Revive Our Hearts Podcast

The Blessing of Thorns, Day 2

Leslie Basham: You’re probably looking into the face of some challenges today. To help you meet them, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth takes you to 2 Corinthians.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Paul said, “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (2 Cor. 7:4). He didn’t say after I get through the affliction. He said, “In the midst of all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.” Now I read that verse and I want to tell you many days it just doesn’t compute with me.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth for Tuesday, November 24, 2015.

There may be a big obstacle to joy in your path today. How do you get past it? Nancy will help you understand how to obey the biblical command to be joyful, continuing in a series called "The Blessing of Thorns."

Nancy: I read a story recently about two students who were doing summer evangelistic work in a rural community. One hot, humid day, they stopped their car in front of a farmhouse and made their way up the path through a bunch of screaming kids and barking dogs.

When they knocked on the screen door, the woman of the house stopped her scrubbing over a tub and washboard. This was a long time ago. She brushed back her hair, wiped the perspiration from her brow and asked them what they wanted.

One of the students said, “We’d like to tell you how to obtain eternal life.” The tired homemaker hesitated for a moment and then replied, “Thank you, but I don’t think I could stand it.” All of us have felt that way on some days.

I love getting letters from our Revive Our Hearts listeners. Some of them are very encouraging as they share what God is doing in their hearts. But some of them are really pain-filled as women share the stories of the thorns, the pain-filled pressures, the problems in their lives. Some of them are obviously the problems as a result of the wrong choices that they have made. Sometimes they are the result of other people's sinful or wrong choices. These women are having to endure problems that they were not necessarily responsible for creating.

When I hear those real-life stories from women who are hearing us teach on value and the purposes of God in suffering, I wonder if sometimes they think, Thank you very much. That all sounds so nice, but I'm not sure if I can stand it. Certainly, if we are not talking about eternity. And it feels like an eternity sometimes when you are in the midst of those problems.

I think of the woman, for example, who wrote recently and said,

My husband is a Christian. He teaches adult education at our church. He’s very respected at the church and by my family. However, he suffers from an addiction, and I struggle immensely in our marriage and in silence with the secret life that I am living. For so long I have felt that God has abandoned me.

That’s a long haul. No one else knows and no one else can enter into this woman’s pain.

I think of the woman who wrote about the lonely days she has when she starts each day at 5:00 in morning when she's taking her unsaved, alcoholic husband fo thirty-five years to dialysis treatments for kidney failure. This woman just feels so hopeless.

Then I think of the forty-five-year-old single woman who wrote recently and said,

I long for a God-honoring marriage and I think it would be such a privilege to raise children who know Jesus. I struggle with God’s silence in the area of marriage and children. Short of a Sarah-type miracle, I see that hope slipping away.

So different people in different circumstances and seasons of life and you could add into that your own season, your own story, your own burdens at this season of life. When those afflictions, when that suffering and those thorns go on and on and on, we’re tempted to lose heart. It seems like they will go on forever.

We need a perspective that will keep us going, that will keep us in the race, that will keep us trusting, keep us obeying, keep us looking to the Lord and keep us even joyful in the midst of our afflictions.

We talked in the last session about the Greek word thlipsis. It has to do with being pressed and under pressure, being squeezed, being in a straight or a hard or a narrow place. It’s the word that is often "translated affliction, tribulation, distress."

As you look at the apostle Paul’s life, he’s the one who used that word the most often in the New Testament. In his life, two things stand out. The first is that he suffered chronic, intense affliction. The second is that his response to affliction was markedly different than the way most of us are accustomed to responding to thlipsis—affliction, tribulation.

Let’s look at some of the afflictions—the thorns—that Paul had to experience. I want to encourage you if you have your Bible to open to the book of 2 Corinthians. We’re going to leaf through that book real quickly. I want to just show you some examples of the chronic, intense affliction that the apostle Paul experienced.

Turn to chapter 1 of the Book of 2 Corinthians and look at verse 8. Paul said,

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death (2 Cor. 1:8–9 NIV).

That’s a hard life. Paul was going through thlipsis—thorns, afflictions.

Second Corinthians chapter 6, verse 4, Paul makes reference to afflictions, hardships, calamities that he experienced. Verse 5, he speaks of beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.

Turn over to the next chapter, chapter 7, verse 5. He says, “For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within.” External circumstances over which we had no control and then the internal pounding of our own hearts as we try to deal with these circumstances.

Look at chapter 11 of 2 Corinthians, chapter 11, verse 23, Paul speaks of enduring labors, imprisonments, countless beatings. He said he was often near death. Then verse 24, “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one,” a very painful, torturous, cruel form of punishment. Verse 25:

Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, dangers from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Cor. 11:25–28).

