifold grace of God. It is in personal application that the ultimate secret of the acceptance of the thorn is found. What amazing power is offered to us by the one who was able to bring the dead back to life!  [112-127]

 

 

Notes

1. John Stott, The Contemporary Christian, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1992, p. 148.

2. Helen Keller, Light in My Darkness, Chrysalis Books, Pennsylvania, 1994, p. 96. For a wider knowledge of this amazing deaf-mute and blind woman, see chapter 5.

3. The book Tracing the Rainbow, by Pablo Martinez, Authentic Media, 2004, provides further material for the reader interested in this subject. In particular we recommend chapter 3, `How can we help?'. Although the book deals with the subject of bereavement and loss, when it comes to helping and comforting others there is much in common with the chronic pain of a thorn that often also entails loss and a bereavement process, which is why we consider the book a recommended accompaniment to this one.

4. Philip Yancey, What is So Amazing about Grace?, 1997, Zondervan Publishing House, Michigan, p. 15.

5. Quoted by Raymond Brown in Christ Above All: The Message of Hebrews, IVP, Leicester, 1982, p. 186.

6. Donald Guthrie, Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, InterVarsity Press, Leicester, 1983, p. 215.

7. This is how the Spanish Reina-Valera version of 1960 renders it: `expert or experienced in suffering' (La Santa Biblia, Revision de I96o, Version de Casidoro de Reina y Cipriano de Valera, Sociedades Biblicas de America Latina).

8. For a more exhaustive study of this topic I recommend two recent books: Experiencing Healing Prayer: A Journey from Hurts to Wholeness by Rick Richardson, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 2005, and Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? by Philip Yancey, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2006.

9. This concept is developed fully in the book, I and Thou, by Martin Buber.

10. J. M. Martinez, Abba, Father, Editorial Clie, I990, p. 25.

11. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Hodder and Stoughton, London, I98o, p. 30.

12. J. M. Lochman, Unser Vater, Gutersloh, 1988.

 

 

Appendix: Types of Thorns

This outline is just an illustrative reference point, and is not intended to be a comprehensive list of every possible thorn. It is just a small sample that mainly reflects my own experience as a psychiatrist and as a lay leader/elder in a church for more than thirty years. The list is intended to broaden the types of thorn mentioned in chapter 1, especially those related to disease. Any situation of chronic or recurring suffering having the features described could be added here by the reader.

 

Chronic physical illnesses

 

These can be:

• Degenerative: multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, muscular diseases (dystrophies), other neurological diseases

• Incapacitating: disorders causing sight or hearing loss, certain forms of diabetes, renal insufficiency necessitating dialysis, chronic heart conditions, serious rheumatological diseases that hinder mobility, etc.

• Recurring in crisis form: epilepsy, malaria

• Infectious: HIV (AIDS virus), hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis.

 

In many cases these diseases are degenerative, incapacitating and recurring at the same time.

 

Chronic psychological illnesses

• Serious and recurring depression

• Obsessive disorders with intrusive (undesired) thoughts

• Schizophrenia and other psychoses

• Personality disorders: antisocial, borderline and others

• Different types of addiction, including alcoholism, compulsive gambling and sexual addiction (the thorn here affecting more the family than the patient, who is often unaware of the problem or reluctant to solve it). [185]

 

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