Living Life by Grace by Pablo Martinez
All the passages below are taken from Pablo Martinez’s book “A Thorn in the Flesh,” published in 2007.
To accept does not mean to indulge in suffering, nor to endure it with fatalism, nor to become hardened from painful trials … nor to try and forget it with time. It is to offer it to God so He can make it bear fruit. For this reason it is neither reasoned, nor invented, nor understood: it is a spiritual experience.1
The change in Paul is surprising: from a man constantly struggling, pleading intensely with God to remove his thorn, he makes an about turn and affirms with complete conviction, `I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses’ (2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV). How did he undergo such a complete transformation? The quote from Paul Tournier gives us the clue: `it is a spiritual experience’. We saw earlier how acceptance could ultimately be achieved only by the grace of God. We call this the supernatural ingredient in the process of acceptance: it depends on faith and is not obtained by any other technical means, but through a personal encounter with the God of the Bible. In order to surmount the thorn, in addition to the valuable therapeutic resources that science offers us, we must discover and experience this supernatural strength that transforms weaknesses into strengths.
This takes us back to the text in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, where we find the keys that transformed the apostle Paul so profoundly that he was able to exclaim, `For when I am weak, then I am strong’ (v.10). It was through permanent fellowship with his Lord that Paul received the ingredient that was decisive in his acceptance of the thorn: grace. Let us consider, first of all, God’s answer.
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV).
Several times Paul asks the Lord to remove the thorn from him. The answer to this fervent prayer is not liberation but provision of what is necessary to live with joy in the midst of his chronic suffering. God does not take away, but gives! We must emphasize this principle because it is fundamental for understanding how God sees our thorn. For us the `solution’ consists in eliminating the problem. God’s vision, however, is very different: what is most important is not the absence of suffering but rather his presence in the midst of suffering and the resources his presence affords us. What are these resources?
The answer is found in two words, each alluding to their respective resources for accepting the thorn: grace and power. Actually, they are intimately related because power—or strength—is the result of grace. Note the emphasis of the text on the divine origin of both resources. What in English appears as a simple possessive adjective, `my’, in the original is in the genitive which translates literally as `the power of me’ and `the grace of me’, a grammatical structure that seeks to underline its ownership. This emphasis confirms our point: there are resources that transcend a person’s ability or capability and go far beyond any psychological technique or social measure. These resources come from God and can be obtained only through a spiritual experience.
Grace: `My grace is sufficient for you’
We have before us one of the most wonderful declarations in the entire Bible. This statement, as brief as it is powerful, has been a source of comfort to thousands of believers dealing with weaknesses and trials. Here we find the heart of the struggle against the thorn. This was the fundamental lesson that Paul needed to learn. The word `grace’ rises majestically in the middle of the passage like a climax. We are reaching the peak of the mountain. The road we have travelled up to this point has been long, sometimes torturous and arduous. Now we have before our eyes the end of the road: `my grace’, this grace that is not a cold theological concept but rather the power of God operating in very specific ways in a person and in their circumstances. Grace takes us before the very majesty of God, because, as Thomas Aquinas wrote in his main work Summa Theologica, `grace is nothing else but a certain beginning of glory in us’.
It is worth asking why God answers Paul in such a brief way. What can six words do in the face of so many years of inner struggle and unexplainable suffering? It seems legitimate to infer that God, with his emphatic brevity, wants to make it clear that there is only one way to the final victory over the thorn. We can paraphrase what Jesus said to Martha and apply it to grace: `You are very worried and upset about the thorn, but only one thing is needed. My grace is sufficient for you.’
