By Nathan Washburn
Pastor, First Baptist Church, Greenbrier
“We are not as strong as we think we are.” That tag line in the chorus of a Rich Mullins song by the same name also happens to be something of a tag line for all of us. Despite outward appearances and inward feelings, we are not as strong as we think. Our very lives are dependent on a number of things functioning properly all the time: open airway, beating heart, active brain, etc. We are unbelievably fragile, powerless, and insecure. The same goes for us spiritually. We are much weaker than we think we are.
We all have thorns. Before his conversion, the apostle Paul was a learned Jewish prodigy, a pharisee of pharisees, zealous for the law. After his conversion he was a profound Christian theologian, missionary, preacher, leader, and writer. He willingly suffered for the sake of the gospel (II Corinthians 11:22-28) and counted it joy to throw everything away that was gain and bear the reproach of Christ in order to know Him (Philippians 3:7-8).
Yet, despite all this, he had some sort of trigger, a thorn in his side (II Corinthians 12:7), that he considered a serious setback. Similarly, we all have a thorn (or two or three) that we consider a painful nuisance. We want ease and comfort, smooth sailing, and the approval of others. Instead, we get knee-buckling pain. And when it sticks around even after we’ve asked God to take it away, we brace for the long haul.
Pain serves a purpose. The purpose of pain is to help us feel our frailty again. It’s to kill our conceit. Paul mentions this purpose twice, before and after the phrase about his thorn. “To keep me from becoming conceited … a thorn was given me in the flesh … to keep me from becoming conceited” (v. 7). The specific word used for “conceited” means “to think to be self-important.” But our importance doesn’t come from self; it comes from Christ. And a thorn is a good way of reminding us of that.
God gives grace that is sufficient. God gives thorns in order to reduce our dependence on ourselves and increase our dependence on Him. This is a grace to us — to help us do what we could not otherwise do on our own — crucify our conceit. So in one sense God gives us grace in the thorn.
In another sense, God gives us grace for the thorn — a grace that is not too small or thin, but is sufficient to cover us every bit. Because of this, the more we are pricked by thorns, the more we love his grace. So then, the sweet salve of grace is treasured most by those pierced by many thorns.
We can celebrate our weakness. If God gives grace for the wound of a thorn, and His power is perfected when we are weak, then we can do that which seems contrary to what we would naturally want to do — celebrate our weakness.
This all reminds us of someone else who knew what it was to suffer under thorns — Jesus. He had a whole crown of them. It wasn’t exactly the kind of crown others were expecting to see on His head, but it’s the kind He knew He had to bear. And He bore it faithfully, for us. So then, our little setbacks that wedge themselves in our sides are opportunities to know Christ more fully and to love His grace.
We are certainly not as strong as we think we are, and that’s a good thing.