November 10, 2012

A Glorious Rose Among Thorns

God gives us exactly what we need as believers to move us forward in our spiritual walk. Sometimes this is blessing, often it is suffering. Nothing more correctly shows our spiritual state than how we react under duress, pain and suffering. I have found that there is a direct correlation between blessings and sufferings. If you are not suffering...something is wrong with your life. Suffering is common to all people and expected. Blessings are not common to all men and it is assured that if you get them, they come from God for reasons He in His sovereignty decides.  

I have observed that God gives us blessings but they often come at a price to assure those blessings do not end up cursing us or making us prideful and conceited. Having things constantly given to you easily tends to skew one's perception of life or reality. When it comes time to scale the sheer faces of adversity, we end up incapable of doing so because our path has been cleared for us and we become lazy and spiritually weak. It can lead one to believe everything will be easy or worse...that they deserve the blessings they have received in abundance. When the hard times hit people are consumed by them and subsequently destroyed by them. We get blessings solely due to God's abundant grace. We see a massive misunderstanding of this in many Prosperity Gospel preachers and even in the seeker-sensitive evangelical folds. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We deserve the wrath of God and it is only through Jesus that we are freed from the wrath due us in God's judgement. This wrathful aspect is often downplayed if not hidden outright by many churches that are afraid of driving marginal Christians or non-believers away with unadulterated truth. It is only through grace that we are free. I believe Paul found the same in 2 Corinthians 12 with his thorn in the flesh.

1 Corinthians 12:1-10 ~ "I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassing great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships,in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

When we look closely at Paul's statement here to the Corinthians we see the interesting dichotomy of having seen heaven and the opposite - to perform the unsavory act of boasting to make a point. He then immediately moves to saying he will not do this other than to boast in his weaknesses. Say what? He doesn't like boasting but he does so to show that by boasting it makes one prideful and being prideful one needs to be humbled. Because God has huge plans for Paul, God sends him suffering - a thorn in the flesh. Make no mistake about it, this may be a messenger of Satan that torments him but it is clearly God who allows it. Nothing happens in God's Creation without His knowing it and allowing it. Why did God allow or send this ἄγγελος Σατανᾶ/aggelos Satana an angel or messenger of Satan? I just told keep Paul humble. The text in the passage tells us it was..."in order to keep me from becoming conceited" In the eternal scale of things, outside of Jesus Christ himself, Paul plays a massive and pivotal role for all Christian believers. 

In terms of importance Paul's role in Christianity is as paramount as Joseph's was in the Old Testament. In Joseph's story we see the same...evil or suffering that is eventually meant for good for a multitude of people. If God is anything He is certainly efficient. He gets the most bang for His buck through people like Paul and Joseph. If Jesus is the role model of perfectly righteous behavior then Paul's actions and writings show us the application of Jesus' teachings in a "normal" person's sinful and flawed life. Yes, for certain, God had huge plans for Paul. He couldn't let Paul's head get too swelled and let Paul become too arrogant and prideful. Paul was much too important to be overly blessed...Paul would need to suffer for our sake...just like Jesus.

What do we see as being the answer to the suffering and Paul's prayer? Grace. The unsung hero of God's mercy and love. A thing that many or most Christian's routinely abuse because of an inability to control their sinning or they just don't understand it. Grace, which allows us to take the breath that we now take without God having exacted punishment on us that we so rightly deserve for our wicked sinful nature. In our suffering and weakness God's grace is elevated to a place or proper prominence. Is it difficult for us? Yes, of course it is. God never promise pleasant journey, only a pleasant destination for obedience and faith in Christ and the Gospel. Paul understood this so well that not only did he end of accepting his thorn, which he never speaks of again in Scripture, he actually states that he begins to delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships,in persecutions, in difficulties. Paul finally arrives at the place we need to to better recognize our spiritual condition. He then realizes that, when he is weak, he is then strong. By becoming dependent on God he has become independent of the world. To become more useful for those still imprisoned through sin in this world he must become totally dependent on Someone outside this world Who is not of this world (John 17:16). This world which is the source of Paul's and our suffering. 

Everyone always worries about what the thorn was in Paul's flesh...blindness, disease, etc...they miss the point of this passage.The focus of the reader should be on the "flesh". Paul's condition doesn't necessarily need to be "bodily", it needs to be of the flesh or something that can affect him as a person--mind or body as opposed to soul or spirit. That which is of this realm, not that of our eternal destination. It is a thing of this world and this existence physically. The true things of God are spiritual. The Bible says this over and over. Paul clearly understood this and states this earlier in 2 Corinthians 5:1.

"Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands."

When we focus on things not of the flesh but rather on the eternal things of God, we become dependent on Him and our dependency and focus begins to shift to the eternal righteous things of God. In so doing we become independent of the world and the temporary suffering and pain of this life shifts into perspective. It becomes less significant or it begins to become insignificant on the eternal scale. We see it for what it is: temporary, physical and a product of sin and evil...all of which will not be in Heaven or our eternal residence. If we focus on the pain it locks us into a circular dead-end that allows no relief or reprieve from a fallen sin-tainted world. We are cyclically locked into a maddening spiral of sin and suffering. A demon's trap if I ever did see one. 

I admit it is a paradox. I do not understand it fully. Suffering here helps us focus on salvation there. God does understand this though and on the eternal scale of things...I am comfortable with this. I curse and rant and rave when the waves of suffering and pain continue to roll over my family and I but I also pray vehemently that God will continue to bless my family with grace upon grace as this is the fuel of life that gets us through to the end. It is the sort of paradox that is similar to a savior that would be killed by the very one's He was trying to save. Sinful men that would, among other things, stick a crown of thorns in his flesh and nails in His limbs. Flesh that would one day become σῶμα πνευματικόν or a spirit body...commonly understood as a Resurrection body or that which would rise from the grave on the third day after being buried in a tomb.

God's grace...the rose among thorns…and sometimes…the very thorns themselves.

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