So what does this expression `my grace is sufficient for you’ mean? And, especially, how does it affect our acceptance of the thorn? As some commentators point out, Calvin among them, the word grace alludes to the constant aid of the Holy Spirit, which comes to us from the unmerited favour of God. Therefore, not only have we the wonderful gift of God that one day saved us, the saving grace, but also the immense wealth of practical help that he supplies us with every day. Grace is the sum of supernatural resources that come freely from God and enable us to battle against the thorn with divine power. The essential difference between a believing and a non-believing person as they face the thorn lies precisely here: in their resources. The suffering can be the same for both, but the believer has certain assets that are not available to the person who does not have a personal faith in God. Later we will consider the valuable components that grace contains.
In what sense is grace sufficient? Paul receives just the amount he needs for his acceptance to be `all the more gladly’ (v. 9) and to `delight in’ (v. 10). It’s not a matter of merely enduring the thorn or of surviving in the midst of the trial. Such an attitude is not sufficient. It’s not good when we accept thorns reluctantly, just because we have no other choice. God does not want this kind of forced acceptance, which is closer to stoic resignation. The level of sufficiency that God asks of us is much higher. He doesn’t want `grouchy’ children but children who are, in Paul’s memorable expression, `more than conquerors’ (Romans 8:37).
Power: `For my power is made perfect in weakness’
The second sentence begins with `for’, in the sense of `because’, and is an explanation that expands the previous claim. Paul, the man who had previously been transformed by divine grace in a number of facets of his life, probably did not need this explanation, but we do! The Lord does not simply tell Paul to be content with his grace, as if it were an order. The phrase is not imperative, as in `I order you to…’ God is not an authoritarian despot. Like a father who seeks not only to console but also to convince, he offers Paul a powerful reason. When struggling with a thorn, a person needs explanations that are indispensable for genuine acceptance. That is why the exhortation is accompanied by a convincing explanation: `my power is made perfect in weakness’. Here is the secret that helps us understand why God’s grace was sufficient. No wonder this passage has become a permanent source of inspiration to all of us who suffer from a thorn.
The great paradox: `when I am weak, then I am strong’ (v. 10)
Logically, a weakness is an obstacle and a limitation. This was how Paul understood his thorn. The lesson that the apostle must now learn is that God’s way of thinking is completely different from ours. It is not that Paul’s thorn does not bother the Almighty, but that right there—in the weakness—is where the Lord can show his power. And, what’s more, it is even perfected in weakness. This is why Paul goes on to affirm: `Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me’ (2 Corinthians 12:9).
An illustration that Jesus used helps us to understand this paradox. He said of himself, `I am the light of the world … the light shines in the darkness’ (John 8:12; 1:5). The light of Christ can shine much more brightly during moments of darkness. It is in the `dark night of the soul’, an expression used by John of the Cross and other Spanish mystics, that we begin to understand this great paradox: in the dark tunnel of my thorn—when I am weak—the light of Christ shines brightest because nothing is camouflaging it. It is then that I am strong because the greater the darkness, the brighter the radiance of his light.
This points to a transcendental matter that goes far beyond the problem of the thorn. It contains a vital principle regarding the relationship between a person and their Creator. A huge obstacle in approaching God is feeling strong, or self-sufficient. Fantasies of omnipotence—the desire to be like God—have been a constant in the history of humankind ever since Adam and Eve were tempted and fell into this sin of self-sufficiency. Pride, one of the main sources of our rebellion against God, becomes a great hindrance to faith. Why? Because it tends to become accentuated when things are going well for us, making us feel `very important’. If you believe you are like a demigod, there is no place for the real God in your heart. On the other hand, the feeling of weakness, whether physical, moral or existential, tends to be fertile ground for faith in God and for his power to be made manifest.
Of course, it is not always like this. We find notable atheists who suffered greatly, such as Nietzsche, who was tormented by the lacerating thorn of a dreadful disease that led to his insanity. But, many times, behind the utterance of the words `I don’t need God’ hides the sin of the church in Laodicea: pride. `You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked’ (Revelation 3:17).
