2 Corinthians 12:7. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.
God will do whatever it takes to eradicate pride from your life. There is no room for personal exaltation in the economy of grace. No room for self-righteousness at the cross. No self-promotion in “to live is Christ.”
You have a pride problem. And so do I. And so did Paul’s opponents. And so did Paul. Paul’s opponents boasted in their really amazing spiritual experiences – visions, miracles, knowledge. Paul had an amazing vision too, and clearly there was a temptation to make this vision his source of personal pride. But then came the thorn alongside the vision. Now his boast was his weakness. Why would we ever embrace our weaknesses in this way? Because weakness is what opens up our lives to grace.
Pride kills our desperation for grace. And God knows this. And because he knows this, God, in his grace, gave Paul a thorn in the flesh to keep him from conceit (self exaltation). And God will give us a thorn too. What’s yours? Can you identify it?
Many have wondered what Paul’s thorn might be: an illness, a character flaw, a temptation, his opponents. But Paul doesn’t tell us what his thorn was, and so it is not that important for us to know. What IS important is knowing that God won’t let us sink into the quicksand of pride.
Maybe you think you don’t need a thorn. True, maybe you haven’t been to the third heaven or had an amazing vision like Paul did. But you have received revelation and knowledge from the indwelling Christ. And pride is still a huge temptation for you (you can admit it). It is for all that are in Christ. We have the greatest knowledge and truth in the universe. We have access to the mystery of time and creation. We have God himself in us. The reality of union with Christ brings with it this great temptation to self exaltation.
Why do we so easily sink into self exaltation?
It is the original sin isn’t it? We don’t need God. We can plan our own life, set our own agenda, figure out good and evil for ourselves. This sin still indwells us. We mix the grace of union with Christ with the Law. Soon we are using truth to hurt others and argue with others, to prove our own worth. The revelation becomes something to puff us up, rather than to build others up. The spiritual experiences and knowledge. We exalt ourselves because we have to prove that we can be holy. We have to cover up our failures when we aren’t. We have to attribute to ourselves all the good qualities that we want to have, but we actually don’t.
Why the thorn? Because the thorn reveals your heart.
When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, God cursed the earth with thorns. Why did he do this? It was actually part of his grace. Man needed God’s grace because of indwelling sin. But would they know that they needed it? Would we know our own hearts? Humans are pretty amazing. By chapter 11 of Genesis they’re building skyscrapers. But they’re also pretty spiritually dull. In that same story they exalt themselves above God. The curse, the thorn, causes us to know that we are actually not God. That we need his salvation. That we need his power. That we need his grace. That without him, our greatness will actually work against us as a species and destroy us. The thorn reveals the truth about who we really are.
So we embrace the thorn. God has allowed it to come and reveal our hearts to us. Our inner weakness. Even without the thorn, Paul still needed grace. And so do we. But the thorn comes as a gift to bring our hearts back down to earth into the reality of our never ending need for God’s grace. The thorn allows us to love someone other than ourselves.
“To live is Christ” is to embrace the hopelessness of the thorn and to be driven to the hope of the One who wore our crown of thorns for us. For those in Christ, the thorn comes to remind us that the exalted Christ in us was never meant to lead to the exaltation of us.
Are you aware of your pride problem? Are you aware of your thorn? Have you seen it as a gift from God to reveal your heart? How does union with Christ allow us to embrace the thorns and the grace that they point us to?