Recovering the Joy of Living by Pablo Martinez
All the passages below are taken from Pablo Martinez’s book “A Thorn in the Flesh,” published in 2007.
In both Old and New Testaments, happiness is presented as something that comes from God. It is not a human resource, but a supernatural one. The source of happiness, just as in the case of peace, a fruit of the Spirit, is found in a personal relationship with God. ‘Blessed (happy) is the man …(whose) delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night’ (Psalm 1:1-2 NIV). The Psalm reminds us that this happiness is not dissipated by the storms of life because it is `like a tree planted by streams of water’ (v. 3). Happiness, according to God, is strong and deep-rooted.
A much-afflicted Paul describes this idea with great energy shortly before the passage about the thorn in the flesh:
. . . sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, yet possessing everything … I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds (2 Corinthians 6:10; 7:4 NIV).
Happiness, experienced through peace and harmony even in the midst of trouble, is one of the greatest proofs that the thorn in the flesh has been accepted.
A man who was almost blind and had had a foot amputated owing to diabetes summed it up well with these words: `The thorn has crushed many of my hopes, but has not been able to crush my joy in living.’
The ingredients of happiness: a new set of values
Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:2).
Grace changes many things in the fight against the thorn in the flesh. We have seen how it changes our viewpoint, generating new attitudes, and how it gives strength and helps us grow in maturity. To everything we described in chapters four and five we must add one more effect: it gives us a new set of values. Our priorities, goals and motivation will never be the same again. In part, this is down to the thorn itself: one cannot view life in the same way after the impact of the thorn, but, above all, it is the result of grace, of that transforming process that allows us to discover opportunities where previously we had seen only problems.
Grace changes our view not only of the thorn, but of the whole of life. When Paul affirms `therefore I will boast the more gladly’, he has learnt not only acceptance, but a completely different set of values for his life. In the case of someone pricked by the thorn, this set of values will be notable for two priorities:
- the priority of being
- the priorities of a pilgrim.
Being before doing: the priority of being in a society of doing
Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny (traditional saying).
One of the greatest frustrations caused by the thorn is `not being able to do what you did before’. It imposes limitations, suddenly or gradually, on your normal activities, and this often leads to unhappiness and depression. `What I found hardest was giving up what I used to be able to do without anybody’s help; work all day like everybody else, drive, shave, in a word, all those little things which make you feel alive. It was a tough process; finally I discovered that life was much more than doing; I had to learn to be.’
‘I had to learn to be.’ A difficult task in a society that values people more for what they do—their productivity—than for who they are—their character. These days life is lived under the slogan `You’re worth what you do’. In all areas of life, from work to church, there is frenetic activism. Efficiency and performance arc stressed, as are concrete results. It seems that the only way to fill one’s life is by doing. Such excessive activity involves a strange paradox: it has become a sign of identity—a person who does nothing is a nobody—and at the same time it is a subtle means of escape from oneself. Continual activity may easily become an escape route. It is almost like a drug, as the abstinence syndrome it produces goes to show: lots of people feel uncomfortable when they have nothing to do, as if something is missing from their lives. They do not know how to be without doing. We have been educated for action, but not for reflection. This situation makes the acceptance of, and adaptation to, thorns all the more difficult, because they force us to reduce our activity.
So how can we help someone whose thorn has forced them into a lifestyle far removed from that of most people? The key is to discover the value of being in a society of doing. We have already seen that our goal as human beings is to become more and more like Christ, and that a trial is an opportunity for strengthening character because it produces emotional and spiritual maturity. We are now going to go into this more deeply.
`His life was his best book’
This comment, which someone made about the Jewish Christian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas when he died, had a considerable impact on me. I thought about my own life. Can there be a better summary or tribute for a believer? It made me think about a biblical principle that has been a source of encouragement to me since I learnt it in my teenage years: the most important thing in this life is not what we do, but who we are. Each one of us is writing a book with our life. The most important chapters are not the achievements, qualifications or successes that are usually gained by doing. The essential part is the person, his or her character, reactions, relationships and development. `For character is more than a collection of occasional behaviours or a set of good intentions; it is, rather, who we are through and through.1
The thorn in the flesh may deprive me of many things, but it cannot prevent me from being a good husband, or being a good father, or being a good friend, or being a loving son or—and this is the most important of all—from being each day more like Christ. No one can take this from me because it does not depend on any outside circumstance, but upon my attitudes. We could paraphrase the beautiful love song of 1 Corinthians 13 and state that `being never fails’. Even though I achieve little in this life, I can continue to be a `living letter’ in which others read inspiring messages.
