purpose of pain

thorns

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.”

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real questions: suffering?

suffering

Ned Anzers: It doesn’t seem fair that a loving God would allow bad things to happen. Why does God allow so much suffering?

This is an honest question.

I have often wondered the answer to this question myself. Years ago as a young boy, I would visit the nursing home to see my great grandmother Loretta. I remember these visits to this day. I was enamored by my great grandfather Roman’s care for his wife. They had been married for over half a century, but for many years she had been degenerating from the disease of Alzheimer’s. It was incredibly painful to see such a wonderful, witty woman who was so alive, not recognize who you were. As a young boy and even now as an adult it is still hard to understand why God allows this to happen, especially to one so undeserving. I will talk more about this in my conclusion.

I hear the stories my girlfriend Sarah, who tells me about where she grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. How the authorities have raped and pillaged a beautiful land. I see and feel the emotion she bears from the scars of her home land.

Jesus tells a story in the Bible about a real life catastrophe. It was about landmark tower took years to build, and seconds to fall. It stood as a powerful symbol of strength, security and prosperity, but in only moments became cloud of dust that blanketed the neighboring streets. As the dust and debris settled and the death toll rang out to the shaken city (18 people), the skyline was now empty and mournful. People were trying to make sense of the calamity. When Jesus talked about this tragedy at Siloam He knew it wouldn’t be the last (Luke 13:5).

We want explanation for the disaster, injustice, abuse, sickness, poverty, pain and suffering. So did people of the Bible (Jer.12:1, Hab.1:2-3, Ps.6:3). Where are you now God? Have you forgotten? Don’t you care?

Sometimes people think that the presence of suffering means the absence of God. Does suffering mean there is no God?

Certainly not. I would certainly be more fearful of the consequence of believing there is no God.  Jesus says there is significance to the human life (Luke 12:6-7, 24). Those who die are not forgotten by God. If we reject God because of suffering then we have to face a world that is much worse: meaningless suffering. Without God there would be no justice (Ecc.3:16ff; Acts 17:31; Mal.4:5), and no future (Ecc.3:20; John 11:25-26). Death would be the end of life. No after life. Without God there would be no significance to life (Ecc.3:18). We would be just animals with clothes on. Killing becomes like that of a lion killing a antelope. The killings of Cambodia, Columbine, Congo, Auschwitz, Manhattan, Virginia Tech and others would be without pity or horror. That is a scary world to me. A world without hope or meaning.

What is the meaning of suffering?

Going back to the story of Jesus and the collapsed tower we learn some very practical principles about suffering (Luke 12:54-13:5). First, we see the reality of sin. Suffering is not always caused because of man’s sinfulness or lack of acknowledgment that there is a God. God is not a bully trying to pressure His creation into submission. Second, through suffering we see the fragility of life. Life is short and we must trust God with our eternal destiny’s. Third, we see that God is with us through the suffering. Fourth, we see that suffering cause us to depend upon God.

We have a God that knows all about suffering. He is a God that has experienced suffering Himself. Jesus experienced abuse, betrayal of friends, gossip, hunger, alienation from family, torture, thirst, homelessness, religious persecution, bullied, death of close friends, unfair trial, excruciation prolonged execution. He wept and saw suffering like we do and gave up his own life to do something about it. The cross represents forgiveness for all those who cause suffering or experience suffering. On the cross we see a suffering God, suffering for His own people because He loves them and wants to free them from all suffering in eternity (John 3:16). God’s suffering was for our greater good and a proof of His love.

What does this love in suffering look like in real life?

Going back to the story of my great grandmother Loretta Rothe: I the mist of her suffering I saw an amazing picture of love that I would only wish to aspire for one day. My great grandfather would care for her when most in his shoes would bail. He would comb her hair, feed her dinner, read to her and prove that his love for his wife was “in sickness and health, until death do us part.” Suffering shows our true colors. I would only hope to have a similar perseverance in the midst of pain.

bearing the scars

I went to the doctor today. It has been over a week since I had fractured my nose. My visit with the doc lasted only 5 minutes. No, he didn’t fix much in that time. He only told me what my options were. As the doctor put it my nose has had a lot of “trama” over my life time [fracturing it now for the 5th time]. He said that I have broke it too many times just to crack it back in place. The only option I would have to fix it would be to do a complete top to bottom overhaul. In other words, plastic surgery. There is no way. I am not into this. I am sure the cost and pain would be outrageous. I suppose I will settle for the other option…to live with a crooked and bumpy nose. Not that it wasn’t crooked before!?
 
I remember what my nose doctor, Rocky [fitting name for a nose doc], in high school said, “Your nose makes you, you!? He is right. My already deformed nose has character… at least I need to keep telling myself that. Over the pst couple of weeks I have been working on a beard. Its my first time, and no pun intended it’s really growing on me. The beard is a good distraction from the nose.
 
It’s just one more thing to look forward to when I get to heaven someday. A new nose. As Jesus bears the scars of sin on His hands and feet, I bear them on my shnoze.
 
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