The deepest pain we experience is often inflicted by people, especially those who we care for the most. The closer we are to people the more vulnerable we are to be hurt and wounded. Not just physically (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23-27), but emotionally (11:28-29). People can disappoint, reject, abuse, slander, fail, betray, or turn on you. These type of wounds go deep and hurt. Have you ever felt pain from someone close to you? A spouse? A parent? A child? A friend? A church?
Jonathan Edward, a pastor through America’s Great Awakening, was voted out of the church where he pastored for 22-years over a disagreement about who takes communion. The pain caused by this lead him to live meekly among Native Indians, a broken man until his death. Charles Haddon Spurgeon—some would say the greatest preacher the world has ever known—was voted out of the Baptist Union for standing strongly for the Scripture. He was crushed and his health was never the same.
Paul experienced this kind of pain too. He loved the church at Corinth immensely. He spent 18-months with them. He saw many come to Christ and he nurtured them. He invested his life to the church. He thought of himself as their father and them as his daughter. And yet he also experienced his greatest pain and heart-ache from this church. False teachers came into the church and spread lies about Paul cutting down his credibility as an apostle therein cutting down the credibility of the gospel. They called into question his integrity, character, leadership, wisdom, honesty, motives, love and loyalty. Many in the church bought into the lies of false teachers. And Paul was left assaulted, crushed and hurt deeply.
Pain is universal. Every human experiences pain at some point. It’s the problem of pain. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.” Pain is part of life. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when.
Pain is never pleasant, until we understand what God is accomplishing by it. Often the greatest times of spiritual development happen in times of great pain. Paul teaches us how to see the hand of God in the midst of pain. No text unfolds this in greater detail than 2 Corinthians 12. It is set in one of the most emotionally charged portions Paul had put pen (See Chapters 10-13). Paul lays his heart wide open and we see what God endeavors to accomplish in our pain and where we find strength in the deepest pain.
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (v.7)
First, Paul described the pain was like “a thorn.” Have you ever got a thorn stuck in your foot? In Chad, there are thorns everywhere. Just yesterday I was raking our yard and I literally pulled out over 10 thorns from the bottom of my flip-flops. I was immediately decommissioned from any further work until I pulled each thorn out of my foot. The word “thorn” as Paul used it can refer to a small thorn or an object as big as a stake. Imagine that. It is as if he says “a stake was driven right through my flesh.” Ouch.
We understand the word “thorn” was used metaphorically, like when we say, “He is a real thorn in my side.” So what was Paul’s thorn? What was bothering Paul? There are dozens of speculation as to what the cause of the thorn could be (ex: headaches, lust, eye problem, malaria, epilepsy, loss of hair, hysteria, gastritis, leprosy, lice, deafness, stuttering, etc.). In all, these trivial speculations miss the what the text says itself about the thorn, they miss the debilitating and humiliating depth of Paul’s pain and it misses God’s purposes for the thorn.
Second, Paul said the thorn was “given” to him. Satan inflicted it, but ultimately God allowed it for he pleads with God to take it away (v.8; cf. Mark 14:32-41). In Greek, the phrase reads “a thorn for the flesh was given me.” What we know about the word “flesh” in Scripture is that more often it doesn’t refer to the physical flesh, but the home of human impulses and sinful tendencies. The thorn poked Paul deeper than the surface of his skin. Paul goes on to tell what the thorn is. It is a “messenger or Satan to harass me (torment, punch).” It is a messenger (angel); a demon sent to inflict Paul.
Now it is interesting because a demon would not want to humble Paul, but to exalt him. A demon would not want to drive a stake through his flesh, but his spirit. The context gives light to this messenger being false teachers who are controlled by a demon as they reject Paul’s authority, ministry and integrity (cf. 11:13-15; 1 Timothy 4:1-2). Like Satan, these false teachers are so close to truth that the people buy into it and it is crushing Paul because he can see the angel of light twisting the truth against him.
There is a question some would ask here. Why would God allow Paul to be tormented? Does God really allow pain? In short, yes. God has used demons, even Satan, and pain for his purposes in the lives of believers. Job is a great example. The moment God allowed Satan to test Job all hell broke loose. Everyone in Job’s family was killed except his wife. All his crops and animals were destroyed. His own body became ravaged by a skin disease. A Middle Eastern mogul was reduced to rubble. Job was in deep pain. And it was compounded by his wife and friends giving him bad advice. Notice, in the end, God never tells Job why all this happened. God never apologizes. God never blames Satan. God simply praises Job for his persevering faith.
In Luke 22:31-32, Jesus says to Peter, “Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” In other words, “Peter, you would make a good prospect for Satan. I think I will use him for my purposes in you.” You could hear Peter say, “Jesus, You said ‘no’ right?” Jesus knew this would be a defining moment for Peter. He would move from being a great denier to becoming the great defender.
While Paul’s thorn was a thing that his opposers used as a means of showing other that God was not with him. It had the opposite effect. The thorn was proof that God was with him. God was with him, keeping him humble when he could be the opposite because of all that God did through him.
Third, Paul said the thorn was to “keep [him] from becoming conceited.” Paul became a figure head. Everywhere he went two things started: a church and a riot. The work he accomplished in his lifespan is staggering. He had all the reasons in the world to be be proud: he had visions, wrote revelation, planted churches, brought the gospel to the gentile world, but this thorn was crushing him, inflicting pain to keep him humble.
Why was God allowing this mess at Corinth? Why was God allowing Paul to experience deep pain? God was teaching him and the church deep truths about Himself that they might not learn otherwise. God’s purposes for the Paul are made clear,
“But [God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (vs.9-10)
Like Paul, we learn much about God through pain. First, God uses pain reveals our spiritual character (vs.5-6). We are like a sponge and pain squeezes out what is really inside. Second, God uses pain to humble us (v.7). Third, God uses pain to draw us to Himself (v.8). Going to God is the right place to go. Fourth, God uses pain to display his grace (v.9). God answers is often “no” to removing the pain, but God gives the grace. We will have trouble, God never promises to remove it, but he promises enough grace to endure it. God increases grace to those who are broken. Fifth, God uses pain to perfect his power (v.10). When there is nothing left within us—no pride, no glory, no strength, no ability to fix it—then there is room for the power of God. This is power in our weakness.(Romans 8:18).
Paul was burdened beyond strength. He was left broken, beaten, battered. He could not fix the situation. He was at the end of his rope. He hurt deeply because of what others had done. Yet it was here that the power of God was displayed in his weakness (cf. 4:7-12; 6:4-10).
Power in weakness is most vividly seen in the cross of Christ. Jesus, the man of sorrows was the strongest man to ever live because at his weakest earthly moment he did not use all the power he had to stop the pain or avoid the pain, rather he embraced his own thorns so that the plans of God could be accomplished through him. In God’s plan of redemption, there had to be weakness (crucifixion) before there was power (resurrection). Paul came to understand and embrace the fact that his thorn in the flesh was essential to his ongoing weakness and the experience of Christ’s ongoing power. Through Christ’s temporary pain we have eternal gain.
If you are doing ministry in Jesus name you need to expect stakes to be driven through your flesh. Pain is a part of life as a follower of Christ (outside and inside the church). Christ in us! That is the reward of those who serve him with their weakness. As Isaac Watts wrote,
“Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ, my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.”