We transmit messages through our attitudes and reactions, and even through our silences. They might be positive messages, ones of encouragement, examples to follow, or they might be negative. A recent example in Spain was given by Enrique Medina, a young victim of a terrorist attack. The leader of the Young Socialists in the Basque Country, he lost a leg and suffered other serious injuries when a bomb exploded next to his car. Aged twenty, Enrique saw many of his dreams shattered, not least a brilliant career in volleyball, one of the loves of his life. His mother died ten months later from a heart attack clearly related to the sufferings endured by her family.
`After the bombing, night fell on my home and a shadow of sadness and grief wrapped itself around my family,’ he said. At the trial, the press focused on the attitude of the young man with comments such as ‘Enrique has taught us the most important lesson of his life, one of maturity and serenity’. All the journalists highlighted his attitude, his reactions and his character. The impact of his testimony was felt right across the nation.
`Do not consider his appearance … the LORD does not look at the things man looks at’ (1 Samuel 16:7)
If this is what happens to us, how much more is it the case with God? For him, the most important thing is what we are like rather than what we do, because God tests `the heart and mind’ (Jeremiah 11:20). The whole of Scripture teaches the idea that attitudes come before actions. Let’s look at a specific example: when God chose David to be king, what was the main instruction that he gave Samuel?
Do not consider his appearance or his height … the LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
What was the basic requirement when searching for the ideal person to lead the people? The answer is impossible to miss: `Don’t look for …(but) look for. . . ‘As far as God was concerned, there was something to avoid and something to search for: avoid the outward, the visible, because that’s secondary, and look for what’s inside, in the heart, the being. What a person does has its value, but only when it is the result of a clean heart, the core of a person’s being.
There is another episode in David’s life that shows this principle very clearly because it has to do with his thorn. When the jealous Saul hates him and David’s life enters an extremely dangerous stage, the text says several times that `David behaved wisely’ (1 Samuel 18:5, 14, 15, AV), to the extent that `when Saul saw how wisely he behaved, he was afraid of him’ (1 Samuel 18:15, AV). In the midst of such a turbulent situation, what stands out is David’s character: his attitude, reactions, wisdom, sensitivity, trust in God, respect for `God’s anointed’ and his friendship with Jonathan. There wasn’t much David could do during his years on the run in the desert, but it was that very period, apparently purposeless, when David’s character shone more brightly than ever.
My attitudes, reactions and relationships add up to a much more audible language than my actions or words, however important these latter may be. They are messages not easily forgotten: a gesture of love towards our children or spouse in the midst of difficult times: a reaction showing fortitude in the face of a devastating blow; a peaceful death; these leave a lasting memory. They are the indelible traces that do not come from an act but from a life, what a person is rather than what he does. In fact, after people die they are usually remembered for certain character traits or particular attitudes: their kindness, generosity or commitment: `she was an exemplary wife’; ‘he was a loving father’; `he was an exceptional friend’. What remains in the memory is their character—what they were like as people.
Our shining example is our Master. As noted earlier, the most memorable pages of Christ’s life were written in his last days, especially through his agony when he had to face the most horrible of thorns, death on a cross.
This is why we agree wholeheartedly with Jean Rostand when he says there is no such thing as a useless life. Every human life, however unproductive or futile it might appear, is a life worth living because, for God, a life’s value is not measured by personal standing (appearance), but’ by the person (the deepest part of the heart). If the thorn in the flesh has taken away your doing, then remember that you still have the more important part, your being.
We are only passing through: the priorities of the pilgrim
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18).
`Why are we here, if only to suffer?’ is a question asked by many people suffering from cruel thorns in the flesh. Their words echo the perplexity of Job when faced with the apparent meaninglessness of life when his suffering did not go away: `Does not man have hard service on earth? … Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble’ (Job 7:1; 14:1 NIV).
