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Jamie Johnson
2 February 2014

Thorns

NOTE: This is a written version of the message I delivered to a group of residents at Kings Daughters Community Health & Rehabilitation Center on February 2, 2014.

All of us struggle. Jesus was clear about that when He said, "...In this world, you will have trouble..." (John 16:33, NIV). He continued and said, "...but take courage; I have overcome the world." It is important to take notice that He said He has overcome the world, not us. Overcoming is through Him. As we struggle, however, it is easy to feel discouraged.

I feel discouraged at times with the routine things with which I struggle. Some of them, no matter how hard I try, never seem to go away. Some of them torment me even when I do not invite them. And there is no promise that we will not struggle. There are many verses that support that we will indeed struggle and Jesus' words alone in John 16:33 are enough to support that. When I think about such struggles that will not go away, I call them "thorns." Thorns prick and stick. They hurt and they do not necessarily go away. Some of life's trials are thorns. What are some of your thorns?

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9a (NASB) the following:

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me -- to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." ...

Why did Paul have a thorn? He answers the question. The thorn was to keep him from exalting himself. Paul had a lot of knowledge and received great revelations. It would be tempting for him to get puffed up with pride or to claim it was his own knowledge if he acted in the flesh. If he wasn't exalting himself, he was humbling himself. And in that humility, he was depending on God. Though the thorn was a "messenger of Satan to torment", God used it for good. And He can use our thorns for good, too.

Good?! But I am suffering here! It can be hard to think of God as good when there are thorns. Andrew Wilson wrote on the Desiring God Blog in a piece entitled Goodness and Me. He writes the following: "The goodness of God is one of those things we affirm happily when things are going well, and find rather tricky when they aren't." As a father of two serverely autistic children, he explores God and goodness, pondering it theologically and personally in view of Psalm 34:8: "O, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!" Wilson concludes the following from his visit with Psalm 34:

Yet the psalmist affirms his experience of God's goodness from a place of suffering. In verse 19, he makes the remarkable announcement, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous." Even with a good God, who is sovereign over everything and has the power to do whatever he likes, good people still suffer. His punchline, though, comes in the next phrase: "but Yahweh delivers him out of them all." Evil happens, but "none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned" (34:22).

It could not be any other way. God is shown to be good from our experience, and he has the property of (among other things) goodness, but he is also good by definition. He has never been faced with a catch-22 situation, forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, or flummoxed into a decision that was anything less than completely good. Therefore — and this bit is both the hardest, and the most powerful, when we’re suffering — if God has done something, it is good. End of story.

We may well not understand why God has done it, of course. Job didn’t either. But we can be confident, based on Scripture and on our experience, that as sure as milk is white, Yahweh is good. Taste and see!

Even though you -- even though I -- have thorns, God is good! It is hard to feel, but it is true. My pastor recently reminded us that when we go through something, we want immediate relief. However, the Scriptures paint a picture of God walking with us through it. Faith gets us through it. The Lord has need of it and it has a function we are not aware of -- one that far outweighs what we know. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:17 (NASB), "For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison." Paul walked with God and faced many trials. Paul knew the truth of God's goodness in spite of his thorn.

What was Paul's thorn? We do not know. It is not revealed in scripture. We do know it tormented Paul. We do know he pleaded with the Lord multiple times to take it away. Does this sound familiar? Do you have a thorn that you plead with God to take away from you? Perhaps you have multiple thorns. I do. I was diagnosed with diabetes in 1979. This is one of my thorns. I've pleaded with God numerous times to heal me, but He hasn't. I know He loves me. I also know that I live in a broken world where there are diseases like diabetes. And I know that I have the propensity for all sorts of sins if not bridled. God protected Paul from pride by allowing his thorn. What has God delivered you from in this broken world by allowing your thorn? It may be hard to see. I get frustrated, angry and discouraged, but I must turn to Him.

How are we to respond to our thorns? There are multiple options, but really only one good option. We could get frustrated and angry as I do at times. We could become bitter. We might become anxious and fearful. We may become depressed, defeated and hopeless. I know that I sometimes think, "I can't do it! I give up!" It can be a miserable place to be, but look up!

It is true, we cannot do it. The thorn is to keep us from being conceited. That makes us rely on God. We cannot fight such things in our own effort nor should we. The battle belongs to the Lord! And we must depend on Him to win it and He will. We may not experience it this side of Heaven, but He will win (and has won) in the end. Consider Scripture:

The horse is prepared for the day of battle,
But victory belongs to the Lord.
~ Proverbs 21:31

In 2 Chronicles 20:14-15, the Spirit came upon Jahaziel who said to all Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to King Jehoshaphat, "[T]hus says the Lord to you, 'Do not fear or be dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours but God's....'"

When David went to face Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:46-47, David said to Goliath in verse 47, "...the Lord does not deliver by sword or by spear; for the battle is the Lord's and He will give you into our hands." And was the giant defeated? Yes! What are your giants?

Romans 8:31 (NASB) says, "If God is for us, who is against us?"

This may mean we experience victory this side of Heaven, but we may not. Ultimately, however, if you are in Christ, then the victory is already decided. I recall when my friend Donnie died in 2007. I remember what the pastor said at his service: Donnie had not lost his battle with cancer. Rather, Donnie was victorious over cancer. Donnie was (and is) with Jesus. Cancer took him from this world, but now Donnie lives more where he is than any day he lived here and cancer has no hold on him. That was not and is not the end of the story. Nor should your thorn be the end of the story for you or my thorn the end of the story with me. Victory is in Jesus. Do you have that hope? I'll be honest. Sometimes, it is hard to have hope, but when all is said and done, do you have hope in Jesus?

What was God's response to Paul pleading that his thorn be removed? The answer is in 2 Corinthians 12:9 (NASB):

And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

Boast about my weaknesses? Really? What if I feel embarrassed or ashamed of them? It's between you and God whether or not you reveal it (though if done with discernment, it may be helpful). The principle is that we glorify Christ and be honest about our need for Him. Do you know that you need Christ? Even if you are already in Christ and trust Him, you need Him. Are you living dependent on Christ? That is my prayer for you and for me today.


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