2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Saint Paul’s self-revelation about his “thorn in the flesh” is quite mysterious. Whatever this suffering is, Saint Paul has been praying fervently that this “thorn” be extracted from him, but to no avail. There are two mysteries here. For one, we don’t know what this “thorn” is. We’re never told anything further; however, that fact has not stopped endless speculation down through the centuries what the thorn might be. Is Saint Paul’s “thorn” something related to his family of origin, to his good standing in the synagogue, to someone who is out to get him, or who won’t forgive him, or who won’t respect him? Is the “thorn” related to his physical or mental health, to his sexuality, to an addiction, to an unmet desire of his heart? We have no idea, other than that it is very painful.
Saint Paul is writing an open letter to a local church. The letter hit home. The letter was saved, copied by hand, and widely circulated for more than two hundred years, only gaining in authority as the years passed. The letter was ultimately recognized as belonging to the Canon of Holy Scripture. Why was this personal letter saved, circulated, and so revered? Because Saint Paul wrote of a truth that others can relate to. He’s not just telling his story; he’s telling our story. Everyone has their own version of a thorn or thorns in the flesh that don’t go away. Thorns are very painful.
All of us are confronted in life with painful things we would never have chosen, and where we feel powerless. Whether the pain is related to our family, our health and wellbeing, our relationships, our abilities or disabilities, our sense of injustice or shame – whatever – the hand we’ve been dealt in life includes cards we would not have chosen. For many people, this is a secret affliction, maybe a shame, something we don’t talk about much, don’t reveal any more than Saint Paul does. But life’s thorns are very real, and are very painful. For many people with an imbedded affliction, they pray. This may be you? You pray. You pray fervently, maybe desperately. You pray for an extraction; you pray for healing; you pray that a door open or that a door close; you pray that you receive something, or that you be relieved of something. You pray these prayers for yourself, or for someone you love, or for someone you hate. Speaking from my own personal experience, I know these prayers can be desperate. And how wonderful, how absolutely amazing, when it happens, when the answer comes just as we have prayed. But that’s not what Saint Paul is writing about here. He’s writing about when it doesn’t happen, when the “thorn” stays imbedded in your flesh or in your heart. And you probably know about this, too.
Saint Paul suffered a great deal in life, clearly. So much of his writing comes out of the crucible of suffering: his suffering and, he presumes, ours. The secret he does reveal about facing suffering, and surviving and thriving through life’s suffering, is what he calls God’s “grace.” The Greek word for grace literally means “favor.”[i] The Greek word for “grace” is God’s bending or stooping in kindness to us, in care and provision for us, oftentimes in a way beyond what we could have asked for or imagined.[ii] Grace is amazing. Saint Paul writes of what he personally experienced of God: God’s grace will provide what we need. The revelation he received from Jesus, he’s convinced also pertains to us: “My grace is sufficient for you.” Do you find that believable? -No. Probably not.
I don’t think Saint Paul’s revelation to us about God’s gracious provision is believable when we are living with our own overwhelming personal problems, or pain, or poverty, or persecution, or powerlessness, and there’s no end in sight. How can God’s grace be sufficient? It’s not believable. Unless you’ve had the experience in the past of God’s provision coming out of nowhere. If you’ve been at the end of your rope, to the pit of your despair, where life is unmanageable or overwhelming… and then something happened, some kind of provision came, nothing less than miraculous, then you know about this. That’s the “grace” that Saint Paul is talking about here. Life is steeped in God’s amazing grace. Charles Péguy, the French poet and spiritual writer, called this the insidiousness of God’s grace: “Grace is insidious. When it doesn’t come straight it comes bent, and when [grace] doesn’t come bent it comes broken. When [grace] doesn’t come from above it comes from below.”[iii] Grace is insidious. Saint Paul had his own experience of this, and he’s convinced God’s grace is also for you.
Understanding God’s grace is not something we can be taught. We come to know about God’s grace only by experience, and grace, when experienced, is fraught with wonder. If you look back on your own life, you will recognize God’s grace. There’s no other explanation for how you made it this far in life. If you look back on your own life, you’ll get in touch with miracle. And you are the miracle. How have you made it to this point in life, given all the givens? There has been provision, and this is what Saint Paul calls grace, amazing grace, in your past that has sustained you to the present.
But what about the future? What about the future you anticipate with so many challenges and the inevitable suffering – yours and others’ – that is beyond your power or control. What about where you feel so small and the challenges of life ahead loom so large? Saint Paul gives us a word for grace-in-the-future. Grace in the future is “hope.” Hope for the future comes from copying and pasting your experience of grace from the past. The word “hope” in the New Testament means “expectation, trust, confidence” for the future.[iv] Hope saves us in the face of what is unknown, what we cannot yet see ahead. Hope is an intransitive verb; hope does not take an object. We don’t hope for what we can see or name. As Saint Paul reminds us, “For in hope we [are] saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”[v] The seeds of hope for the future are sown in your past. You have hope for the future, not because you’ve got it under control, but because you know God’s gracious provision in the past will also pertain to the future. Hope for the future is not about seeing, but about knowing that you will have the provision you need because this is the way it’s been in your past.
If you are anxious about the future, you’ve gotten ahead of yourself. It’s not that we never anticipate the future, never make plans for the future, never have foresight about the future. Quite to the contrary. (You wouldn’t be here this morning if you hadn’t made some plans to get out of bed this morning.) We certainly anticipate the future, but we’ve gone too far, we’ve crossed a line, when our anticipation of the future has turned into a menagerie of anxiety. That’s where we need hope. Hope is not about seeing the future; hope is about knowing there will be provision for the future just as there has been in the past. Not to worry. Saint Paul writes, “For in hope we are saved,” saved from what we are not yet ready or readied to face in life.[vi]
Will the future for you be difficult? Probably. Life is difficult. You haven’t gotten this far in life without knowing that life is difficult. And life is also amazing, don’t you know? Saint Paul becomes so sure of this – both about the suffering inherent in life and about God’s amazing provision – that he teems with confidence in the most difficult period of his entire lifetime. He writes: “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
The English word “hope” comes from the same etymological root as “hop.” To hop is a way of springing into the future with energy and confidence, not with fear, but with hope. You’ll be fine. Your life teems with God’s amazing grace. Just look backward and claim the miraculous provision you have experienced. This will continue. There’s hope for you.
[i]The Greek word, χάρις, and its derivatives appear more than 150 times in the New Testament.
[ii]“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:18-21)
[iii]Charles Péguy (1873-1914).
[iv]The Greek word “hope,” ἐλπίς, and its derivatives appear more than 50 times in the New Testament.
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