The answer is important, because it brings us to an essential part of the suffering person’s dilemma: the meaning of life. This is not the place to go into this issue in depth but we must emphasize that the meaning of my life here depends greatly on my vision of life after death. If I think everything ends with death, my existence here will be very frustrating, `utterly meaningless’, as the author of Ecclesiastes puts it. This is a materialistic and atheistic mentality which leads to despair and, in extreme cases, to suicide once suffering comes over the horizon.
But the believer has a pilgrim’s vision. It is vital to develop this view of life in order to be able to face the thorns of life. The pilgrim has three attitudes that reflect his or her set of values.
Fixing an eye on eternity: `looking at what is unseen’
The first characteristic of the pilgrim is that he views this life as something he is passing through, knowing that present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glorious destiny that awaits him. This hope changes the way he looks at life completely, both the good and the bad. It is the perspective that Peter had when he wrote his letter to the expatriate persecuted church, describing them as ‘aliens and strangers’. In line with this, Peter argues that suffering is `for a little while’ (r1 Peter r1:6), and concludes by encouraging his readers with a beautiful doxology that reminds them of their destiny: `God … called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while’ (r1 Peter 5:10 NIV).
It is also the vision that characterized the heroes of faith of whom it is said: `All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth’ (Hebrews 11:13-14).
It is Paul’s perspective as well. In 2 Corinthians 4:15 – 5:4 the apostle alternates between allusions to present suffering (vv. 16-17)—an inevitable part of life—and the strength a believer receives as he looks beyond `to what is eternal’. This is the mentality and the vision of the pilgrim: suffering with his eyes fixed on the goal, knowing that the trial has an end date and longing to be in that better country `clothed with our heavenly dwelling’ (5:4).
Is health the most important thing?
Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day (z2 Corinthians 4:16 NIV).
The pilgrim’s second characteristic is his attitude towards the deterioration of his body. Paul has just reminded the Corinthians of the powerful, renewing effect of looking at life from an eternal perspective (v. i8), and this leads him spontaneously to compare the body to a fragile tent (‘the tabernacle’), in stark contrast to the one that we shall enjoy in heaven, a solid house not subject to decay: `Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands’ (2 Corinthians 5:1).
This being true, the apostle draws an important conclusion regarding priorities: `Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day’ (4:16).
There is a very relevant practical implication for our subject: the body is not the most important thing in life. We are talking about the body, not health, and this distinction is important. In a biblical sense, as we have already seen, health is a legitimate priority. The problem comes because today health is associated almost exclusively with the body. Being healthy means being physically fit. Health is something you can achieve in a gymnasium or through good dietary habits. It is measured more by the colour of a person’s face—tanned features equal good health—or by the size of their muscles.
Clearly, we do not wish to criticize a healthy lifestyle characterized by the best possible habits. This has always been God’s will for us, as can be seen in the Ten Commandments and the hygiene rules received from God by the children of Israel. However, today the priority is not so much health, as the body. If we reduce health to just its physical dimension, we lose sight of its chief aim: the whole human being. This is why any kind of thorn in the flesh is met with deep rebellion and rejection. In this hedonistic and narcissistic sense, health is not only a priority, but becomes a dangerous idol. Worship of the body has become a massive kind of idolatry in the West, akin to a lay religion with millions of devoted followers.
In such a society, Paul’s words highlighting the relative importance of the body’s decay are soothing to all those who suffer from thorns that are related to this fragile tent in which we live. It is hardly surprising, then, that the apostle ends this passage sighing for a house not susceptible to pain or suffering of any kind: ‘Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling’ (2 Corinthians 5:2).
Travelling light: willing to give things up
Thirdly, seeing life as a pilgrim forces us to ditch unnecessary baggage, whether material possessions, incorrect attitudes, inappropriate relationships or any weight that prevents us from ‘running with perseverance the race marked out for us’ (Hebrews 12:1). The willingness to give things up is a vital requirement for a pilgrim. This is where Lot failed. His life story is that of a man who did not know how to be a pilgrim. Dazzled by appearances, he could not resist the visual attraction of the fertile Jordan plain (Genesis 13:10). He judged and made decisions on what he saw, forgetting that the attitude of the good pilgrim is governed by `fixing his eyes on what is unseen’. As a result, Lot made the wrong decision, with tragic consequences for his family.
