Paul’s Thorn: A Little Bible Study for Your Encouragement

by on March 28, 2016

I write this now after having completed an intensive three-week long course. It was one of those in-between semesters courses that fit a whole semester into a month. The work that would usually be spread over the course of a week was instead crammed in on a daily basis. I’m tired. I’m exhausted. Seminary does this to you sometimes. The pressure, the intensity, and the constancy of it all only further the absurdity that a degree of this time is only a Masters-level degree.

 

But in my devotional readings, I was reminded of that episode of St. Paul’s when he has this unidentified “thorn in the flesh”—a thing, like seminary (at times) that will cause you pain and haunting and yet you can’t realistically get rid of it right now. So if you’ll allow me some time, I hope to encourage you with a few reminders from this text that strengthened me a bit this weekend as my new semester begins.

 

“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. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he 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.”

(2 Corinthians 12:7-11)

 

If God loves you, He will both bless and curse you. This is because dependence on Him is what we were made for and therefore we are more freely, humbly, and joyfully ourselves when we are dependent on Him than at any other time. So He will bless us (with revelations of Himself) to let us know Him and inflict us (with our various “thorns”) to keep us clinging to Him. And this is all within the same singular situation. In seminary, that odd singular situation we find ourselves in, we can absolute be confident that we are supposed to be here, even as there are aspects of both blessing and curse that we encounter.

 

Paul prayed “three times” and then stopped. He stopped praying! We Christians idealize the idea of persistent prayer. In seminary, when our prayers lives take an inevitable hit, we can often feel such a burden of guilt and shame. And yet, sometimes, it seems that we need to stop praying and just rest in God’s revealed promises. Sometimes we need to stop asking God to give to us and just give of ourselves to Him, no less in our work and faithfulness in seminary.

 

My grace is sufficient for you — How beautiful. And yet, we sometimes misread it. We should not see this as “My grace is sufficient to make you no longer weak” or “My grace is sufficient to clean up your messes when your weakness gets in the way.” No, it’s “My grace is sufficient on behalf of you. It overlooks your weakness and relates to you on the basis of the strength of another.” His grace is sufficient in spite of us and in spite of our weakness. So yes, let seminary remind you how weak you are. This all well and good and part of God being close to you.

 

Paul says that he will boast in his weakness “so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” We usually read this text as saying that as we accept and “boast in our weaknesses”, God will bless that and do great things while we remain in a state of constant weakness. This isn’t the case, it seems. Paul wants to boast in his weakness not simply so that God can use him but that God might rest upon him. When we live into our weaknesses, we actually experience strength and power. It’s in this boasting that we are not just used by Christ but are indwelt by Him. This is why one of the most essential things that seminary should shape and form within us is an increased conviction of our need and weakness. And when it does, that is the opportunity for God to work—more so than when we feel “up to snuff”.

 

For when I am weak, then I am strong — This does not say “in spite of being weak, I am strong.” It doesn’t just overlook, circumvent, or overpower our weakness. No; it is “when I am weak. Because I am weak. Then I am strong.” Our weaknesses are the very things that mediate God’s strength to us. How often do we strive to leave our weaknesses behind; to be the “strongest” preacher, the “strongest” writer, the “strongest” student, the “strongest” Christian?

 

And yet, where are the weak ones?

 

I’m not advocating the loss of preparation, studying, and honing of one’s craft and skill. But rather employing those skills and moving in those offices in the utter and conscious reliance of a greater strength. What would seminary look like if done by men and women educated and trained among the best, but minister as if they needn’t rely on those things? What if our living and moving understood and acknowledged our finitude? We needn’t become weak or try and muster weakness in order for these dreams to be reality. We need only to rest in and acknowledge this reality:

 

We are weak. We are fallen. We are finite and small. All that we need had to be accomplished for our sake by another. It is utter folly to be anything but a child in His arms. Let us rest and boast in our weaknesses, and worship.  For when we are weak, then we are strong.

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About

Frequenting the coffee shops of Philadelphia while employed in social work and finishing up a Masters of Divinity from the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He serves Liberti Church as a deacon and seminary intern. Paul blogs at the long way home and tweets as @PaulBurkhart_.

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