Paul is an all out, no limits, hardcore follower of Jesus. I want to be like Paul. If I could get the fire to fall down from heaven like Paul, perform signs and wonders in Christ’s name, boldly proclaim the gospel, then everything will work out silky smooth. Then I read the Bible and am quickly reminded that, while his labor bore fruit, Paul also endured hardship, anguish, and disappointment along the way.
Paul maintained his relentless efforts of evangelism and discipleship despite the trials because he practiced what he preached. He caught hold of the idea that these light and momentary troubles do not compare to surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. His momentary suffering was swallowed up by the compassion he had for those who were lost and under condemnation.
We get a glimpse into one of Paul’s great personal battles in 2 Cor. 12 when Paul writes of a messenger of Satan sent to torment him. He refers to this as a thorn in his flesh. Now, if I were him, I would be thinking, “God, I have poured my life out for you. I have been mocked, even stoned for you. Can’t a catch a break? Why are you allowing this thorn in my flesh? If I didn’t have to spend time and energy dealing with this thorn, I could do so much more for Your kingdom!”
He sandwiches this statement regarding the thorn in his flesh with the reason God has allowed such a thing in his life: “To keep me from exalting myself.”
We all want to be effective for the Lord. We all want to bear much fruit for Him. We all understand what is at stake, and so, in some sense, it seems we could get so much more accomplished if we didn’t have thorns in our flesh. Sometimes, instead of a thorn, it seems we were dropped on a thorn bush from 20,000 feet.
On occasion, I whimper, whine, and complain about a thorn in my flesh. If my goals are pure, then shouldn’t my path be easier? Perhaps my goals are good, but it is my motivations that are amiss. I want great things to happen, but is it for the sake or the lost and the glory of God? Or is it so people will think I am a good missionary that is being used of God. It is easy to slip into a pattern of deceiving ourselves and overlooking our motivations because our purposes seem so pure. But we cannot expect to persevere like Paul, for the glory of God and the sake of serving others, when our goal is to exalt ourselves.
When something is repeated in the Bible it is worth noting. Paul realized suffering was not meant to stifle his work or limit his effectiveness. It was meant to sharpen his affections and focus his attention. The thorn in his flesh kept him from exalting himself, leading to pride and arrogance that would have hollowed out the ministry and emptied it of power.
Paul will only boast in his weaknesses, because it is there God shows up strong. He believes God power is perfected in weakness. It is for this reason Paul, and we ourselves, are able to be content with weaknesses, insults, distresses, persecutions and difficulties. It is because they are for the sake of Jesus Christ. For when we are weak, then we are strong.