What a contrast with his uncle Abraham! Certainly we must not forget that the patriarch had been tested for many a long year with the thorn of his wife Sarah’s barrenness. Abraham passed the test of renouncement with flying colours on several occasions during his pilgrimage. In this episode he was willing to give up material goods. Later, when God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22), he showed that his giving spirit was total: he was willing to obey God even though it meant the loss of what was dearest to him. As a good pilgrim, Abraham had learnt that when God tests, God provides (Genesis 22:14 NIV).
It is not easy to have the vision or the priorities of a pilgrim nowadays because we are swimming against the tide. The pilgrim mentality is not popular, especially in the West, because modern man has become settled from an existential viewpoint, forgetting that he is actually a nomad—passing through—and that, at the most unexpected moment, he will have to strike camp. In general, people in the twenty-first century are tied to life on Earth. They find it annoying to have to think, and even more unwelcome to live, as pilgrims. Unfortunately, they do not realize that by travelling with heavy luggage, worrying about the things of this life, they lose sight of the most important thing: ‘Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things’ (Colossians 3:2).
Francis of Assisi accurately described the pilgrim mentality in one of his thoughts:
I need very few things in this life
and the few things I need
I need them very little.
The creative value of suffering
He led you through the vast and dreadful desert … He brought you water out of hard rock … so that in the end it might go well with you (Deuteronomy 8:15-16 NIV).
A desert full of venomous snakes and scorpions, a thirsty and waterless land: a dreadful place. It would be hard to find a passage that better describes the experience of living with a thorn in the flesh. The crossing of that literal desert by the children of Israel contains a lesson of great symbolic value. We are going to concentrate on one short phrase, but a very significant one for our subject: `but God brought you water out of hard rock’.
One of the things that has surprised me most in dealing with people suffering from thorns has been the discovery of how fruitful, valuable and useful their lives are. This `quality of life’, as we have already noted, is not measured by productivity simply in terms of doing many things. Now I’d like to look at creativity, which is the natural complement of a person’s being, that is, a practical expression of their character.
There is a close relationship between creativity and suffering. We have to use our words carefully here. It is not a question of cause and effect. If it were, we could commit the serious mistake— mentioned earlier—of glorifying suffering and thereby falling into masochism. Let me reiterate that suffering in itself is an evil against which we must fight, a battle in which no quarter should be given. It is not the thorn per se that helps us to mature, grow or create, but our response to it. The way we face up to the trial is what determines how much emotional and spiritual benefit we derive from it. The same trial can either sink us or stimulate us. ‘Events give us pain or joy, but our growth is determined by our personal response to both, by our inner attitude.’2
Let’s see, in the first instance, how this phenomenon of creativity in suffering originates.
`Where others see only problems, he sees opportunities’
I first heard these words in reference to a man of God in Spain. He was not a dreamy optimist, a naive fellow out of touch with reality. Quite the contrary: he had a special gift for finding new opportunities in the worst crisis imaginable. His first question when faced with a difficult situation was not `What does it stop me doing?’, but `What does it give me the chance to do?’ This attitude had a profound effect on how I faced problems or conflicts in my life.
Does everyone have this ability? In a way, yes. God uses trials to perfect our character and to fulfil specific purposes. Suffering also contains, in some mysterious way, an undeniable creative force. There is a close relationship between trials and creativity. Behind the work of many doctors, scientists, musicians and painters, for example, there is often a deep well of personal suffering.
The thorn and creativity: some examples from history
In an interesting book, Creative Suffering,3 the Swiss doctor Paul Tournier makes the observation that a large number of great men in history were orphans. Quoting the work of a colleague, he explains how many of them lost father or mother, or sometimes both, while still young children. He shows how others had been through similar experiences (traumatic divorces, being illegitimate), or had been abandoned by their parents. The author compiled a list of almost 300 well-known influential figures down the centuries who had suffered in this kind of way, from Alexander the Great, Charles V, Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIV, George Washington, Napoleon and Queen Victoria right down to Hitler, Lenin and Stalin. All of them suffered from some form of emotional deprivation in childhood. Undoubtedly, being an orphan is a thorn that requires adaptation and acceptance.
