I'm not sure why; but, as I was praying yesterday morning, St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh came to mind.” I tried to remember what Jesus said to Paul after the apostle’s prayers for relief went unanswered. The phrase that came to mind was, “In suffering, you are perfected.” It didn’t sound right, but…those words…there was something to them. Were they true? Was that the gist of what Jesus said to Paul? I was getting ready for work as I prayed, so it was another hour before I had a chance to check the Bible. Reading Paul’s account again, I am touched both by its richness and how much Paul’s experience resonates with me. Let’s look at it:
“[T]o keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
Isn’t it significant that Paul never disclosed the specifics of his thorn in the flesh? Many have speculated that it was an illness – others, a persecution. By leaving it undisclosed, however, the Holy Spirit allows us to more easily project our own sufferings and difficulties onto the thorn.
Like Paul, all of us have surely had the experience of praying for relief from some difficulty or suffering, only to have it continue on for an extended period. So what did Jesus say to Paul, and what does He wish to say to us? Is it akin to saying that God can perfect us through suffering?
Jesus’ actual words to Paul were, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I think we are justified in equating “weakness” with suffering, especially since Paul went on to link it with examples of suffering – hardships and calamities. Jesus spoke of “grace,” or “my power”, being perfected during Paul’s experience of suffering. Paul was forced to fall back upon the Lord – the very thing he and all of us need to do if we are to grow to maturity. It is, after all, Christ’s life that we are called to live; and that flows not from ourselves, but from Him.
I have to wonder if Jesus’ message to Paul didn’t lie behind the apostle’s own message to the Philippians:
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ...and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:8-11).
You see, when we suffer, when we endure the Cross in union with Jesus, we are taking on His image in the most profound of ways. When our petitions for deliverance are met with the same silence His were in Gethsemane, and we obediently continue on with faith in the Father’s love for us, this is when we are truly conformed to the Master. Our life’s goal is being realized; we are being perfected…in the midst of that suffering.
Paul went on to say one more mysterious thing in his account of the thorn, that I want to draw to your attention. He wrote how he came to be content in his suffering, because it was “[f]or the sake of Christ.” Paul was the one being strengthened as he was infused with Christ’s grace, and yet it is somehow “for the sake of Christ.” I would suggest that this is linked to the mystery of redemptive suffering that Paul later wrote about in his epistle to the Colossians:
"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).
There is much for us to meditate on here. I look forward to your comments.