Are we then to conclude that faith is only for weaklings? Or, following Nietzsche’s idea, does one have to be sufficiently sick to become a Christian? An exploration of this topic goes beyond the purpose of this book, so I can touch on it only briefly. If we understand `weak’ to mean people of low intellectual capacity or ability, then the answer is clearly `no’. There are shining examples in God’s Word and in history of men and women with privileged minds, noteworthy and brilliant leaders in all areas of human knowledge, who had a deep faith in God. But, in another sense, `yes’. Faith is for the weak, for those who feel they are `poor’—as in the first of the beatitudes—when they consider their smallness and their worthlessness in the face of God’s greatness and holiness. Jesus himself makes it fully clear to us when he says, `It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:31-32). Who are the weak to whom the gospel is directed? Those who realize they are sinners. This kind of moral and existential weakness is the exact opposite of pride and self-sufficiency: it is the humility that Paul had to learn precisely through the experience of the thorn. The purpose of the thorn was to prevent arrogance, `to keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations’ (v. 7).
How does grace operate in reality? In the following chapters we will consider the manifold treasures of grace in relation to the thorn experience, from new strength to a new set of values that give us a new reason to live.
Grace in action: the therapeutic effects of grace
… in order that … he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7 NIV).
Some people claim that they don’t need God because, if they’re badly off, he’ll only make them feel worse. How does one come to think like that? It is very difficult to understand the message of the gospel if God’s grace is not properly understood. Therefore, within the ranks of atheism are a multitude of people who rejected God without really knowing him. Among the most convinced atheists, we frequently find experiences based on a God who is severe and merciless. This leads to a legalistic and crushing gospel that ends up being rejected. A well-known example is the Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman. When he was a child, the rigid and severe faith of his father had a negative influence on Bergman, leading him eventually to a religious and existential crisis which appeared constantly in his films. The God of the Bible is the `God of all grace’ (1 Peter 5:10), and the heart of the gospel—its deepest essence—is found in grace. When you do not understand this basic reality, faith becomes a burden.
The whole gospel is about grace. For example: the greeting used at the beginning of many epistles is quite significant: `Grace and peace be unto you from our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Grace and peace are the two words that summarize the entire gospel. There is no better summary of the Christian faith. There is a cause-and-effect relationship between the two words: the ultimate source of peace is found in understanding and applying divine grace. Grace leads to peace. And it is here that we start to understand that the wounds of any thorn need the healing effect of the grace and peace of Jesus Christ.
So what is grace, for that matter? We can compare it to a treasure containing several precious stones—the riches of which Paul speaks. The best-known is salvation: `For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God’ (Ephesians 2:8). Above all, grace saves us. This saving effect of grace has become the main pillar of the evangelical creed, as the sixteenth-century Reformation reminds us with its emphasis on sola gratia. The forgiveness of sins and the justification in Christ (Romans 5:1) that frees us from eternal condemnation is the first precious stone of grace.
But the effects of grace do not end with salvation. Grace is not only a thing of the past, but continues to manifest itself every day in the life of the believer. We could say that we live `wrapped’ in grace. Therefore we were first saved by grace, but we live under, in, by grace (the list of prepositions could continue!). Sometimes we give so much emphasis to salvation by grace that we forget about life by grace.
Let us now consider three of the main soothing effects of grace when living with a thorn:
• renewed strength: grace empowers
• change: grace transforms
• maturity: grace teaches.
Renewed strength: grace empowers
So that Christ’s power may rest on me… (2 Corinthians 12:9).
I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:13).
The first therapeutic effect of grace is the renewal of our strength. In a broad sense, grace equips us with God’s power so that we can live morally righteous lives. This divine empowering is essential in enabling us to behave on a par with the demands of the gospel. We cannot aspire `to be holy’ by our own strength. Humanly speaking, the Christian life is not difficult—it’s impossible! This is why we have to turn to this grace that enables us daily to live in a manner pleasing to God. Paul himself reminds us of our dependency on God: `For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose’ (Philippians 2:13).
