I have a thorn in my flesh. It’s been there for 25 years. And it will never go away.
I had no vision, though, when that thorn arrived. I am not like Paul. I was never caught up in some third heaven, allowed to see things, and hear things, that I could never share. Here is how he wrote it:
And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. (2 Corinthians 2:3-5; NIV84)
Nevertheless, my thorn is there. It haunts me. It plagues me. At times, it tempts me to anger. I may be a jar of clay, but at times, this jar of clay can only take so much.
I was twelve when my father passed away.
My experience through grief and anger and resentment and bitterness has lasted 25 years. I suspect it will endure until my own passing. The grief, at times, has been overwhelming. Every once in a while, it still is.
Yesterday was his birthday. He would have been 68 years-old. Last night I thought of what would have happened, had he been alive. I would’ve called him. Talked for a few minutes. Wished him happy birthday. My daughters would have sung to him. All of those are completely normal things.
Yet that did not happen. I’m not sure, until last night, that I ever thought about the “what-could-have-been” on his birthday.
And then, the next thought I had, last night, was that his mother, my grandmother, is no longer with us. I guess I always thought about her on his birthday, but she passed away this spring, and last night, the thoughts I had on his birthday were sent into a vacuum. It was weird, and unsettling.
Grief is a funny thing. It’s not so much about crying anymore, as it is about extreme disappointment. I have navigated my life, as a man, husband, and father, without a mentor. That, though, doesn’t make me special, nor do I want to invoke your sympathies. It’s just the reality of my life. And I can’t believe I’m sharing this.
I think of Paul’s passage in 2 Corinthians 11:23, when he wrote, in the middle of his extreme hardships, “I am out of my mind to talk like this.” That’s how I feel, now.
So I’ll stop sharing. I’ll spare you the chase down the rabbit hole. Grief always manifests itself in different ways, like a kaleidoscope. Yet it is never pretty.
I will live every day, for the rest of my life, as an eye-witness to the brokenness and sadness of life. I suspect that I’m not alone. You, dear reader, probably have experienced such loss, as well.
This idea of a thorn that Paul shares is common to me. Most people may not be able to isolate their own thorn in their flesh, but I can. Early, after his passing, I could only make sense of his death through a passage in 2 Corinthians 1, where Paul shared that his own hardships produced, in him, a ministry of comfort. He could comfort others because he had experienced tough times.
But that is such a petty thought to me, and the older I get, the more I believe that enduring my father’s passing is not about what measure of comfort I can give someone else. I can’t reconcile his death with a grief and comfort ministry. I understand people’s sense of loss. There is no doubt about that. But my spiritual gift is not comfort in grief
Even so, for a long time, I thought that God allowed me the trial of my father’s death, only to make me a comforter to others in life. Yet I wanted no part of that, and that sent me into places, with my faith, that I never wanted to go.
It took a long time, but now, I don’t think that’s been the reason, at least in my life, for having this kind of thorn.
I do think, like Paul, that God allowed me this thorn to show his grace to me.
Grace, in 2 Corinthians 12:9, isn’t forgiveness, though. I get so tired of people, and preachers and teachers, making grace, in this passage, mean forgiveness.
Grace, in this passage, means sustenance.
It is what allows me, and you, to make it one more step, to take one more breath, to endure one more moment.
It is the glory of God, here, in our lives. it is what gives us sustainability. Grace is a renewable gift from God. It cannot be exhausted.
Because believe me, I’ve tried to exhaust it. But I can’t.
Whatever thorn Paul received was given to him while he was in Tarsus, before he even began his first missionary journey from Antioch. If you play with the numbers in the New Testament, Paul was probably about forty-years-old when his vision, and his thorn, occurred.
As he wrote 2 Corinthians, fourteen years after this encounter, Paul was probably 54-years-old. And he had lived, and traveled the Roman Empire, with some ailment that, to him, was daily proof that God was with him in spite of his trial. And while he was beyond the initial stages of suffering through the reality of his thorn, he at least understood, later, that the thorn was a path to glory.
Thorns show us, teach us, that life is incomplete. The wounds it gives us are unexpected. Any sort of heaven-like experience we want in our lives, in our mortal bodies, does not exist, except in the moments of our greatest trials.
It is no small thing that God shows us his power in our weakest moments. This sort of display isn’t offered at any other time, except when we are in the time of our greatest suffering. The closest we come to heaven, on earth, is in our darkness.
Yet God’s grace, his sufficiency, is enough. It is enough.
I have not completely learned that lesson, nor absorbed all of its implications. But I am trying. Even while God speaks to me, in those dark moments of doubt and questioning and grief. This is what he says to me:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
I don’t understand that sentence. But I am here, writing this to you, to tell you that the night always gives way to the morning.