Sin and Pain and a Thorn in the Flesh

By Kersley Fitzgerald

In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul speaks about his natural tendencies of conceit and how God chose to control them:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
I've heard several different speculations as to what Paul's "thorn" was, but they usually boiled down to either a physical ailment (one common idea is blindness resulting from his meeting with Jesus in Acts 9:1-9) or a sinful addiction (perhaps hinted at in Romans 7:14-25).

I think maybe God left it intentionally vague because the application is the same. Whether we struggle with a chronic disease/injury or are inclined to a specific sin, God can use that thorn to make us stronger and even more effective for His kingdom.

For years I prayed that God would give me the motivation to eat right and work out. With all the heart disease, diabetes, and cancer in my family, I knew I needed to work now to be okay later. You'd think that would be enough, but it wasn't. Cheetos speak louder than celery, and the couch is more convenient than the gym. There was always a reason to skip a day, until that day became a month and I started thinking this was just the way it was. Instead of motivation, God gave me some thorns.

First, a shoulder injury. All of a sudden I was required to lift weights every day. Only it wasn't "working out," it was "physical therapy," which has a lot more authority behind it. Then my food allergies got diagnosed. Ironically, I'm allergic to a lot of healthful foods, but if you can't have dairy, you can't have Cheetos. Potatoes take out fries and chips. And although there are a lot of gluten substitutes out there, when you can't have eggs or flax seed, that pretty much takes out 99.5 percent of all baked goods.

God didn't take away my desire for junk food and potato-couching. And He didnít suddenly give me great health. He gave me thorns in my flesh that made adequate health harder to get to so that I would work at it. In working at it, my lifestyle became healthier, and my body followed suit.

The same can happen with chronic temptation, if we let it. It's easier to be aware and alert of the lion when the beast is next to you and not just a theoretical construct (1 Peter 5:8). Working, with intention, every day to fight a particular temptation rewires your mind into making that fight the default of your life. The fight becomes the new normal instead of the temptation.

But Jesus says cleaning the house of the ugly isn't enough (Luke 11:24-25). Just like I had to refill my meager diet with healthy substitutions, we need to fill the void (in time, activity, community...) caused when we reject the sin. That's a huge part of why God set up the church — to give us something healthy to do and to give us encouragement to keep up the fight (Galatians 6:1).

He also warns us to build up our strength in times of peace so we can fight better when things get hard. If I continue to lift weights, I'll be able to lug heavy suitcases up and down stairs (the cause of my initial injury). If I don't do the weights in times of rest, I'm going to pull a ligament when I most need my strength. For the chronically tempted, it would mean staying in the Word daily, strengthening resolve and being constantly reminded of what holiness looks like.

There are situations where discipline and encouragement aren't going to be enough. My allergy pill handles a lot of my enviro symptoms, but when those black-eyed Susans come around, I'm a goner. There's a point where professional help is needed. For allergies, that may be shot therapy. For chronic temptations, it may mean professional counseling. It doesn't mean we're failures. It just means we need help with the fight.

Why go to all the effort? It'd be easier to give in, but we'd feel miserable. I've been through times where I thought all of this was just the way it was and I'd never be healthy again. I've now seen how God can use illness and injury to lead to health. In the same way, the fight with a chronic temptation can lead to spiritual health. Every good and perfect thing we do to fight temptation brings us closer to Him, where real righteousness lies. A stronger, deeper relationship than we could have had otherwise — even if we still feel sick or still run headlong into sin, realizing that the thorn is not normal and working with God to fight its effects is still a victory.

All those lifestyle changes have led to a blessing I didn't expect. I'm still sick, and my shoulder still hurts sometimes, but for the first time in a while I can run again. Running is my freedom, and it wouldn't have been possible without all the work. There is freedom in the fight against temptation, as well. Not necessarily complete freedom from temptation, but freedom despite the temptation. If God isn't letting the temptation get weaker, let Him make you stronger.

Image Credit: Erich Ferdinand; "Thorn"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | Hardships  | Personal-Life  | Sin-Evil

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Published 7-27-2015