Spiritual fruits of dealing with 'the thorn in the flesh'
What do we do when God gives us a "thorn in the flesh?" (2 Cor 12:7-10). This can be a chronic infirmity, an intractable dilemma or whatever drives us to our knees and makes us cry out to our Lord.
First, each of us asks the inevitable "why me?" Then we struggle to come to grips with the reality surrounding this challenge in our lives. Finally we make one of two choices. We let the challenge dominate us — allow it to become a burden. We let it define us and become an obstacle, which prevents us from doing what God calls us to do and becoming what he calls us to become. Or we use the thorn as a reason to seek God's face and ask for his grace and mercy. The thorn represents an opportunity for us to trust God and rely on Christ's loving presence. Let's look more closely at the spiritual fruits of dealing with this thorn in the flesh.
Grace is a gift — one we can request — one our doctrine tells us God is particularly willing to grant when we are in need. It is God's grace that can sustain us through the toughest parts of our challenging journey. It is God's grace that can give us hope when there is seemingly no reason for hope. God's grace can help and guide us every step of the way.
Next is patience — willingness to wait on the Lord. If we are perpetually comfortable — if we always have what we want — if we never want for anything — it is doubtful that we would ever come to God in need. We have what we need. We don't need to wait for God's provision.
"…but those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" (Isaiah 40:31).
Life's challenges also help us to develop humility. When we are confronted with a challenge that is beyond human wisdom and scientific or medical remedies, it forces us to admit that there are circumstances beyond our control. Such situations cause us to face our own helplessness and seek a power that surpasses human understanding. We seek God.
In addition to humility, challenges allow us to more fully develop empathy. If we have never experienced suffering, we have no sense of what is entailed in that defining human emotion. We might imagine it, but the truth is we do not know suffering. Neither are we able to identify with those who suffer. Though increasing our empathy may not seem like a good reason to receive a thorn in the flesh, it does deepen our humanity and, in that way, enriches our lives.
Our challenges give us opportunities to take our burdens to Christ. Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart … For my yoke is easy and my burden is light"(Matt 11:28-30). We seldom take advantage of his offer because we believe we can handle our challenges on our own. Once we've been there/done that — we know better.
Finally, dealing with life's challenges allows us to deepen trust — to strengthen faith. Challenges can cause us to confront what we really believe. Do we believe that God exists? Do we believe that God is good? Do we believe that he loves us more than we love ourselves? Challenges can cause us to rely on our faith and put actions behind it.
Can we manage to accept the challenges that God allows in our lives without letting them become burdens or obstacles to our relationship with him or others? Can we use those challenges to learn and grow — to seek him and the strength that he offers us in our faith communities? If we can answer "yes," then we will have found a way to honor the "gift" of that challenge, return it to our Creator with an increase (in the form of all that we've learned) and perhaps be able to truly and honestly give thanks for it when all is said and done. Amen.
(Walt Sears has been a lay ecclesiastical minister in Oakland. He is now director of Faith Formation and Evangelization at Blessed Sacrament Church, Seattle.)
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