The knee-jerk reaction to trouble is usually to pray our way out of it.
And so we may. At least we may try. But troubles can be friends as well as enemies. Tears enrich us more than laughter. Tough times grow us faster than easy times. If we are inclined to pray hard times away, we may find ourselves praying away a friend not a foe, a help not a
To pray things away puts us in good company. Here is an example from one of
the aristocracy of Scripture, the Apostle Paul who describes coming under attack with
what he calls, ‘a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me’. (The whole
story is in 2 Corinthians 12.7-10).
This is not just uncomfortable, but evil in its origin. It is, ‘a messenger of Satan’, and its intent is, ‘to torment me’. We might be intrigued to know what it actually was but all we are told is that it was, ‘a thorn in the flesh’. The word ‘flesh’ probably means it was a physical ailment or disability. It could also mean some moral weakness or struggle, for ‘flesh’ is a word Paul uses to describe the distorted nature of fallen human beings. It could, I suppose, have been something circumstantial. I am glad he didn’t say, or we would say we have a scripture only for that particular struggle. If he was going blind (he suggests he was in one of his letter),
we would say we have a passage for people going blind! But he doesn’t, he uses an
ambiguous term because one size fits all! It may be any dilemma or a multitude of them.
You may have something similar. It likely comes under the category of ‘If only…’.
If only I didn’t have this disability! If only my work was different! If only I had different
neighbors! If only my wife would change! If only my kids behaved differently! If only I
had more money. If only I didn’t struggle with this weakness! ‘If only … fill in the blank!
Then I would be a much better person than I am now.
Faced with his thorn, Paul does the obvious thing. ‘Three times I pleaded with the
Lord to take it away from me’. It is evil, it torments me, so Lord, please, please take it
away. Three times he did this, which surely doesn’t mean he prayed three prayers, one
at morning, one at noon and one at night, but that over three periods of time, he
engaged in urgent intercession. He pleaded for what he believed to be the obvious,
logical thing, that God take away this thing that has been given him by Satan. Evidently,
during the first two periods of praying he saw no action and heard no answer. His prayer
But when he prayed the third time, his ears were more open than his mouth and
he heard God speak. ‘He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is
made perfect in weakness.”
Paul, this thorn is a source of great weakness to you, but I have a more vested interest in your weakness than I do in your strength. You have demonstrated remarkable strengths and enjoyed marvelous experiences. But this tempts you to be self-sufficient, to assume your abilities and experiences of today create a momentum that will carry you over into tomorrow. To that extent, your strength tempts you to self-sufficiency and has become weakness.
The reason he was given this thorn was to ‘keep me from being conceited’. He
had just written about an amazing out-of-the-body experience in which he had been
caught up to paradise. He tells us he had received, ‘surpassingly great revelations’. He
could boast about that, he wrote, and it would be the truth. But his experience might just
make him a little too pleased with himself, pleased enough to become conceited, to
enjoy the pat on the back, the pedestal to stand on and the congratulations of adulators.
He would be humble about it of course, but with a measure of satisfaction that it was
So, the tactic of his Master was to allow the delivery of ‘a thorn in my flesh’, something to slip through the net as, ‘a messenger of Satan’, designed ‘to torment me’. The thing he might have expected protection from, the thing that aroused a chorus of prayer for deliverance from, is allowed to remain. God’s answer is, ‘My grace… my power….’ It is enough! His answer was not the elimination of the thorn, but the addition of his presence in the dilemma and His grace for the struggle.
Jesus Christ, as an article in our creed, is not a lot of use to us in trouble. Jesus
Christ as the crucial piece of a doctrinal jigsaw, is still not a lot of use to us in trouble. If
Jesus Christ is simply the patron of our Christianity, in whose name we seek to live it, He will not be enough in time of trouble. It is the living Jesus Christ with whom we must
engage. He is not only the giver of life, He is himself the Life that He gives. It is His life
Paul declares to be his strength. It is the presence and strength of God that he is to
trust. He doesn’t have to see an outcome to that trust that makes everything make
sense, but he does have to trust. The acknowledgment of our weakness creates the
measure of our dependence, and the measure of our dependence leads to the
experience of his strength.
Most of us want to find a solution to our problems. We want our difficult stories to
have an ending we can understand and explain, preferably a happy one. Paul doesn’t
come to an explanation of his thorn. I assume he continued to live with it, and it
continued to plague him. But he has a massive change of perspective. He writes,
‘Therefore, (because of His presence) I will boast all the more gladly about my
weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me’. The very thing I was asking God to
deliver me from, is now the very thing I will boast about! Not begrudgingly, but with
delight: ‘I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.
For when I am weak, then I am strong’. Who but a masochist delights in weakness,
insults, hardships and persecutions? A person who has learned to relate their
circumstances to God, to find strength in God and who is trusting his presence not just
on the sunlit uplands, but in the tough dark valley.
What would you change if you could? I wonder what hurts, disappointments and
fears rise up to haunt and oppress you? It is very true that some may change because
they can and need to. But some may not. What then? We may ask God to take them
away, and He may, or He may not. But whatever He does, His presence and grace
come into our weakness and we rest in Him.
Annie Flint, in her young days, had the ability and ambition to become a concert
pianist. But in her late twenties she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis that
crippled her, leaving her twisted up in bed for many decades. Her fingers became so
gnarled by arthritis that she was unable to hold a pen. She developed cancer of some
internal organs, became incontinent, and started to go blind. She battled bedsores and
discomfort at a time before there was much relief for pain, dying at the age of 64 in
She faced decades of suffering, but learned what Paul learned about his thorn in the flesh, and she wrote a hymn that expressed it beautifully:
He gives more grace when the burdens grow greater,
He sends more strength when the labors increase;
To added afflictions He adds His mercy,
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.
Refrain: His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He gives, and gives, and gives again.
When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
Charles and his team are putting together a YouTube channel of his preaching, broadcast on Living Truth from The Peoples Church in Toronto.To watch more of Charles’ preaching, visit: www.youtube.com/c/CharlesPriceMinistry/videos
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By Charles Price
About the author
Charles Price serves as the ‘Minister at large’ at the People’s Church I Toronto, Canada.
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