In a more specific sense, grace strengthens us in our inabilities, weaknesses or suffering. It is in this context that it appears closely related to the word `power’ in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. In order to better understand how our strength is renewed, let us return to the text of Philippians 4:13: `I can do everything through him who gives me strength.’ The word `strength’ in the original comes from the same word, dynamis, that in 2 Corinthians 12 is translated as `power’. It alludes to an enormous power, not just any power—the word `dynamite’ is derived from it.
What does this sentence really mean? If we do not understand it properly it can be more a source of frustration than a blessing. On the other hand, a complete understanding of its wealth is the key to accepting our thorn. The idea of the text is that when I am in Christ I can triumph over—I can be stronger than—any situation because he strengthens me. As some versions correctly translate, in Christ we find `the strength to face anything’. Note that the verb `to do’ does not occur in the text. The emphasis is not on action but on attitude, an attitude of victory. Paul is not saying that in Christ we can do everything that we propose. Being in Christ does not turn us into demigods. As Christians we sometimes harbour `Superman’ fantasies and believe that we have unlimited abilities. This verse is a declaration of sure victory in Christ. It is the attitude of trust and courage that challenges the enemy, in this case the thorn, with the certainty of triumph. It is a serious warning against defeatism.
We find a similar idea in Romans 8:28-39, one of the most light-bearing of texts for someone travelling down the dark tunnel of a thorn. Towards the end of this hymn of unshakeable trust, and after mentioning a long list of thorns, Paul affirms: `… in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’. But in what sense are we more than conquerors? This introduces us to the second therapeutic effect of grace.
Change: grace transforms
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses. . . .
The therapeutic effects of grace are progressive and interdependent. The new strength gives way to a profound change that would be impossible were it not for this prior fortitude. In other words, the renewed strength is the foundation upon which a new structure is now going to be built. Here also we will look firstly at a more general aspect of change, and see later how it applies specifically to the thorn. The believer is continuously experiencing an inner transformation that moulds him or her into the image of Christ. The word used in the original is metamorphoumetha (2 Corinthians 3:18), and its purpose focuses on our becoming more and more like him every day. This process is very similar to the ripening of fruit or the growth of a child. In fact, the word `mature’ or `perfect’—teleios—appears numerous times in this context of transformation. It is the same word that we find in Philippians 1:6: `being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus’. It is in this general sense that Paul affirms: `by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect’ (1 Corinthians 15:10). The apostle’s transformation, which changed him from `persecutor’ to `persecuted’ (vv. 8-9), is a tremendous example of the transforming power of grace.
What effects does this transforming grace have on the thorn? This same aspect of maturing or growth appears in the phrase `my power is perfectedin weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9). Let us notice, first of all, the conjunction `therefore’. It is the link that joins God’s key answer, in the first part of verse to, to Paul’s reaction. In other words, there is a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the answer from the Lord and the consequences experienced. When God speaks to the heart, something changes.
God can change the circumstances, and certainly this does at times happen. But, above all, God changes people. And when this occurs, even the very same circumstances seem different, as if we are seeing a totally different landscape. That was Paul’s experience. His thorn continued as it always had: the same pain, the same humiliation. But something had changed in an extraordinary way. In verse 10 the apostle does not seem to be the same person writing in verse 7. What has happened? Grace, this multifaceted treasure of divine resources, has produced in Paul a transformation of attitudes.
In the previous chapter we considered acceptance more from a psychological angle. Now we will take a closer look at how this change is produced from a spiritual angle. Three main changes guided by the Holy Spirit make a profound spiritual experience:
• the perspective changes: God’s binoculars
• attitudes change: the thorn loses its sting
• the situation itself changes: God opens up paths in the desert.
The Perspective changes: God’s binoculars
So that the strength and power of Christ may pitch a tent over and dwell upon me (v. 9, Amplified Bible).
