A Thorn in the Flesh Is a Choice

Last Sunday evening, Shawn preached a lesson on Paul’s thorn in the flesh.  In it, he noted that God could have prevented Paul’s suffering and chose not to, which is true.  He also observed that because of his suffering, Paul drew closer to God, which is also true.

However, as good sermons do, his sermon got me to thinking.  Even though suffering can draw Christians closer to God, it does not necessarily do so.  Indeed, sometimes it has the opposite effect.  Some Christians rise up to awe-inspiring heights of faith because of their suffering, but others plunge into an abyss of spiritual failure.

Suffering can be a blessing, certainly.  However, most fundamentally, suffering is a choice.  It will surely change us in accordance with its magnitude.  How it changes us is up to us.

Though we may not want to admit it, most of us, where we are, are not capable of dramatic change.  Once we’ve emerged from the tumults of adolescence and early adulthood, we typically find ourselves with our feet firmly planted on a particular path.

We like this.  Stability and predictability are reassuring.  The better things go, the more likely we are to stay on the same path with little change.

However, such a path is also a rut.  There are lots of good things that we are doing, but there are probably also ways that God wants us to grow and change, and if our lives are going well, we have no reason to do that.  We are content staying in our rut.  It’s a nice rut!  We like it here!

Enter suffering.  Suffering by its very nature is uncomfortable, indeed miserable.  Nobody likes suffering.  However, the shock of suffering also has the capacity of jolting us out of our rut.  When we suffer, dramatic change once again becomes possible.

This change is not always good.  Over the past 10 years, I’ve paid some attention to what happens to people who have a child die.  I’m concerned with how the other members of our grim little fraternity are faring.

Everybody changes.  Sometimes, the change is disastrous.  The loss of a child can lead people into atheism, alcoholism, adultery, and divorce.  Christians who to all appearances were doing well go completely off the rails after their collision with disaster.  They do things that they never would have contemplated before their loss.

Others change as dramatically in the other direction.  Unbelievers come to the Lord.  Believers learn humility, trust, and prayer.  In their suffering, they find the compassion to serve others.  They too do things they never would have contemplated before their loss, but they have become better instead of worse.

Free will is God’s great gift to mankind.  Alone of all the physical creation, we can choose whether we want to obey God.  We can choose to love Him.

Never is our will so free as when we suffer.  Never are we given such an opportunity to redefine our lives.  No matter what has gone before, suffering can put every option back on the table.

I’m quite certain that all the rulers of the spiritual realm are well aware of this.  I don’t know whether Job 1 records an actual conversation between God and Satan, or whether it’s a Revelation-style version of an incomprehensible reality that has been dumbed down to the point where we can comprehend it.  I do think, though, that our suffering is always preceded by such an exchange.  Satan demands the right to inflict suffering on us, and God allows it.  Both act to promote their own purposes for us, and both know what’s at stake.

Often, we don’t.  In the midst of pain, we have trouble seeing purpose.  Our suffering nudges us in some direction, and we go that way, not because we intend to, but because it seems easiest.  When we don’t seek some higher spiritual meaning in our suffering, the devil is most likely to win.

Suffering mindfully is hard.  It’s easy to conclude that a God who allows such misery must be either evil or nonexistent.  It’s difficult to acknowledge that He may well have some unseen end in mind.

However, this doesn’t reckon with the difference between God and us.  Who but God can think to say, “I am going to allow this beloved child of mine to face agony to produce some good in future.”?  God, however, says this all the time.  Indeed, He has said precisely this about His only begotten Son.  It is one of the hallmarks of His dealings with mankind.

I couldn’t do it.  It’s beyond me.  It’s not beyond God.

It’s even more difficult to determine to seek the good that God has in mind.  It’s hard to stay married when your child dies because you know that staying married is the right thing to do.  It’s hard to keep trusting and trusting and trusting when you keep hurting and hurting and hurting.

However, no one can refine metal without melting it.  If we feel like our very selves are being destroyed, yes, that’s exactly what is going on.  When we continue with God as long as we can, when we collapse on Him after we no longer can, we become the raw material that He needs to more fully work His will in us.

The process is painful, but the product can be glorious.

One thought on “A Thorn in the Flesh Is a Choice

  1. Hello, I’m responding not to this post but to ask a question about your hymn “Exalted.”

    A few years ago I was introduced to this song which I now lead in our worship at Acklen Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville. I also teach at Lipscomb University and use this song in a class on Faith and the Arts as an example of how music and lyrics work together to create meaning. I have read your article elsewhere on your writing this song, and appreciate the insight into your creative process, which I also share with my students. I do have one question. I would like your thoughts on the words “Loved within belief.” Could you expand on your intended meaning of this phrase? I would appreciate hearing from you by email.

    Thank you (and the composer) for such a wonderful contemporary hymn.

    Larry Brown


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