Yet if we looked only at these famous people, we might think that trials stimulate willpower and nothing more. But this is far from being the case. We find the same phenomenon in many other areas of human activity. Tournier explains how his own experience influenced his vocation for a career in medicine: he lost his father when still only a few months old, and his mother when he was just six; he was then adopted by an uncle. Leonardo da Vinci was an illegitimate child and J. S. Bach an orphan. A study of the biographies of Moliere, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Racine, Camus, Georges Sand, Kipling, Dante, Edgar Allan Poe, Tolstoy, Voltaire, Dostoevsky, Alexandre Dumas, Lord Byron, Balzac, Rousseau and Sartre shows that they all suffered some kind of deprivation or disability which was instrumental in stimulating their creative output. In most of the cases mentioned, the experiences involved tragic loss. Others suffered imprisonment or persecution. Alexander Solzhenitsyn and many other writers who were oppressed by the yoke of Communism are a good example of this.
What we have described as affecting the individual also applies to the social sphere. We find a very similar phenomenon when we examine the issue from a collective point of view. The most productive periods in history, in cultural and artistic achievement, have coincided with times of enormous social turbulence and violence. The most extraordinary instance of this is the Renaissance, during which the creative genius of humanity reached what could possibly be described as its greatest heights. Literary and artistic splendour flourished alongside, and amidst, times stained by blood, wars, plagues, injustice and many other forms of immense pain. It is as if human beings need the stimulus of thorns to give of their best, personally and collectively.
The thorn and social sensitivity
Such creativity is, at other times, expressed in terms of social action. The ranks of charitable organizations are full of people whose lives are scarred by intense suffering, sometimes to an almost unbearable degree. But here they are, giving of themselves and sharing with others an abundant harvest which the seeds of pain one day sowed in their hearts. Many pioneers and founders of great institutions have suffered at the sharp end of cruel thorns.
A friend of mine developed Alzheimer’s disease at the very early age of fifty-two. Both he and his wife were pillars of my local church, committed to the Lord and his work. The thorn of slow and inexorable decline lasted five long years. Unless you have experienced this illness in some close relative, you cannot imagine the brutal impact of the slow deterioration of the person whom you love on the family; it is even harder to take than the deterioration of the body. Following his death, his wife felt a call from the Lord to do something to help families who were in a similar situation. She began to organize local groups to help families who were looking after Alzheimer’s patients. Nothing like it existed in the city. In time she helped set up The Barcelona Association of Families with Alzheimer’s Sufferers, an organization she chaired for ten years. Only God knows how much good this work did to thousands of people.
Small is beautiful
As you read this, you may well know similar situations of people, anonymous or otherwise, who have reacted to pain with a creative energy that has been hugely beneficial to themselves and others. At this point, however, some readers may feel slightly uneasy. I’ll never be able to do what these people have done; my life is simple and my abilities very limited. I want to emphasize that a creative use of suffering does not mean that you have to do something great or notable, as in the cases mentioned. You do not need to be a writer or found institutions. Each person, in their own personal desert, can find new ways to be creative, to serve and to work. God can use us in very different ways from those we might have expected or imagined, even in surprising ways. In short, in the midst of the desert we must discover `the water that God brings out of the rock’ because God intends `to do you good in the end’ (Deuteronomy 8:16, ESV). God wants to give meaning to every life, however limited or useless it may appear to human eyes.
Thorns of famous Christians
We shall conclude by looking at some notable examples from the history of the church. It will help you to identify with those whom we normally see as giants of the faith, people of flesh and bone, whose fragility actually brings them much closer to each one of us. They were men and women whom God used greatly, but … just like the apostle Paul they were earthen vessels with painful thorns in the flesh. In the words of the great missionary Hudson Taylor, `all God’s giants have been weak people’.4
The English psychiatrist Gains Davies, in his book Genius, Grief and Grace,5 describes eleven cases of famous Christian personalities from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, showing how divine grace used and transformed their weaknesses. It is worth mentioning some of them so that the reader might study their biographies more deeply: Martin Luther, John Bunyan, William Cowper, Lord Shaftesbury, Frances R. Havergal, Amy Carmichael and C. S. Lewis.