Now how would you expect someone in Paul’s situation to respond? How would most people respond in these circumstances? How would you respond? Now it’s easy to read that list sitting here in this room where we’re comfortable. We’ve got air conditioning and everything is fine here. But when you walk out into the real world with real pain, real thorns, real hurts, how do you respond? How do I respond?

Well, I can imagine Paul being tempted to see these pressures, these thlipsis, these afflictions as an intrusion on his ministry, an enemy, a hindrance that would keep him from doing what God called him to do. “I’m an apostle. I’ve got work to do. I’ve got the gospel to preach. And these are things that are in my way. They’re hurdles. They’re obstacles.”

I can imagine Paul or any one of us under these kinds of circumstances becoming resentful. I mean, "I’ve given my life to serve God and look where it’s gotten me." Becoming bitter toward others who caused those problems—those Gentiles, those Jewish nonbelievers who are false brothers, those people who created pressure for him in the churches.

I can image him being angry with God. God is all-powerful and yet He allowed these things to happen.

I can imagine Paul being tempted to quit the ministry, to give up. The reason I can imagine it is because I have had those feelings under much less severe circumstances. In my own pressures and the challenges of ministry, there are times when I think, Why do I do this? Why do I keep going? Why do I endure this? Is this really what I'm called to do? You start to second-guess. Did God really want me to have all those children? Did God really call me to teach this Sunday school class? I thought it was God, but was it really? It’s so hard.

So there could have been for Paul the temptation to quit. I’ll tell you what, I’m sure it was a temptation because it is for all of us and that is just to moan, to groan, to complain, to talk to everyone else about the problems we’re having.

Well, as we look at the apostle Paul and we’ve just seen a few examples of the kinds of affliction he suffered routinely, chronically, recurring throughout his ministry, we see that Paul’s response to those afflictions, those thorns was extraordinary. It was not what you would expect.

I think the summary for how Paul responded is found in one little phrase in 2 Corinthians chapter 7, verse 4. Paul said, “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.” He didn’t say after I get through the affliction. He said, “In the midst of all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.”

I'll tell you, I read that verse many days and it just doesn't compute with me. How can you be overflowing with joy in the middle of thlipsis—thorns, afflictions?

And you see this theme throughout Paul's writings. I think there are thirteen references in the Book of Philippians, written when he was in a Roman prison cell, to joy and rejoicing and gladness.

You know it wasn’t just the apostle Paul who was able to respond this way. As you read back, as I love to do, through the biographies of some of the great Christian servants of the Lord of past generations, you see this theme: learning to give thanks for the thorns. Learning to find joy in a journey that is filled with thlipsis—afflictions, persecutions, pressures.

I think of the Romanian pastor, Richard Wurmbrandt, who’s now with the Lord in that thornless eternity. He spent fourteen years in a Romanian prison for preaching the gospel. His captors smashed four of his vertebrae. They either cut or burned eighteen holes in his body. But they couldn’t defeat him. He testified, “Alone in my cell, cold, hungry, and in rags, I danced for joy every night.”

Can you imagine? I mean, I really can’t. But he did. This is, as we’ve said, a radically different way of thinking. It seems nuts, to tell the truth. I seems unimaginable, unthinkable that someone could really respond in this way. Or, we think it is something only super pious people could do, spiritual giants. But I want to tell you that if we could see our lives from God’s point of view, if we could see the big picture that God sees, we would realize that this is the only reasonable way to think and live.

In light of God’s character, in light of the fact that He is good and wise and sovereign, it’s the only reasonable way to live in light of God’s heart, that He is loving and gracious and merciful; in light of God’s redemptive plan, He is making all things new. In light of God’s purposes, He has purpose for our thorns, purpose for our afflictions.

Let me ask you to turn in your Bible to 2 Corinthians chapter 12. Paul gives a little glimpse into his background. He says in verse 2, speaking of himself, though he speaks in the third person, “I know a man in Christ [this is actually Paul himself] who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.”

So Paul had some sort of supernatural, spiritual experience that could hardly be described, fourteen years earlier. He says in verse 4, this man [Paul himself] “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”

He goes on to say, “If I were going to boast, I could tell you about these great encounters I’ve had with God” (v. 6 paraphrased). We know that God revealed Christ to the apostle Paula, that God gave Paul revelations of the gospel of Christ, inspired him to write major portions of the Scripture. And Paul said, "These are the things that could boast about. I could tell you. I could write books about my great experiences. But God won't let me tell exactly what it was that happened."

Now in that context, after having received these visions and these revelations fourteen years ago, Paul says in verse 7, “Lest I should be exalted above measure” (NKJV). Or as the NIV says it, “To keep me from becoming conceited.” Paul said, "God has shown me so many incredible things, and God knew those experiences might make me proud." To keep him from becoming exalted, to keep him from becoming conceited, what did God do? He gave Paula a thorn. “A thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet [or to torment] me, lest I be exalted above measure.”

