The Thorn in the Flesh!
Francis Bourdillon, 1864
2 Corinthians 12:7-10.
"And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations — a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.
And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness."
Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong."
We are told to pray in all our troubles, and God promises to hear us. But He does not promise to give us always just what we ask for. Often it is better for us not to have it — or to have something else instead. It is answering our prayers in the best way, when God gives us that which is most for our good, though it may not be what we asked for. He knows far better than we do.
Paul had some affliction which he calls "a thorn in the flesh." We do not know what it was; but most likely it was some bodily ailment which interfered with his comfort, and, as he thought, hindered him in his work. Some think it was bad eye-sight, but nobody knows. He calls it "a thorn in the flesh" because it was a constant pain and trouble to him. He thought that it would be much for his happiness to be freed from this affliction, so he prayed God to remove it; and when he found that it was not removed, he prayed again, and still again. He says, "I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me." But it did not depart — the "thorn in the flesh" still remained — the affliction was not removed.
Had Paul prayed in vain then? Had God turned a deaf ear to his prayers? No! His prayers were answered — though not as he had expected: "And He said unto me: My grace is sufficient for you; for My strength is made perfect in weakness." The apostle received this inward reply from God, spoken to his heart by the Holy Spirit — and then he was satisfied. He prayed no more that the "thorn in the flesh" should be taken away — for now he knew that it was God's will that it should remain.
But he was not disappointed or cast down. On the contrary, he was full of thankfulness, feeling that he had received a blessing, though not the blessing he had desired. "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." He saw that it was better for him to have the "thorn in the flesh" — because with it would come special grace and strength. He now felt sure that the work of God would not suffer through his infirmity — but would rather be furthered by a special putting forth of the power of Christ. As for his own comfort, the presence of his Savior in his heart was more to him than all bodily ease. So he was content, and more than content — he was thankful and happy.
"Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong." Anything that brought Christ nearer — made Paul happy. Anything by which he received more strength from above — he considered a blessing. So when he saw that infirmities and distresses had this effect, he even took pleasure in them.
We are not wrong in praying God to remove our afflictions — we may even pray again and again. Our Lord Himself taught us "that men ought always to pray, and not to faint" (Luke 18:1).
A SICK person is not wrong in asking God to make him well. Health is a blessing; and sickness, in itself, is an evil. A sick man's illness is his "thorn in the flesh" — and he may beg the Lord, and that again and again, to remove it. The sick-bed ought to be a place of much prayer, both for soul and body. But health is not always restored in answer to prayer. Often, though earnest prayer is made — the sick get worse instead of better, and perhaps the sickness ends in death.
What then? Have those prayers been unheard? No. The prayer of faith is never unheard. But God has better blessings to give than even health! Pardon and peace, the grace of God, the witness of the Spirit, the Savior's presence, an increase of faith, clearer views, a brighter hope, more love to God, and a more perfect contentment with His will — these are all blessings, and better blessings than health itself. God often gives them in answer to the prayers of the sick; many a prayer that goes up from a bed of suffering, is answered thus. The sufferer is so ill perhaps that he can scarcely frame a petition, but the desire of his heart is toward God; he tries to cast himself upon His grace and mercy in Christ; in his distress he seeks help of Him alone. And that inward peace which he feels, that calm resignation to God's will, that happy sense of his Savior's presence — are the gracious answer to his prayers.
Let us not be disappointed if the very thing we ask for, however desirable it may seem to us, does not come. Let nothing lead us to doubt that God hears us. Rather let us think thus: "It was better for me, then, not to have this thing. There is some reason, known to God, though unknown to me, which makes it good for me that my 'thorn in the flesh' should remain."
The reason why Paul's thorn was not removed, was that he might not be made proud by his wonderful spiritual gifts. In the same way, there is always some wise and gracious reason why any blessing that we seek is withheld. God does not take pleasure in withholding what we ask Him for — but, as an all-wise, all-loving Father, He gives us what He knows to be the very best for us. How much better to have what He knows to be best — than what we think to be so!
Let us pray, and pray without ceasing — but let us pray in a spirit of perfect resignation to the will of God. Happy is it for us, better than all bodily comfort; better than health itself, when the power of Christ rests upon us; when in weakness we are made strong; when we feel the grace of God sufficient, and are able to rejoice in our Savior!