Let me give you a glimpse of the problems faced by three of them:
- John Bunyan (1628-1688). The author of the very famous book Pilgrim’s Progress suffered from obsessional blasphemous thoughts which tormented him for several years. It was a symptom of what today is called obsessive compulsive disorder. In his spiritual autobiography Grace Abundant for the Chief of Sinners he has left us a magnificent portrait of his thorn: `The tempter came upon me again and that with a more grievous and dreadful temptation than before. And that was to sell and part with this most blessed Christ, to exchange Him for the things of this life, for anything … I was not rid of the temptation not sometimes one hour in many days together, unless when I was asleep … Sometimes it would run in my thoughts, not so little as a hundred times together. Sell him, sell him, sell him, which I may say for whole hours together.‘6 How encouraging it is to discover God’s magnificent grace working through the weakness of this man to produce such a treasure of Christian literature!
- C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892). In this case it was not only one but several thorns. In his early days he struggled with stuttering—what a paradox for the one who later was known as the `prince of preachers’! Also he occasionally suffered some sort of depressive crisis to such an extent that the only thing he could do was `escape’ to a country house in France, away from everybody and everything, till he recovered. Later he suffered attacks of gout, so painful at times that `while preaching he had to put one knee on a chair and cling to the pulpit rail’.7 His ministry was therefore subject to significant limitations; but they were not an obstacle to God’s power: He used this man as one of the most outstanding leaders of the church in the nineteenth century.
- William Cowper (1731-1800). A great hymn writer, he suffered severe episodes of depression from the age of twenty-one. At thirty-one he had a psychotic breakdown. It was during recovery from this crisis that he became a Christian. `He was to have five more depressive illnesses before he died at sixty-eight: in between these times he was often amazingly productive as a letter writer and poet.”8
Cowper’s contribution to the church, and especially its comfort to the suffering person, reaches its climax with his unforgettable hymn `Light shining out of darkness’, also known by its first line: `God moves in a mysterious way’. This magnificent poem is a summary of some of the main points considered so far in the book. As someone said, `in this hymn, Cowper has almost created a Christian theodicy which could make sense of his own suffering’.9 In the first and third verses he admits God’s right to keep secrecy, but there is nothing threatening in his divine silence:
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust Him for His grace;
behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
In verse two he refers to God as the skilled artificer, as we considered earlier in Joseph’s life:
Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.
Persevering along the road: patience and hope
Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us (Romans 5:3–5).
‘If it is difficult to accept, how much more difficult is it to persevere,’ said a mature Christian, blind for thirty years owing to a brain injury. The effects of grace noted in chapters 4 and 5 are essential to be able to reach acceptance, but that’s not the end of the road. We need to keep fighting, because the thorn does not go away. Here too we can count on two precious resources of grace: patience, and hope. It is not enough to receive grace; we must persist in it, as Paul points out in the context of this passage in Romans: `We have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand’ (Romans 5:2).
Before considering these two final treasures of grace, let’s look at an important idea that Paul emphasizes strongly in these verses (Romans 5:2-3): ‘Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings’ (v. 3).
Suffering is the only path to glory. This was true for Christ and it will be true for us. Nevertheless, we must make an important distinction: Paul is not speaking here about sufferings related to the thorn: the term ‘tribulation’ (thlipsis) refers to the opposition and persecution that the people of God suffer in a hostile world, suffering specifically related to the cause of Christ. If we do not make this distinction, we could make the mistake of thinking that by our suffering we contribute to future glory, an error which has led to such practices as mortification of the flesh and self-flagellation.
I want to make this clear because the persecuted church was very much in my mind as I wrote this book. To them, and to all those who suffer the world’s hostility for the sake of the Gospel, Paul directs this promise: `Now if we are children [of God], then we are [also] heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we might also share in his glory’ (Romans 8:17).
