The Humble Apostle
Today is part three of a conversation about pain from a biblical viewpoint. Today, we’re going to explore how Paul’s thorn in the flesh was beneficial.
Years ago, Mom and Dad went to someone’s house for supper. Our hosts had children and after supper, my brothers, our friends, and I began running through the yard. I had a jab of pain in my thumb, and I looked down to see that I had picked up a thorn from a rose bush in the front yard. Terrified, I wanted my Mommy, I ran to her, and she removed the thorn.
Paul wanted his thorn removed, too. He didn’t cry for his Mommy, but he cried to his Lord. Three times the Apostle pleaded with the Lord to remove the thorn, but Jesus knew better. Instead of removing the thorn, the Christ promised to be with Paul and to aid him. Paul needed the thorn in the flesh, and his thorn would remain.
Paul had great visions; he had been caught up to the third heaven. He did not know whether he was in the body or out of the body, but he knew what surpassingly great revelations he had witnessed. Paul, the Lord knew, stood in danger of becoming conceited because of his trip to paradise.
Pride offers no benefits but greatly harms. When Naboth refused to sell his vineyard to Ahab, Jezebel stroked Ahab’s pride by reminding him that he was king of Israel; he would, Jezebel said, receive Naboth’s vineyard; and Naboth, Ahab, and Jezebel all died because Jezebel aroused Ahab’s pride (1 Kgs 21). “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” Nebuchadnezzar asked before he was sentenced to live as a wild beast in the field for seven periods of time (Dan 4:30, ESV). Haman became enraged when Mordecai refused to bow down to him (Est 3:5); Haman built gallows upon which to hang Mordecai (Est 5:9-14), but Haman himself was hanged on those gallows (Est 7:7-10).
Paul was vital to the spread of God’s word as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Jesus could not permit His servant to be overcome with pride. Thus, Paul had a thorn in the flesh to humble him.
Is it possible that God permits our suffering to keep us humble? I’d never claim to know the will of God outside what He has revealed in holy writ; however, think about some ways suffering can keep us humble:
Illness will drive your knees down before the Father in prayer (Js 5:14-15). As we are bowed in prayer waiting on Him to answer, we learn He is God and we are not.
I am one of the most stubborn people on the face of the planet, and my pride has caused me to refuse assistance and to seek to do everything myself. But, I have come to a point where I need the assistance of others: I’ve had to use a cane, I’ve had to use handicap entrances (and at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, that entrance is around back; I can’t go through the front like “normal” folks), and I’ve been pushed in a wheelchair (it was humbling to see friends at Polishing the Pulpit while I was being pushed by Mom and Dad in a chair; I did want to have a race with Dr. Tom Holland in his scooter, but he would have been faster).
I can no longer do some activities I love. A sweet couple, a brother and sister in the Lord, have a Super Bowl party every year in their basement; I didn’t go last year as badly as I would have loved to — going down their basement steps was out of the question. I’ve had to learn that I am not Superman and, therefore, I cannot do everything I’d like.
There are few things more humbling than hearing doctors give bad news — “There is no cure.” “There isn’t much more I can do.” “I don’t know what we can do about the pain.” And, if I may be brutally honest, nothing works right from the waist down and my doctors know me far more than anyone would ever wish; I had to get over the embarrassment, be humbled, and deal with it.
I’m not supposed to talk about it, I know. Yet, my neurological condition has caused the wiring in my brain not to work properly, and that’s led to mental illness. I have seen psychologists off and on for nearly twenty years, I’ve taken antidepressants and antipsychotics for years, and my mental health issues have embarrassed and hurt those whom I love. Realizing you cannot think as clearly as you ought, even when you can put “Dr.” in front of your name, is most humbling.
I am “Dr. Imel” and my dissertation is used at Ohio State to teach doctoral students how to do qualitative research; I ought to be full of answers and capable of discovering answers. Yet, in my illness, I have almost no answers.
You may think it strange that I would mention photographs as an humbling experience, but they are for me. My smile is lopsided, it doesn’t look right, and it embarrasses me. In some pictures, I look terribly unhappy because I’ve chosen to have a serious expression rather than expose my crooked smile.
These are some of the ways I have been humbled with my illness. How have you been humbled by adversity?
May we always seek to walk humbly with our God as He walks with us!
In writing this article, I have not referenced verses where Paul discusses his thorn in the flesh. If you want the references, please read 2 Corinthians 12. Reading Scripture for yourself is always a great blessing.
I quote Js 5:14-15 above. For the purposes of full transparency, I believe the sickness discussed is spiritual in nature.