God does not remove the thorn from Paul, but he does take away his negative thoughts about it. Remember the main purpose of cognitive therapy is to learn to think positively, and the first step in this process consists of identifying and replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones. The next step—sowing positive thoughts-–now appears clearly in the text. Actually, a single thought was enough: `My power is made perfect in weakness.’ The Lord dealt with Paul like a perfect psychologist.
Once this seed is growing in his mind, Paul is able to assimilate the idea and make it his with conviction. Something decisive occurs which is the key to accepting the thorn: he changes his perspective. It is as if the Lord gave him new glasses or, better still, a pair of binoculars. Paul sees the same reality but from a totally new perspective; the new lens has increased his field of vision to limits that were previously inaccessible. Now he sees what God sees; his view of the thorn approaches God’s.
What does he see now? Let us imagine the following dialogue between the apostle and the Lord: `Paul, what you consider a hindrance is actually a useful instrument in my hands.’
`In what way, Lord? That’s hard for me to understand.’
`The thorn is an opportunity for my power to rest upon you. What you see as a curse is in reality a blessing. I can use something bad for good.’
In essence, a self-centred lens is replaced by a Christ-centred lens. Before, when Paul looked at his thorn, he saw a poor man buffeted by suffering, an unjust and undeserved situation. He felt wretched and maybe even forgotten by his Lord, a vision that arises from introspection. Now, every time he suffers the scourges of the thorn, he sees Christ and his power `resting’ upon him. One translation renders the same idea in a more poetic way: `So that the strength and power of Christ may pitch a tent over and dwell upon me’ (Amplified Bible). What a refreshing panorama in the midst of the dryness of the thorn. It is the difference between looking at the `basement’ of life or lifting my eyes to the heights where God is.
Attitudes change: the thorn loses its sting
That is why … I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions (v. 10).
Naturally, this change of lens produces a change in attitude. We must not forget that it all springs from the bedrock of renewed strength. Continuing with the imaginary dialogue, Paul now says, `Lord, this is marvellous; I had never thought about how different everything was for you. Now I discover that my weaknesses become your opportunities. If this is the way it is, I will very happily bear this problem. Not only will I not complain but I will also rejoice because I know that my limitations are the window through which the splendour of your power shines.’
We discover at least three attitudes that have changed in Paul:
Joy instead of complaint: `That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses…’ (v. 10). Remember that joy is much deeper than a feeling. It is the serene conviction that `in all these things we are more than conquerors’ because no one and nothing `will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:37-39).
Voluntary submission instead of defiance: `Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses’ (v. 9). His struggle to get rid of the thorn gives way to full submission to the `cup’ of suffering that the Lord allows in his life.
Worship instead of self-pity. Even though worship does not appear explicitly in the text, it is implicit in the attitudes of the apostle that glorify God. Worship and praise in a believer’s life are not restricted to special moments but are inseparable from his or her entire behaviour; they are not primarily activities but attitudes.
With these new attitudes, Paul shows us that although the thorn still buffets him from time to time, it has lost its sting. Because the thorn’s greatest danger lies not in the physical pain it may cause, or even in its emotional disturbances, but in the way it poisons attitudes, for then you focus on self-pity, defiance and bitterness. The persistence of such attitudes ultimately `kills’ any desire to live. This is why for God it is much more important to eliminate these attitudes than to remove the thorn itself. Paul has come out triumphant because he has eliminated the sting of his thorn.
The situation changes: God opens up a way in the desert
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up …
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland.
We have seen how grace transforms people. But grace goes even further than that; it can change situations and circumstances. We are not referring here to the normal adaptation that occurs at the end of the adjustment period, but to supernatural changes brought about by the power of God through his grace.