Now what was Paul’s thorn? The fact is, we don’t know. I think it’s probably a good thing that we don’t know because if he told us specifically what it was, then we might think our thorn didn’t fall into this category, that what Paul learned from his thorn did not apply to our thorns, so he doesn’t tell us.

The word thorn actually means a tent stake. This is a not sliver. This is not a splinter. This is a mega-thorn, a big thorn. In fact, it’s a word that’s used to speak of a sharpened wooden stake or staff that was used for impaling or torturing someone. That’s the thorn we’re talking about here, a big thorn.

Most commentators believe, since he says it is a thorn in the flesh, that it was something physical. They have speculated that it could have been malaria or migraine headaches or epilepsy. When know that Paula had poor vision. That might have been his thorn in the flesh. A speech impediment. It could have been something more emotional or spiritual, like depression or a particular temptation that he battled frequently. It could have been continued persecution.

Pastor and Bible teacher, John MacArthur, believes that the thorn was a person, that it was not a thing. He said that the word "buffet" always refers to treatment from another person. He speculates that the thorn may have been a demonic person who tormented Paul by stirred up opposition to his ministry.

So whether it is a person or a thing or a physical ailment, we know that it was excruciatingly painful. That verb that it was sent to "buffet me or to torment me," as some of your translations say, that word means "to beat, to strike with the fist." I mean it’s a strong, painful, hard word. To torment, to buffet, to pound on you.

You think of some of your thorns at seasons in your life and you feel like they're just pounding, pounding, pounding. In fact, according to the verb tense, we know that this was a chronic, recurring thorn. It didn’t go away. It kept coming back. It was either happening all the time or it happened repeatedly.

Now, the Scripture tells us that the thorn was a messenger of Satan. Now we know that Satan cannot do anything that God doesn’t give him permission to do. So God gave Satan permission to buffet, to pound Paul with this tent stake, this thorn in his flesh, which brings us to a dilemma.

Who’s responsible for this thorn? Who’s responsible for this buffeting? Is it God or is it Satan? Well, John MacArthur said something that I found helpful. He points out that Satan was the immediate cause, but God was the ultimate cause. Every thorn that comes into our lives—it may be an alcoholic husband who puts that pressure in your life. It may be an impossible boss. It may be in-laws that cannot stand you. It may be a son or a daughter who has rejected your authority and rebelled against you.

That thorn may look like a person, but ultimately God is the one who permits these thorns to come into our lives. Satan and all his demons are subject to God. They’re under His control and Satan cannot touch you without God’s permission.

Now Paul recognized that this thorn was given to him. He said a thorn was given to me. And that it was given by God. This gift of a thorn, if you will, followed a great spiritual high. Paul had had these great visions and revelations and God knew at that point what Paul needed.

God knows what you need following great spiritual experiences or seasons of bliss, seasons when everything’s going right in your life. God knows what I need. And God knows that we cannot afford to have blessings without burdens. In the course of life it is not good for us to have a life with no thorns.

It is not good for us to have a life with no thorns.

This thorn, this gift became to Paul a constant reminder of his weakness, of his need for God, of his dependence on God, and of the strength that God’s grace could give to him in his weakness. He came to recognize his thorn, as we must come to recognize our thorns, as a gift from God.

What do you with a gift?

  • You receive it.
  • You accept it.
  • You thank the giver.
  • It was not to be rejected.
  • It was to be received with gratitude.

I think of Augustine in his Confessions, when he said, "Thank God for mercifully sprinkling His path with thorns." That's not the way we naturally think. When we look at our lives from God's point of view, we see that it is a mercy, a severe mercy, that God would sprinkle our path with thorns.

Think about your thorns. Have you ever accepted those thorns as a gift from God for your good? Have you stopped to acknowledge recently—you may have in the past, but maybe that thorn is still buffeting you, still pounding on you. It won’t go away. It’s chronic. It’s recurring.

Have you stopped to say, “God, I know that this is from You. This is for my good. I receive it. I give You thanks for what you want to do in my life through this thorn. I know that You must know that this is what I need at this moment of my life.”

Now Paul said in verse 8 concerning this thing, this thorn in the flesh, “I pleaded with the Lord [one translation says, “I implored the Lord” (NASB)] three times that it might depart from me” (NKJV). You say, “Paul, if you’re receiving this as a gift, why are you asking God to take it away?” Could I suggest that it’s not wrong to ask God to remove the thorn? Paul did it.

Who else do we know of who three times implored God to remove a thorn? The Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Lord, if it’s possible . . . God all things are possible with You . . . remove this thorn, this pathway I’m going to have to go, this suffering, this affliction. Remove it from me. Don’t make me drink this cup of suffering.”

