The Apostle Paul’s Thorn: Prescriptive or Descriptive

brokennessThis week I led our staff devotions at our staff meeting and shared a thought about one of the Apostle Paul’s experiences. That morning I had re-read 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul describes his vision of heaven and his ensuing ‘thorn in the flesh’ given him by God to protect him from conceit.

I’ve read that account hundreds of times and the passage even includes one of my favorite Scriptures.

9But 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

As I meditated on his experience, this thought popped into my mind.

Is this ‘thorn’ story prescriptive or descriptive? That is, does God’s giving Paul this thorn simply describe what happened to Paul, and only Paul? Or does it imply that when God greatly uses a man or a woman for his purposes He will give (or allow) some place of perpetual brokenness that will keep that servant from being proud?

Sometimes when I think of pastors and church leaders that God greatly uses, I assume they face few personal problems or struggles. They seem to exude what American Christianity would deem a successful pastor. They lead growing mega-churches, speak at church growth conferences, sell lots of books, and have lots of people who like them.

However, when you get below the surface, I wonder if each of these great men and women of God also face their ‘thorns.’

I can think of a few who do or did.

  • Spurgeon experienced regular depression and was often vilified by other pastors.
  • Jonathan Edwards was fired from his first church.
  • Ravi Zacharias deals with chronic back problems
  • Rick Warren once shared in a conference that he often faces headaches when he preaches that one of his associates stands ready to complete his sermon if he can’t

I’m sure there are many more.

So, I don’t know for sure if it is inevitable that every great man or woman of God will face an ongoing ‘thorn in the flesh.’ But I believe that the higher you go in spiritual influence, the greater the chance you will.

If that is true, we who experience such thorns can at the same time experience what God gave Paul…His abundant grace.

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