The metaphor of the desert and the wasteland that God uses in Isaiah to give his people hope for a different future has some relevance here. The thorn can continue for many years, sometimes throughout our life; as in the case of Paul. But in the midst of this drought and barrenness, God provides refreshing oases—`a way in the desert and streams in loneliness’—that renew our strength and enable us to continue. In the first part of the verse (Isaiah 43:19), the expression `I am doing a new thing’ literally means `a new shoot’, like a tree that, in the spring, produces tender new roots, full of life after a long and gruelling winter. The harsh winter is followed by an outburst of new life in the spring, with excitement and new strength. With this double metaphor, God communicates to his people a solid hope for a different future. This can also be the experience of the person afflicted by a thorn when he or she experiences transforming grace.
What are these roads in the desert and the waters in a sterile land? I will mention two of them: the roads that lead us to discover the other side of pain and find specific ways out of the trial, illustrated by the striking example of Joseph in Genesis.
Discovering the other side of pain
One of the most outstanding—and healing—effects of contemplating the thorn from God’s perspective is discovering the `other side’ of suffering. Up to this point, Paul has known only an entirely negative side of the thorn: it hurts; it humiliates, `it buffets me’ (NKJV). It is what we would call the evil of pain. The other side of the coin is the good in pain. The preposition here is very important: we are not saying the good ofpain but rather the good in pain. Suffering in itself is always something undesirable, and we must not make the mistake of `glorifying’ it.
As John Stott says, `we cannot thank God for absolutely everything, including blatant evil. The strange notion is gaining popularity in some Christian circles that the major secret of Christian freedom and victory is unconditional praise … and that even the most appalling calamities of life should become subjects for thanksgiving and praise … God abominates evil, and we cannot praise or thank him for what he abominates.” In fact, to give thanks to God for circumstances of suffering can border on blasphemy. There is an important difference between `giving thanks for’ and `giving thanks in the midst of’. In all the epistles we are exhorted to give thanks in everything—for example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. The only time in which the phrase `always giving thanks to God the Father for everything’ (Ephesians 5:20) appears, it is immediately conditioned by the expression `in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’. In other words, it must be consistent with the nature and will of Christ himself.
Therefore, I am to maintain an attitude of gratitude and praise in the midst of the pain caused by this thorn. This is exactly what David did in numerous psalms written in his literal desert—when he hid there, fleeing from Saul, his `thorn’—as well as in his metaphorical desert—the many years of apparently sterile life. One example is Psalm 57, written when David escaped from Saul to the cave of Adullam. In verse 4 he describes his deep anguish: `I am in the midst of lions; I lie among ravenous beasts—men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.’ But in the midst of these circumstances—death threats—he bursts out in a serene exclamation of praise that becomes a beautiful hymn of trust:
Be exalted, 0 God, above the heavens;
let your glory be over all the earth.
They spread a net for my feet—
I was bowed down in distress.
They dug a pit in my path—
but they have fallen into it themselves.
My heart is steadfast, 0 God,
my heart is steadfast;
I will sing and make music.
Awake, my soul!
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.
I will praise you, 0 Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples.
For great is your love, reaching to the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the skies.
Be exalted, 0 God, above the heavens;
let your glory be over all the earth.
To discover this other side of suffering is to experience that `in all things God works for the good of those who love him’ (Romans 8:28). Here we are touching on one of the most mysterious aspects of grace: at the same time something glorious and difficult to understand. We are standing on `holy ground’, which we approach both with reverence and with perplexity, like Moses on Mount Horeb. Paul does not leave any room for doubt and affirms categorically, `In all things God works for the good.’ This includes, therefore, every thorn and any type of trial, as he himself explains in the exhaustive list in verse 35. In a mysterious and paradoxical way, suffering becomes an instrument to fulfil some specific purposes for our lives.
Becoming aware of this `way in the desert’—the good in pain—can take time, sometimes a very long time. It is part of the maturity process described earlier, operated by grace, and it does not come about by mere introspection. But when it is achieved, it produces a revolutionary change in the way I face the thorn. I shall never forget the words spoken by the parents of a Down’s syndrome child: `At the beginning our world came crashing down on us, but our child has been like an angel to us, an angel sent by God. Before, we were always arguing and there was tension in our marriage. Since our child was born, his sweetness and affection make all that impossible.’