Now let’s look at two resources that will help us keep going along the right path, operating interdependently, like links in a chain.
His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding every hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.
This is the penultimate verse of Cowper’s hymn, and it illustrates the close relationship between patience, waiting for something, and hope: the flower will give its fragrance one day, even though at present it may seem languid and limp.
What `patience’ are we talking about? The term hypomone which Paul uses here means perseverance, as in Hebrews 12:1: `Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’ However, if we limit ourselves to this concept, we have a natural resource which is not specifically related to grace. I can stimulate my capacity for perseverance through merely human methods, whether they be psychological or even Eastern meditative techniques.
The resources of grace, however, go much further than mere human ones: they come from God. That’s why the biblical idea of patience is much richer and deeper than mere perseverance. When in Galatians 5:22 it speaks of patience as a fruit of the Spirit, the term is makrothymia, which literally means `greatness of spirit’. The equivalent word in Latin, from which we get our term longanimity (meaning `endurance’ or `fortitude’), refers to a strong spirit that remains firm in adversity. Its opposite, pusillanimous, means `feeble in spirit’, whereas makrothymia refers to a spirit that does not give up, which does not waver when facing difficult external circumstances. It is exactly the opposite of a cowardly person who `drowns in a glass of water’.
There is a world of difference between the biblical concept and the popular idea of patience expressed in sentences like this: `What can be done? There’s nothing we can do; just be patient.’ This kind of patience is an attitude of resignationwhen faced with a situation in which you cannot do anything, an attitude born out of, and leading to, fatalism. On the other hand, patience that proceeds from grace does not resign itself but fights. Rather than crumbling in the face of adversity, it gains strength and, instead of being passive, actively looks for solutions.
How do we know that we are progressing in this gift of grace? There is evidence of patience when:
- The person is self-controlled. This is one of the essential fruits of patience: it does not react impulsively, as we saw in David’s wise behaviour.10 ‘David accepted the fact that he had to live in such hard circumstances. He didn’t complain, nor did he resist or try to impress with his piety. He suffered secretly and in silence. Due to this he was deeply hurt. His insides were churned up. His personality was transformed. When the trial ended, David was barely recognizable.’ These words refer to the long years on the run from Saul when David had several easy opportunities to get rid of his thorn, i.e. by killing Saul. But David did not do so because he also had the second evidence of patience:
- The person knows how to wait. David knew how to bide his time, and was not in a hurry. He let God mark out the hours of his life. God’s calendar is not marked in months or years, chronos, but by the right moment, the suitable opportunity, kairos. A text in James warns us against impatience through an illustration from the world of agriculture: ‘Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains’ (James 5:7). How many of us fall into the trap of haste and are tempted to pick the fruit before it is ripe? The thorn in the flesh means knowing how to wait.
Yet the relationship between patience and hope reaches its climax in its future aspect: the second coming of Christ: `You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near’ (James 5:8). The kind of patience that comes from grace does not only operate on what is visible; it feeds on a vision of eternal things, especially that of the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. This leads us to consider the other great resource of grace that helps us persevere in the struggle with the thorn in the flesh.
I will live waiting for you, 0 hope.11
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).
Hope is also the result of grace. It is the last of its transforming effects on a person suffering from a trial. Grace helps us cope with the thorn in many ways, but one of the most essential is the fact that it provides us with hope. Only hope can give meaning to life and shine a ray of light into the darkest comers of our existence. The lack of hope is a form of dying while still alive. This is why I want to conclude this book looking higher and further, to the place where faith helps us to glimpse what lies beyond our sight.
The soothing effect of hope while suffering the pricks of the thorn is beautifully expressed in a moving poem by Helen Keller:12
O light-bringer of my blindness,
O spirit never far removed!
Ever when the hour of travail deepens,
Thou art near;
Set in my soul like jewels bright
Thy words of holy meaning,
Till death with gentle hand shall lead me
To the Presence I have loved
My torch in darkness here,
My joy eternal there.
