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THE THORNY ISSUE OF HUMAN SUFFERING

Over the years of keeping this blog, I’ve aimed to keep things real. Jesus kept it real when he talked about the Kingdom, and so do I. At the same time, I’ve steered clear of providing overly personal details. They just don’t belong on a public forum; too many bad actors lurking in the wings.

Paul, I think, also had the same informal policy of keeping things real while avoiding making his letters read like confessionals. So when he made a single reference to the “thorn in the flesh” he’d been suffering, the nature of that thorn instantly became a target of speculation.

Two thousand years later, we’re still wondering what it was.

Paul never went into detail about his “thorn”, other than to say he asked God three times to take it away and he refused. God’s reason for refusing Paul’s request was that his strength could work better through Paul’s weakness, and so the thorn remained lodged in Paul’s flesh (we can assume) until the day he went Home.

I mention all this because I’ve been going through some things over the past few weeks. It’s nothing serious, but it brought to mind Paul’s thorn. God doesn’t like to see his children suffer, but he also knows what’s best for us (and what’s best for us is to have God’s strength working through us at maximum capacity). Over the past couple of days, when my thorn started to expand in scope, I was like “Daddy, WTH??!” He laughed, as he always does at my total lack of self-filter (I keep things as real with God as I do with anyone else – no point in trying to hide my thoughts from someone who can read them), and he told me it’s for my benefit and I should just let it proceed. Considering there’s nothing that any human can do for my particular thorn, letting it proceed was my only alternative if prayers didn’t work, and so my own personal thorn in the flesh proceeds. For how long, I don’t know, but if it’s for life, it’s for life: It’s now entirely in God’s hands.

Instead of praying to God to take it away, I now pray to God to help me endure it without complaint (major challenge, that!). The less of me and the more of God, the better.

The role and purpose of suffering is not something that most believers want to talk about. Even some born-agains want to believe that God doesn’t want them sick or otherwise incapacitated, that he put doctors there for their benefit, and they should liberally avail themselves of their services. I don’t happen to agree with that mindset, as I’ve mentioned here over the years. If we come to a time of suffering and try to avoid it by running to doctors or other “experts”, all we’ll accomplish is to shift the suffering to another aspect of our lives. We don’t get out of due suffering because we reject it. And yes, God does permit us to suffer occasionally, as we see with Jesus and with Paul and with all the saints and martyrs throughout the ages. But he’ll take our earthly suffering, work through it, strengthen us, and then use it to our eternal benefit.

That’s not to say you should seek out suffering to get spiritual brownie points. You should never do that. Jesus didn’t seek out his time of suffering and in fact tried to find a way around it. Paul didn’t seek out his thorn and prayed to God to take it away. That is the natural, intuitive, and sane response to the prospect of suffering. Those who purposely look to suffer or pray for God to send them suffering – well, God might well give them what they’ve asked for, but there will be precious little redemptive quality in their pain. Asking God to make you suffer is just plain stupid; if you do that, you have your reward, as Jesus would say (and don’t expect anything else from God).

We live in an age when nearly every infirmity of the flesh can be overcome by medical or other interventions. That’s a shame, because most of the thorns God permits to impact us were intended for our benefit and for the benefit of those around us. Suffering teaches patient endurance and provokes charity in others. But if that’s true, why did Jesus heal so many people? Why didn’t he just let them suffer?

We know, from the case of the man whose blindness was healed, that Jesus performed many of his miracles to glorify God. They were meant as a sign that Jesus was sent from God and was the Prophet foretold by Moses in his farewell speech. Then what about their suffering? When Jesus healed them, did they lose their eternal benefit in suffering?

Not at all. God is faithful in everything he does. If he removes one type of suffering, he’ll replace it with another, if another is warranted. We can see that already with the man whose blindness was healed – he ended up being kicked out of the synagogue and becoming an outcast in his home and community, simply for telling the religious authorities that Jesus had healed him. So his suffering continued, just in a different way.

Likewise, the due suffering of those who’ve turned to worldly interventions to remove or mitigate their thorns will come out in another way. We cannot escape what we’ve earned: We either suffer now or we suffer later.

*****

Are you going through some form of suffering or weakness? Have you asked God to remove it or in some way mitigate it? If so, what was his response?

Accepting the measure of whatever God permits us to endure now ultimately pays it forward into our heavenly reward. If you have a thorn in your flesh, first ask God to remove it or at least to mitigate it; if God suggests you should instead learn to endure it so that he can work through it to strengthen you, take his advice.

Jesus did. Paul did.

So should we.