I wear my weakness badge because it gives me a chance to boast in God. I will brag again even now: I glory in my headache because it has been an astonishing source of joy in my life. I know without doubt that I have tasted the sweetness of all-sufficient grace more exquisitely because of my weakness than I ever would have if my ordeal had never happened. The experience of God’s gracious strength through pain has been more precious than gold—so precious, in fact, that it is more dear to me than healing.
Do you have your go-to parts of God’s Word? I do. For comfort, there’s Isaiah 40. For identity in Jesus, there’s Ephesians 1–3. To see Christ’s majesty, there’s Hebrews 1. For a heavenly hug, there’s Romans 8:28–39. For a reminder of who wins, there’s Revelation 19–22. And for purpose in my pain—the help needed during seemingly senseless affliction—there’s 2 Corinthians 12:1–10.
That’s where Paul writes about a painful harassing thorn in his life given to him by God. Despite Paul’s repeated prayers, God let him know that he was not going to remove the thorn. Instead, the pain would keep Paul humble, and through that thorn Paul would experience the sufficiency of God’s grace and the perfecting of God’s sustaining strength. Consequently, he never felt stronger than when he was weak, and he came to glory in what gave him grief. Whatever this chronic pain was, it not only kept him from pride, it became his pride!
The Backstory and My Story
There’s a backstory here. Paul had had some incredible spiritual privileges in his life, what he calls the “surpassing greatness of revelations.” These visions of heaven were glorious enough to make any normal man pretty full of himself—and Paul was, despite all his gifts and ministry, still a very normal man. So God gave him a thorn to keep him from becoming conceited. What this thorn was we do not know, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s enough to know that it was a chronically harassing and painfully humbling trial, and that it was given to guard Paul from the pride of self-sufficient superiority. Apparently, chronic affliction is the kind of pride-deterrent that some of us need.
I should know. While I am no Paul, I have been privileged. I’ve heard the gospel since birth. I had godly parents. I’ve had great teachers. I’ve experienced supernatural gifts, along with ministry opportunities that many only dream of. I’ve never had a bad pastor. I’ve been reading and digesting theology since youth, with theology books coming out my ears. I’ve had wonderful partners in ministry, a happy marriage, beloved children, over a dozen grand-children, a measure of spiritual insight, forty years of ministry experience, and at least some ability to preach and write—all of which can tempt toward self-sufficient pride.
I am convinced this is why I have a headache. I will not bore with all the details (though if you want to know more, check out my book about this). What I will say is that I had viral meningitis over thirty-three years ago, and it left me with constant head pain, always at least 6.5 on a scale of 10. The math works out to more than 12,000 days and 288,000 hours of God-given aching pain in a row. I believe God saw the pride danger I was in and sent me a thorn—a piercing, painful, persistent problem—to remind me every single day that I cannot do anything unless he enables it. My stabbing thorn bleeds my pride with relentless effect.
Paul says his affliction was God-given, but Satan delivered. I believe the same is true for me. To be sure, the mystery of the heavenly realms is on display here. We know Paul’s thorn was God-given since it was intended to keep him from conceit, something Satan would not be interested in quelling. But we also know it was Satan-delivered because, well, Paul says so. I don’t understand the workings of the invisible dimension, but I do know that no trial ever gets to me without God’s consent and that whenever evil gets involved, God still wins (Gen. 50:20). Satan wants my headache to create doubts about God’s love.