Finding the way out, not instant solutions
The roads in the desert and the water in the parched land are not just a matter of discovering the good in the evil, a difficult and sometimes long-term task. There is another way by which God provides relief to the pilgrim overwhelmed by the thorn: his active intervention can change the circumstances by providing specific ways out. Actually, this is a promise for every Christian in every tribulation. Such is the underlying principle of 1 Corinthians 10:13: `God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.’
God provides a way out—not a solution. A solution is something that occurs instantly, almost magically, eliminating the problem automatically.This is what many people expect today in a hedonistic society where suffering is scarcely tolerated and is considered a troublesome distraction. We want solutions, and we want them `now’. It is interesting to note that the word `solution’ does not occur at all in the Bible. A `way out’, on the other hand, is a door that opens onto a road that must be walked. Remember, for example, how in Isaiah 43 what God provides is precisely a way. Herein lies the great difference: a solution does not require any effort at all—the thorn simply disappears; on the other hand, in providing a way out, God shows us the road we must walk along. Of course, this road is not always easy. The way out that he gave the people of Israel from the thorn of the tyranny of Pharaoh entailed forty years in the desert!
The Bible contains beautiful examples of this transformation of circumstances, carried out by grace in the midst of thorny situations. Let us consider one of the most noteworthy examples: Joseph, the patriarch, considered an archetype of Christ and, therefore, a valuable model for us.
Transforming tragedies into fables’: Joseph’s life, a monument to God’s providence
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good (Genesis 50:20).
I remember an interview with the Argentinian author Jorge L. Borges in which he said, ‘Kafka’s mastery consisted in his ability to transform tragedies into fables.’ Since a fable is a literary composition with a useful or moral teaching, a thought immediately came to mind: my God is like Kafka, but perfect, magnified. How much more is he able to transform the tragedies of our lives into a useful and purpose-filled story?
This is what he did in the life of Joseph. From infancy, Joseph was pressed by a number of thorns, some of them in the form of trauma, others in the form of chronic suffering. Born into a dysfunctional family (polygamy was fertile ground for jealousy and family tension), his mother died when he was about seven years old and his father spoiled him with such an ill-fated education that it aroused the envy and hatred of his brothers. When he was seventeen he faced the drama of being separated from his family at the height of adolescence, losing the only source of affection he had left, his father. Miraculously, he escaped death, first by being sold as a slave to the traders and then later in the incident with Potiphar’s wife. All alone in Egypt, a foreign land, he suffered the consequences of slander, which sent him to prison for thirteen years.
The thorn of a childhood and youth filled with unjust suffering marked the first stage of his life. However, when years later he reviewed and evaluated all those events, he had an amazing awareness of God’s presence and guidance in his life. Not only was God directing his steps, but he was also using every circumstance—good and bad—to fulfil his purpose in his life. His words to his brothers in Genesis 50:20 are a memorable summary of this trust: `You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.’ And in Genesis 45:5-8 it is quite clear who led his life above and beyond his brothers’ evil acts: `… it was not you who sent me here, but God…’ It is difficult to read these passages without being deeply moved. Joseph had an unshakeable sense of God’s providence: God allows, he directs, he liberates.
The interpretation that Stephen, inspired by the Holy Spirit, gave of these events in his message before being martyred is an excellent summary of everything seen up to this point. Stephen underscores three aspects of God’s provision that constitute the essential strategy for fighting against the thorn. According to Acts 7:9-10, God gave Joseph:
• His constant presence: `God was with him’ (v. 9)
• Adequate ways out: God `rescued him from all his troubles’ (v. 10)
• Supernatural resources: `God gave him wisdom’ (v. 10.
Maturity: grace teaches
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations … (2 Corinthians 12:7).
