Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, have you ever had a sliver? I’m guessing that one point or another each one of us has had the experience of having a sliver. Some slivers are nice and easy to get out and you have immediate relief. Other slivers, though, pierce the skin and get underneath the skin and you can’t see it, but it’s there, you don’t know exactly where it is, but its underneath the skin and whatever you try to do, you feel it, it bothers you- maybe it’s in your hand or your foot- it’s a constant source of pain and constant reminder that something is not right.
In our text this morning the apostle Paul tells us about a “thorn” in his flesh. Do you have such a thorn? Each one of us here has such a thorn or thorns in our flesh. Things we struggle with, things that make life difficult, constant reminders of weaknesses, things that plague our hearts, trouble our minds, thorns in the flesh.
And as we walk through this incredible text from God’s Word, let’s answer these questions about this thorn in the flesh: What is it? Why is it? What good is it? What do you do with it?
First, what is it? Notice that Paul never tells us exactly what this “thorn in the flesh” is. He doesn’t define it. It’s vague. There has been quite a few suggestions about what this thorn might have been. Some have suggested that it was something physical: maybe he had poor eyesight, maybe he had some sort of a speech impediment, maybe he had epilepsy, maybe he was disfigured in some way (after all, he had been stoned and left for dead). Or, maybe it was some sin that he was constantly tempted to like bitterness or anger or guilt. Or was it an altogether spiritual thorn, perhaps the temptation to despair that poked and prodded his conscience as he considered his former life of self-righteousness and persecuting the church? We don’t know. And what a wonderful thing that we don’t know exactly what this thorn was! If he had told us what the thorn was, we’d say, “Well, that’s not me.” But since he doesn’t tell us what it is, everybody can read themselves in here.
Whatever this thorn was, it made life difficult for Paul. Whatever it was, it tormented him. Whatever it was, he pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away. And everyone here has such thorns in the flesh. We each have that pain of body or soul that never completely goes away. It’s a constant threat, a constant reminder of our weaknesses, a constant struggle. And just like the apostle Paul, I’m going to leave it vague. I don’t want to define it because each of us needs to think about our own life- what is it that makes you feel weak? What is it that makes you miserable in life? What is it that is a constant source of pain, like a sliver, like a thorn, poking and prodding and hurting? You’re not alone. The apostle Paul had it too. He pleaded with God 3 times to take it away.
That’s what is it. Now, why is it? What’s the purpose? Why should God give this thorn? Allow this thorn? In order to answer this question, let’s jump to the gospel lesson this morning for a minute. In the gospel, these new apostles that Jesus has just chosen are watching Jesus as crowds of people from all over had come to hear Jesus, come to be healed, come to be cured, everyone is trying to touch him, power is coming from him. It looks great! It looks wonderful! Then Jesus looked at his disciples and told them, “Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you, insult you and reject you.” What?? And now think about the apostle Paul. He had seen Jesus, been instructed by Jesus, persevered in persecution and hardships, received direct revelations from God, wrote a good share of the NT under verbal inspiration, and beyond all of that, just before our text we’re told that he was even able to see heaven while he was still alive, he had a vision of heaven that he couldn’t even use human words to describe!
But what could have easily happened to Paul? Two things could have easily happened: people could have started to think that the church is so great because Paul is so great. OR, Paul could have started to think the church was so great because HE was so great. So, “to keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” And what could too easily happen to you and me? When everything is good, when everything is fine, when life is just one good thing after another good thing, when health is good, when the bank account is full, when everybody loves me, when there are no problems, no difficulties, no struggles, then why would I need God? I’m doing just fine on my own thank you! I must be some pretty good stuff! Why should I need to run again and again to God’s Word for strength? Why would I need Jesus and Jesus only for my life? I’m pretty good! Ah…but then…ouch, the thorn in the flesh. I see my weakness, my failure, my desperate need for Jesus.
And that leads us to our third question: what good is it? The Lord’s answer to Paul’s request to take it away was this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” What is the one thing alone that is needed in life? What is the one thing alone that is sufficient? What is the one thing alone that is everything for this life and for the next? What is the one thing alone that should you have it, nothing else in all of life matters? Grace! The fact that God freely chooses to love you, He freely chooses to love you for His own reasons that have nothing to do with any good you have done or will do. In Christ He did everything, absolutely everything, for your eternal salvation. He even ruled all of history so that you would come to know the love of God for you in Christ Jesus who died for your sins and rose from the dead.
So, here’s this thorn. It keeps hurting. It keeps knocking me down under it’s weight. It keeps crushing me. It keeps bringing me back to the cross of him who loved me and gave himself up for me in His grace. And if that’s true, what a wonderful thing this thorn is! And what else? “My power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s weaknesses, his struggles, his difficulties, his imprisonments, were all proof that people were brought to faith not because Paul was such a great person or a great speaker or a great leader, but all was God’s power at work! And that’s true for you and for me. I am who I am not because I’m such a great person, not because I’ve done such great things, not because I’m so successful, my thorns keep reminding me of that, but because of God’s grace and His grace alone. If each of us was to write an autobiography of our lives, we couldn’t do much better than having this for the title: “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Lastly, what do you do with it? I don’t know what thorns are causing you pain today. I don’t know if you’ll ever have relief from them until you get to heaven. Paul pleaded that the Lord would take his thorn away three times and Jesus said, “No.” But here’s the way you handle the thorns. We’re told that the thorn is a messenger of Satan. That means when a bad thing happens to you, Satan attaches a message to it. It’s like email. When you send an email, you can attach something to it. Satan attaches his message to this thorn. Perhaps it’s not so much the thorn that hurts but the message that Satan attaches to it. He attaches a discouraging message to the thorn: “How could God love you and allow this? You’re finally getting it for all the bad things you’ve done in life. God doesn’t care about you, if He cared about you, why would you suffer like this?” See, he’s attaching his message to it. But notice what Paul discovered. He discovered that God also had a message attached to this thorn in Paul’s life. When thorn or problem comes into your life, say, “There’s a message from Satan in this, and there’s a message from God. My discouragement or my strengthening will depend on which message I listen to.”
If you listen to Satan’s message, you’ll be discouraged: You’re terrible, you’re a failure, God doesn’t love you. But strength comes from listening to God’s message: “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Your greatest blessings in life are not based on you, what you’ve done, what you’ve accomplished, what your outward circumstances are. Your greatest blessings are the things that drive you again and again and again to realize that God’s grace IS sufficient, God’s grace IS everything, God’s grace is all you need, and God’s grace is what you have on the best days as well as the worst and everything in between. Amen.