"So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with 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." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon me." 2 Corinthians 12: 7-9
There's some debate about the "thorn" that Paul references in this passage. The opinions generally fall into two camps, one being that the thorn was a physical infirmity and the other that it was an area of sin (or the temptation to sin) that Paul struggled with. I side with the thought that this was a sin struggle for a couple of reasons. First of all, throughout Scripture, when the word "flesh" is used it is most often referring to our sin nature. It doesn't make sense to me that Paul would use the same word here to mean something else. My other thought is that when we see pride in believers it often presents itself as self righteousness in relation to our performance morally more so than in relation to our physical bodies, not to say that we cant be self righteous about our bodies, however.(I realize that I don't generally jump into exegesis, but stick with me, I promise I'm headed somewhere.)
Seeing it this way makes Paul more human to me, which he was, and it gives me hope that the things I struggle with and that tempt me are being used by God to glorify Himself. It comforts me to know that I don't have to be perfect in order for God to show Himself through me and that he uses my own thorns to keep me close to Him.
Nevertheless, recently Jesus opened my eyes to a whole other kind of thorn that is neither physical, nor spiritual. It is a thorn that a friend of mine has no power within herself to overcome and it presents itself daily like a constant reminder of her dependence on others and ultimately her dependence on Christ. All of our thorns are like that, it just isn't always so obvious.
If you know me at all you know that I am not easily shocked by people's stories. My own past (and often present) was a dark ugly mess that Jesus saved me from. I lived through some hard things that hurt me deeply and I did some really horrible things that hurt others. When people share their stories with me, I am most often calm and able to engage in the conversation without much reaction at all other than to affirm their experiences and assure them that I see them no differently and love them just the same. God has gifted me in this area and often uses it to let me let people know that they are heard and that their stories matter.
I genuinely cherish that God has given me these opportunities and for that reason I often enter into relationships with people as a very open book. I was born with a deep desire to know and be known and the times in my life when I felt I couldn't be authentic have often been the most difficult for me. I feel intensely lonely when I cannot be honest, yes, even brutally honest, about who I am and what I am going through. I force myself to be transparent because I believe deep down we all want to be loved and accepted for who we really are, no matter how messy that may be.
And, ya know, we all have thorns. When I share my story and others privilege me with their's, I am often reminded that the ground is level at the foot of the Cross and the same blood was shed for us all. As a storyteller who has heard many stories I am not easily shocked. If we haven't dealt with it in our own home, I probably know someone who has. I get that life is hard and am not afraid of a hard conversation. I felt pretty confident, maybe even prideful about the fact that I truly thought I could not be shocked. At least not easily.
As we sat around the dinner table the other night sharing stories I even said those exact words when I sensed our new friends hesitate to be as open as I was. I made a joke about not being shocked by much and we all laughed and the conversation carried on. Just a few moments later Ephram came to the table with a book and asked my friend to read it to him. It had happened earlier in the evening and I noticed that she had the same look on her face as she did earlier. I interpreted it to mean that she wasn't sure if I would be ok with that. I then said, "If you want to read to him you certainly can, but if you'd rather just chat with us feel free to tell him no."
I was totally unprepared for her response. She looked at me and slowly mouthed the words,"I can't."
Again she mouthed, "I can't read."
It was clear to both of us that I was, in fact, shocked. I immediately felt terrible that I had lost my composure fearing that I sent her the message that I thought something was wrong with her. I apologized and sent Ephram to go read alone and did my best to enter back into the conversation with everyone else at the table. I clumsily moved on hoping she didn't feel like she was any less precious to me than before she shared her secret.
Don't get me wrong, we shared all manner of history that night. We opened up some hard stuff as we visited. We rejoiced in the ways that God had saved us and how He was continually changing us. It was authentic and real and good and I was grateful for it. However, for the first time in a long time I was reminded that when I rely on my own flesh to make people feel comfortable rather than the Holy Spirit, it will only be a matter of time until I fail. And fail I did.
You see, I am an avid reader. Along with that, I, obviously, love to write. I LOVE words. I love reading them and rhyming them and seeing how beautifully they can be put together to give voice to thoughts, hopes, dreams...fears. Growing up in a house filled with chaos and violence, I spent my time stringing words together to make sense of who I was and how I felt. I escaped into any book I could find and sometimes, on rare occasions, I even read my Bible.
It is terribly difficult for me to imagine my life any other way. My love of reading and writing is a deep part of my identity. Maybe even a bit too deep. At any rate, it was (is) certainly something I took for granted never even thinking to be grateful for it.
