Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hey, I Got a Tent Spike In Me

I have spoke many times in my short messages regarding our response to adversity that comes into our lives.  Adversity can come in many forms, it can be illness, financial hardship, emotional distress, injury, or just about anything that adds calamity or pain to our lives.  Today I want to speak more in detail about those times, using Paul as an example.  Today our text is in 2 Corinthians.
And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities.  2 Corinthians 12:3-5 NKJV
I wanted to start back a couple of verses because I think it is important to set up what Paul is going to tell us.  We begin with his telling of a man who was caught up into Paradise and apparently came back to earth to tell the tale.  At least whatever of the tale he was allowed to tell.  Paul goes on to say that he will boast in the experience that man was blessed with, but that he would not boast of himself.  That is interesting.  Paul, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, was not going to boast in his high calling, but rather his infirmities.  Sure he will boast of what God in the life of another, but he will not boast the same of himself.  Paul is expressing the virtue of humility. 
For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me.  2 Corinthians 12:6 NKJV
I just want to pause here as Paul makes a wonderful comparison between humility and false humility.  It is not being humble when you deny what God has called you to be.  For example, if you are called to be a teacher, it is appropriate to admit that you are a teacher.  That is merely telling the truth.  Now if you go around telling everyone you meet that you are a teacher then you are being prideful.  We are to be truthful about our calling, we are just not to be boastful about it.  False humility is just a mask for pride in that you are being prideful about your humility. 
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. 2 Corinthians 12:7 NKJV
Here we get into the meat of today's lesson.  I think just about everyone in Christ and even out of Christ has heard the phrase "thorn in the flesh."  This is the verse from which it comes.  As I did some research for today's lesson, I learned something new.  What we translate as thorn is literally "tent spike."  We think of a thorn as a painful nuisance, but in reality it is a pretty big deal.  I am sure we have all had the displeasure of a thorn in our flesh, but I daresay very few if any of us had the displeasure of a tent spike being driven into our flesh.  So what is this tent spike?  There are many theories, but the fact is that the Bible never tells us.  That is a good thing because if we knew what that infirmity was, we would probably build a theology around it. It is also good because it allows us to relate to it.  This thorn, this tent spike, is something we can all relate to.  We have all been through illness in ourselves and others.  We have all been through physical and mental pains.  We have all been through what Paul is talking about to some extent and we always wonder why. 

I am going to address the nature of illness and infirmity in a future post because I think it is an important message in and of itself, but for today let us just look at what is in front of us here.  First of all, we see in this case that the infirmity was from a messenger of Satan but also a gift from God. I know that sounds strange.  Many churches teach that illness is the work of Satan and on one hand that is the case (but not always), but even when Satan is the one who gives the illness, it is something allowed by God and for His purposes.  Satan can not give any child of God any kind of infirmity without God allowing it.  Satan does not have free reign to bring illness or adversity upon our lives, but can only do what specifically is allowed by God (See Job and Peter).  Paul had some great pain in his life and it was a gift from God.  It served God's purpose in keeping Paul from being exalted beyond measure.  Think about it, Paul held great authority over the church at this time.  Paul was an Apostle.  God was using Paul to write Scripture.  All of that would be easy to get to someone's heard.  God sent this thorn to make sure that it didn't. 
Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  2 Corinthians 12:8-9 NKJV
Note Paul's reaction as we can take a great lesson from this.  First, he did not "claim" healing from this infirmity.  He did not take it in faith that the tent spike was already removed.  Nor did Paul focus on the grace of Jesus knowing that Jesus bore that tent spike on the cross.  He did cling to the grace of Christ, but that grace was to get him through his trial and not to exempt him from it.  He pleaded with God for its removal.  He did not claim, ask, quietly pray, he did not go to a church service where healing was preached, nor did he recite Scripture to God trying to hold Him to a promise He never made.  He pleaded for its removal.  He begged God, but God said "No."  I know this goes against much of the teaching today, but God can and does tell us "No" when it serves a greater purpose.  I am sure it was the desire of Paul's heart for it to be removed and I am sure he asked in the name of the Lord.  But he did not get the answer he thought he wanted .  No, he got a better one. 

How is not removing the tent spike a better answer than removing it?  How is not healing someone a better gift then healing someone?  That is an answer that can only be answered by experience.  I can tell you of the blessings of God taking you through a trial or the power of God in trials.  I can tell you what it means for his grace to be sufficient for you.  But those are only empty words until you have the privilege of experiencing it.  Paul ultimately submitted himself to God's will and rejoiced in his tent spike.   Paul understood that his weakness allowed God's strength to be perfected.  Paul understood that boasting in his infirmities diminished what strength others may have thought Paul had and amplified the power of God working in him.  Paul also understood that it made that same message real to himself.   When our own strength is taken out of the way, then (and only then) do we truly see the power of God working through us.  When we know we can't do something, but yet have the strength to do it anyway, we know that those abilities did not come from ourselves. 
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. I have become a fool in boasting; you have compelled me. For I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing.  2 Corinthians 12:10-11 NKJV
And here is the message of the thorn.  Through God's grace taking him through that trial, Paul has a whole new appreciation of trials.  In fact, he takes pleasure in infirmities.  When was the last time you rejoiced when down with the flu?  Paul's thorn served the purpose of revealing God's grace through calamity and the purpose of revealing the strength of God through his weakness.  This is the message for all of us.  I am not saying to not pray for healing when we are sick, but the important lesson is to submit to whatever answer God gives us.  It is wonderful when God heals us, it is also wonderful when He does not.  The reason why is because either way, God answered our prayer. Whether He answered the prayer you made or the prayer you should have made, God answered and His answer is the best answer.  There is such a strong movement in church today convincing people that God has promised us health and prosperity.  When you think about it though, is it better that God heals us as we get sick, or is it better for God's grace to take us through that sickness and use it for His glory in our lives and in the lives of others?  Is it better for God to drop wealth into your lap to the point where you learn to trust in that wealth or is it better for God to take water from a stone each and every day to show you His provision and care for you?   Rejoice in your infirmities.  Rejoice in your reproaches.  Rejoice in your needs. Rejoice in your persecutions. Rejoice in your distress.  Rejoice because God's grace will be revealed in the midst of those calamities.  You can only truly learn the sufficiency of God's grace when that is all you have. 

The other part of that message is not about the situation we are in, but about us.  We are weakened by those calamities that come into our lives.  Sickness weakens the body.  Distress weakens the spirit.  Rejoice in those times too.  Rejoice because God's strength will be magnified in our weaknesses.  Our own strength is nothing and only serves to get in the way of what God is trying to do through us.  I know myself have sometimes tried to use my own abilities over the abilities that God has given me and whatever work I was trying to do gets frustrated each time I try to do that.  My own strength is no strength at all. Even Paul, who is an Apostle of Christ, says that he of himself is nothing.  If he is nothing, I am nothing.  If he is nothing, we are all nothing.  It is when we know we are nothing, that we have no strength of our own, that we truly find who we are in Christ.  When our strength is taken from us, it allows us to see God's strength working in our lives.  When our strength is taken from us, we have nothing of our own to boast of but only the strength of God working through us. 

Praise God for the calamity that comes into our lives.  God must show his grace is all that we need by taking away everything else. God can only show us how little strength we have by stripping that hyped up bit of strength we think we have away from us.  God needs to take ourselves out of the way in order for Him to be magnified in our lives.  It is only by the grace of God revealed and the strength of God experienced that we truly understand the following verse.  
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13 NKJV

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