Jesus asked His heavenly Father. Paul asked his heavenly Father. And you can ask your heavenly Father to remove your thorn. You can implore God. You can plead with God to remove that thorn.

But here’s the key: After we implore, after we plead, we have to come to a place of submission to the will of God. Surrender. Acceptance of God’s will. We have to be willing to receive God’s answer, whether He says yes or no. Ask and then acquiesce. Acquiesce to the will of God. Accept what God does not choose to change.

That’s what Paul did. He asked. That’s what Jesus did. He asked. But then when God said, “No, this is My path for you. This is My choice for you. I’m not going to take it away,” what did Jesus say? “Not My will but Your will be done.” And that’s what Paul went on to say in effect. “I will receive, I will accept what God has chosen for my life.”

Verse 9, God answers Paul. He answered Paul’s prayers. He didn't answer it by saying, "Yes, I'll take away that thorn," as many prosperity gospel Bible teachers today would have us believe. If you just pray, if you just live right, if you give this amount of money, or whatever, your thorn will go away. Your health problems with go away. Your afflictions will go away. No . . . not necessarily. God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (NKJV). God didn’t choose to remove Paul’s affliction. And you’ll also notice that he didn’t give Paul an explanation for why He let that thorn remain.

Ladies, God doesn’t owe you an explanation. God doesn’t owe me an explanation. When we get to heaven, we’ll look back, we’ll understand all we need to understand. We’ll see God did all things well. But this side of heaven, we have to be content to live with mystery. To say, "I don’t know. I don’t understand. I can’t see God’s purpose in this, but I accept His plan."

Instead of removing Paul’s thorn or giving him an explanation, God gave Paul something better. He gave him His promises, His grace, so that Paul would never be able to rely on his own strength but would continually have to rely on God for grace and strength to serve God.

You see, God’s grace enables us to endure, but it also enables us to exalt or to glory in our tribulations. Paul goes on to say in verse 9, “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities [my weaknesses], that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities.”

That sounds weird, doesn’t it? “I take pleasure in [my weakness, my affliction, my pain, my thorn] in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10 NKJV).

You see the perspective of Jesus and the New Testament authors is that we glory in the cross. The trouble is not merely to be endured, but it’s to be welcomed. We are to "count it all joy" as James says. Can I remind you when you are in the middle of that tent stake, that thorn, that pressure in your life, that God sees, God knows, God cares, and God has not abandoned you.

God knew about Paul’s thorn. He knew how it felt. But God had a purpose that was bigger than relief of Paul’s pain at that moment. God heard the cry of the Israelites when they were in slavery for 400 years in Egypt. Ultimately, God went down to deliver them, but He let them suffer for a period of time because He had purposes that were bigger than the immediate relief of their pain.

I was encouraged recently by a quote that I heard by author and teacher Warren Wiersbe. Dr. Wiersbe said, “When you are in the furnace, remember this: Your Father keeps His eye on the clock and His hand on the thermostat.”

When you are in the furnace, remember this: Your Father keeps His eye on the clock and His hand on the thermostat.

God will not let the heat get one degree hotter than He determines is exactly what you need. And God will not let the heat, the fire, the furnace, the thorn, the affliction, He will not let it go on for one second longer than is absolutely needed to fulfill His purposes in your life and for the sake of Christ.

When you’re in the furnace remember this: Your Father keeps His eye on the clock and His hand on the thermostat.

Thank You, Lord, for the reminder that "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed in us." Lord, sometimes I wonder if our glory will be diminished if we haven't been willing to receive and embrace the affliction this side of heaven. I don't know, but I do know that You want us to receive with joy all that You send into our lives. You give us grace to endure and grace to exalt and glory in the cross as we follow in the way of our Lord Jesus who said, "Not my will but Yours be done."

>Lord, teach us to receive those thorns, to accept them as a gift from You, to give thanks in all things, and to give thanks, and to see Your purposes in our lives fulfilled in our afflictions. In Jesus' name, amen.

Leslie: That’s Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth. All of us have those tricky situations that flare up. They are all opportunities to see the Lord work and show gratitude to Him. Your life could be very, very different if Thanksgiving were not just an event on the calendar but a way of life every day. Nancy’s written a book that will help you understand Thanksgiving at a deep, heart level. She’ll show you why it matters so much and how to cultivate it in your life. The book is called Choosing Gratitude: Your Journey to Joy.

We’d like to send you copy when you donate any amount to Revive Our Hearts this week. We are grateful for what we see the Lord doing through the ministry, but can’t do it without you. Your gift will help us to call women to freedom, fullness, and fruitfulness in Christ for such a time as this. Ask for the book, Choosing Gratitude, when you call with your gift. The number is 1–800–569–5959, or donate at ReviveOurHearts.com.

God loves you so much that He doesn’t always remove problems in your life. Find out why lingering problems can be an example of His love. That's tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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