I've thought a lot about that short conversation since it happened. My natural tendency is to figure out how I can fix a situation. It's arrogant of me to think that way, but it's true. Nevertheless, the more I thought about it, the more the Holy Spirit reminded me of Paul's words, of the thorn in his flesh and how God used it for His glory.
I can't attempt to reflect on how this might be the case for my friend, but I can tell you that knowing this about her and reflecting on the implications increased my respect for her exponentially. We live in a culture that uses knowledge and education as measurements of status and power. Our society insists that we be independent and able to fend for ourselves lest we be shamed by our inabilities, our neediness. Yet, this is not the way of the Cross, it's not the the life that Jesus called us to. He calls on us to rely on Him fully and I realized that not having the ability to read well could cause a person to understand dependence in a very real way.
Our response to the Gospel is defined by our need for it. We don't get to Jesus through self-sufficiency, we come to him with nothing to offer completely trusting that His work provides for our salvation. This is a challenge for most Americans. We've been taught that our abilities increase our worth. We reward those who need nothing and depend on no one while we scorn those who have needs beyond what they can provide for themselves. Our self sufficiency sets in us the idea that we can save ourselves. And if you can save yourself, what do you need Jesus for?
Frankly, I imagine that if I couldn't read I would feel helpless. I don't know if that's how my friend feels but I am sure that needing help with something that seems to come so easy for everyone else is frustrating at best and at times even humiliating. And I can relate to those feelings on many levels. Yet imagining having to depend on others to gather information and navigate in a culture so dependent on the written word really gave me a glimpse into how pridefully independent I falsely believe I am.
I observed my sweet friend and her husband for the rest of the evening and was struck by how he must treat her with such dignity as she is obviously convinced that he loves and values her immensely. She's confident that she brings something to the table in their marriage no matter what challenges she brings as well. And I was humbled because that does say something about their relationship, but it also says something about her having a grasp on the fact that her identity is in Christ.
Don't get me wrong, I am aware of my own thorns but I don't think I am confronted with them daily in a real tangible way. Most often I plug along insisting on my own way, convincing myself that I am capable enough until disaster strikes and I am faced with a mess of my own doing. Not to say that my friend is immune to that, but this thorn of hers presents a challenge every day that requires her to ask for help in order to accomplish things most of us take for granted. Until that night, it had never once occurred to me to thank God that I could read because in my mind it was something I had learned to do on my own. The fact that God, Himself, gave me a brain equipped to learn to read never even crossed my mind. I arrogantly failed to acknowledge reading as a gift to steward and be thankful for. I wasn't identifying with Jesus, my identity was rooted in my confidence of my own mind.
And let me be extremely clear, this woman is an incredibly talented and creative individual. She is smart and has some keen insight about her own experiences that I couldn't even come close to when I was her age. The truth is, I might have loved to read anything I could get my hands on at that time in my life but I was completely ignorant of the fact that I needed Jesus. I dug myself an incredible pit that took years to recover from and I read my precious books all along the way. Being able to read well did not save me from that destruction, Jesus did.
As much as my conceited flesh wanted to pity her for this thorn, my heart envied her knowledge and familiarity with being dependent. That's what the Gospel is all about. It's about trusting someone else to do something for us that we cannot do on our own. I've lived my life convinced that I could do anything I set my mind to. Having to make peace with our neediness is an obstacle to the Cross for most of us. It has certainly been so for me.
Ironically, earlier in the evening we had made a "first world problem" joke, you know, the kind that reminds us how easy we have it here in America. I thought of that after they left and realized that we had been graced with the company of an American who actually knew something about a problem that went beyond living in a first world country. She's dealing with a hurdle that most of us cannot relate to and one that requires her to be honest about it in order to get the help that she needs. Nobody knows by looking at her that she struggles to read, she's got to confess it to them in order to get help. She's got to trust, rely, depend...every single day.
And that's what we're called to. Complete and utter dependence on the Holy Spirit in order to walk with Christ. Just like when we come to the Cross in need of that cleansing blood initially, we are to come to it every day reminded of the thorns that He allows to keep us dependent on Him because His Grace is sufficient and His Strength is made perfect in our weaknesses. In our neediness.
I pray that I can hear the Holy Spirit when my own thorns make me feel so inadequate. I pray that He gently reminds me that I am inadequate and that I do need Him and was never meant to do it alone. I pray for a daily reminder to depend on Him rather than my tendency to believe my own lies about being capable. I want to rest in being incapable. I want to make peace with being weak so that Jesus can be glorified and I can be more like Him and less, so much less, like me.