The therapeutic effects of grace are progressive and interdependent, just like the links of a chain. The strength of grace enables a change of perspective and attitude. Eventually, the renewal of strength and the inner transformation lead to the third great therapeutic effect: that of teaching us important lessons. However, it is not the thorn that makes us grow, but our reactions as we face it.
In fact, this instructive value of suffering is recognized not only by believers. Renowned specialists in education and psychoanalysis have pointed to this for a long time. From Piaget to Franqoise Dolto and other experts, we have become aware of how a child matures by resolving the little problems he faces along the way. Learning to face adversity is essential to the process of emotional maturity, so much so that the best way of keeping a person immature is to shield them from problems by providing them with a difficulty-free existence. Dostoevsky, in his autobiography Memories from the Underground, places a striking emphasis on the idea that suffering is an indispensable requisite for `grasping the true sense of life’. Thorn-induced experiences are never futile: they always contain an instructive element that contributes to our emotional maturity. We would do well to remember this principle in a pleasure driven society that sees no meaning or usefulness in suffering, considering it to be futile and thus opening the door to euthanasia or suicide.
In the same way that problems and difficulties contribute to our psychological maturity, so too they contribute to our spiritual growth. God uses trials as a means of transformation. This was the experience of Job, summarized in his memorable words: `My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you’ (Job 42:5). The trials he went through allowed him to get to know God in a more personal way. In our case today, trials help us to become more like Christ. Let us not forget that the words disciple and discipline come from the same root, which means `to instruct, to teach’. We must emphasize, nonetheless, that God’s purpose in allowing suffering is not to punish but to teach. Thus, in the same way that rough stones taken from the quarry need to be cut and polished, so too we need to be sculpted to become more like Christ with each passing day. The Bible’s teaching on this is overwhelming: numerous passages tell of the purifying and educational value of suffering, trials and temptations:
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11).
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:6-7).
The apostle Paul had experienced in his own life the transforming effect of trials. His writings and his own life remind us that the ability to face suffering without fleeing from it is a moral virtue that opens doors to our inner transformation. What did Paul have to learn from his thorn? One great lesson in particular: the danger of boasting and the need to remain humble.
Humility, the main lesson
The apostle had so clearly come to terms with the purpose of the thorn that he starts off the passage with these words: `To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations’ (2 Corinthians 12:7). The revelations he has spoken about in verses 1-6 are a double-edged sword: on the one hand they were an immense privilege, something very special that undoubtedly placed him above other believers; but therein also lay the danger: they were a potential source of pride and could arouse a feeling of spiritual superiority, in stark contrast to the attitude that the Lord desired. God could not let one of the pillars of the church, the apostle to the Gentiles, succumb to one of the most deeply-rooted sins in the human heart, pride. That is why God uses the great learning power of the thorn to show Paul his mistake and potential sin.
Sometimes we find ourselves in similarly dangerous situations. They will probably not involve special revelations through which we might feel very privileged by the Lord. However, whether it is in the professional, material or even spiritual arena, success inevitably leads to a great danger: boasting, when we forget that `every good and perfect gift’ comes from God (James 1.17). Boasting is a subtle sin that can sometimes appear in the guise of spirituality. That is where Paul’s danger lay, in spiritual superiority. Temptation tends to make its appearance during times of success, when things are going very well for us.
Of course we cannot generalize from Paul’s particular situation and claim that the purpose of every thorn is always to restrain our boasting. I have known countless individuals oppressed by a painful thorn who did not have even a hint of arrogance. However, it is true that the thorn helps us to be fully aware of our personal limitations, reminding us of the enormous fragility of our lives. In summary, not all thorns stem from an attitude of boasting, but all thorns help us to cultivate the humility that the Lord loves so much: `This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit’ (Isaiah 66:2). In Christ, certainly when I am weak, then I am strong. [93-111]
1. Paul Tournier, Medicina de is Persona, Andamio-Clie, p. 267.
2. John R. W. Stott, God’s New Society: The Message of Ephesians, IVP, 2979, p. 207.
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).