Hope for today
As Helen Keller’s and Joni Eareckson Tada’s lives have shown us, living with hope is always important, but indispensable in times of trial. In Hope in Times of Crisis, the Spanish doctor Pedro Lain Entralgo writes about the illustrious Spanish thinker of the last century, Miguel de Unamuno: ‘From despair is where real, true hope always springs, and always has sprung.’13 It is worth mentioning that Unamuno had his own thorn: a son who was ill with hydrocephalus (water on the brain), with all the significant disability that this entails. `Despair is the ground from which true hope springs, that hope which creates faith that waits.’14 This ‘hope-producing function of despair’, as Lain calls it, had already been described by the apostle Peter when he referred to trials as a fiery furnace that purifies our faith (1 Peter 1:7) and strengthens our hope: ‘God … has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you’ (vv. 3–4).
There is, therefore, an immediate application of hope: here and now we wait on God in hope for all the blessings that he has promised to give his children to enable them to cope with the thorn. We wait for his strength each day (Philippians 4:r3), his presence (Matthew 28:20; John 14:18), his comfort (Hebrews 4:t6), and all the other effects of grace already considered. Paul sums it all up with this encouraging promise: `And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4ap).
Hope for the future
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared … while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11, 13).
The dimension in which hope finds its fullest expression is looking to the future. When life is viewed as a journey to a `better country’, it is possible to `be joyful in hope [and] patient in affliction’ (Romans 12:12). This vision of eternity gives us a perspective that soothes the heart torn by pain. This is why hope is inseparable from personal faith in Christ, because it does not come out of nothing nor does it arise spontaneously from the `ground of despair’ (as Lain said). The core of our hope is the future appearance in glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As the apostle Peter says, we now have to suffer `for a little while’ (1 Peter 1:6). This expression is sufficiently vague for us not to be able to fix any time limit to it. Perhaps our thorn will be with us for the rest of our life on earth. But, in the drama of life, as in a play, there is a second act, to which we will come very shortly because life is a brief journey, where there will be no thorns of any kind. This is so because God has set a deadline for suffering. If one of the greatest wishes of the suffering person is `that it all would end soon’, this is precisely what Christ did through his incarnation and death. Indeed, the final answer to the enigma of the thorn is not found in any idea or philosophy but in a person, the One who suffered the worst thorn of all: the cross.
The apostle John, in the midst of the thorn of exile and with death just around the corner, describes this hope in a memorable text. It is a passage that has spoken to me very personally over many years and I find it hard to read without feeling moved. These are the best words with which I can finish this book because they are not human, but divine:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away … there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away …I am making everything new! … He who overcomes will inherit all these things and I will be his God and he will be my son’ (Revelation 21:1, 4-5, 7).
This glorious perspective makes us joyfully respond with the words of William Cowper:15
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break
in blessings on your head. [131-150]
1. Os Guinness, When No One Sees: The Importance of Character in an Age of Image, The Trinity Forum Study Series, NavPress, 2000, p. 16.
2. Paul Tournier, Creative Suffering, SCM Press Ltd, London, 1882, p. 29.
3. Paul Tournier, ibid.
4. Quoted by John Stott, Calling Christian Leaders, InterVarsity Press, Leicester, 2002, p. 53.
5. Gaius Davies, Genius, Grief and Grace, Christian Focus Publications, Pearn, Ross-shire, Scotland, 2003.
6. Quoted from The Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, H. Kaplan, 3rd edn. William and Wilkins, Baltimore, X980, Vol. 111, pp. 1510-1511.
7. John Stott, ibid., p. 56.
8. Dr Gaius Davies, ibid., p. 94.
9. James M. Gordon, Evangelical Spirituality, SPCK, London, 1982, p 82.
10. Gene Edwards. A Title of Three Kings, Christian Books. 1980, p. 33.
11. Miguel de Unamuno, quoted by Dr Pedro Lain Entralgo, Esperanza en tiempos de crisis, Galaxia Gutenberg, 1993, p. 65.
12. Helen Keller, ibid., p. 3.
13. P. Lain Entralgo, Esperanza en tiempos de crisis, Galaxia Gutenberg, 1993, p. 58.
14. Ibid., p. 65.
15. This is the third verse of his hymn `God moves in a mysterious way.’