The Blossoming of Our Thorns
J. R. Miller, 1905
"To keep me from getting puffed up, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from getting proud." 2 Corinthians 12:7
A bit of autobiography tells the story of Paul's thorn in the flesh. What this was, we do not know. It was given to him, however, that he should not be lifted up in pride. He had been caught up to the third heaven, where he heard unspeakable words. A man who had had such an incomparable privilege, was in danger of boasting in it. Some people cannot stand great honor. A little promotion turns their heads. And spiritual pride is a withering experience. It makes a man forget his own nothingness and unworthiness. It cuts him off from God and from dependence upon God. It unfits him for being of use to men. Anything is a blessing, whatever it may cost—that keeps a man humble.
We do not know how much of Paul's rich, beautiful life, his deep interest in divine things, and his noble work for his Master—he owed to his thorn. We do not know how much we are indebted to the sufferings and sorrows of godly men and women. The best thoughts, the richest lessons, the sweetest songs that have come down to us from the past—are the fruit of pain, of weakness, of sorrow. We cannot forget that our redemption comes to us—from the cross of the Son of God. The fruit of earth's thorns may seem bitter to the taste—but it is the wholesome food of human souls.
The old legend tells how all through Passion Week the crown of thorns lay upon the altar—but upon Easter morning was found changed to fragrant roses, every thorn a rose. So earth's sorrow-crowns become garlands of heavenly roses—in the warmth of divine love.
There is not one of us who has not his own thorn. With one it may be a bodily infirmity or weakness. With another it is some disfigurement which cannot be removed. It may be some uncongeniality in circumstances, something which makes it hard to live beautifully. One young man finds his place of work unendurable. The men with whom he is associated are as wicked as they can be. He is the only Christian among them, and they make it very hard for him to retain his integrity and to go on faithfully. But it may be that God wants him just where he is—that the man needs just this uncongeniality in his surroundings to bring out the best that is in him. Or it may be that Christ wants his witness in just that place. The consciousness that he is the only one the Master has there, puts upon him a grave responsibility. It may not be his privilege to leave his place; it may be his duty to stay where he is, to endure his thorn, whether it be for the purifying of his own life or for the witness he may bear for his Lord.
The Master told Paul that his thorn was necessary to him—to save him from becoming proud. We may think of our thorn, too—as something we need. In place of allowing it to irritate us or to spoil our life—its mission is to make us sweet, patient, loving. Many people beseech the Lord to take away their thorn. Yet it may be that the prayer is not answered, will not be answered, should not be answered. It may be that the thorn is necessary to keep them low at God's feet.
Prosperity may lead us to forget God. Even in spiritual things, the enjoyment of great privileges, sometimes makes men proud and draws them away from humble dependence upon God. We are all in danger of settling down into a spirit of ease and self-satisfaction.
We have been living pretty well, we say. We have been rather good, as people go, even as Christian people go. We have done many pieces of Christian work, which people praised. We seem to be helpful to others, and God is using us to be a blessing to many. This is right. It is glorious to be able to live nobly, victoriously, usefully. It is a high honor to be led up by the Master to some mountain-top of transfiguration, and to see heaven opened above us, to have God use us to achieve great things for Him, to have Christ honor us by putting His Spirit in us and enabling us to witness for Him faithfully and effectively before the world. To have the Holy Spirit dwell in us, sweeten our life, transform our character, and make us a blessing to many—this is the highest honor that God confers on anyone in this present world.
But the peril comes—when we ourselves become conscious of the goodness of our own lives, of the brightness of our faces, or of the sweetness of the work we are doing for our Master. Moses had been forty days with God on the Mount, and when he came down to the people, they saw his face shining. The people saw it—but he did not. "Moses knew not that his face shone." That was the secret of his greatness—his humility, his unconsciousness of his own radiancy of face. If he had been aware of the glory which others saw, the glory would have faded.
There is no sin of which active, earnest, godly, and useful Christian people are so much in danger—as this of spiritual pride. If it gets possession of our hearts—it will blight everything beautiful in us. When a man comes to know that he is good—his soul is in peril. When a useful man becomes aware of his great usefulness, he has passed the zenith of his worth. When a devout man, a man of prayer, knows that he is devout, that he has special power in prayer—a large part of his power is gone. The strength of godhness lies in the absence of self-consciousness.
As we think of this, it is easy to understand Paul's danger after his remarkable spiritual exaltation. It is no wonder a thorn had to be given him, a torturing trouble to balance his spiritual elevation, to act as ballast to hold him close to earth. Let us not be surprised if to us likewise, after we have been greatly blessed, there is given something to keep us humble and lowly. It is well that God loves us too much to see us become inflated with spiritual self-conceit, and not interfere to save us. Let us not chafe, when, after being greatly blessed in some way—a hindrance comes, a disappointment, a trial, a thorn—to break our comfort and spoil our ease. Let us accept it quietly, reverently—it is God blessing us.
Paul tells us here also—that he rejoiced in his thorn. He did not at first. He cried to heaven to have it removed. But when his Master told him that he must keep it, that he needed it, that it had in it a blessing for him—he chafed no longer. Indeed, he made friends with it quickly, accepted it, and stopped complaining about it. That is the only right and sensible thing to do with any disagreeable, uncongenial, or painful thing we find we cannot have removed. It is God's will that it shall be in our life—for some good reason which He knows. We should get the victory over it—by taking it to our heart, by receiving it as coming from Christ. No matter how it hurts us, if we accept it in this way—it will leave benediction in our life. God sends some of our best blessings to us in our thorns, and it will be a sad thing if we thrust them away and miss them.
The pitiful weakness which Paul thrice besought the Lord to remove in order that he might continue his usefulness— Christ took, filled with His own strength and inspired with His own life—until it blazed with transfigured beauty and became a resistless force in building up the kingdom of heaven in this world.
Whatever our weakness may be—we need only to give it to Christ. He does not want our strength—He will not do anything with it. Some people are so good—that Christ will not use them. They are so wise—that He has no place for them in His service. They know so much—that He cannot teach them anything. They are so holy—that He cannot make them any better. Let us beware of self-righteousness, the emptiest and most hopeless of all conditions. If we consider ourselves strong, good, wise, holy, and skillful in doing work—Christ does not want us. At least He does not want us in that mood. The first thing is to get emptied of all our own wisdom, strength, and ability for service—and then He can take us and do something with us.
There are many who are so full of themselves—that they have no room for Christ. If only they would become empty, empty of self—He would fill them with Himself, and then they would have untold power for good in the world. We want to be used by the Master, to have our faces shine with His indwelling love, and to become blessings among men. Are we willing to pay the price? Are we willing to accept the thorn when it is given to us, and to endure it, that we may be kept humble, so that the Master can use us? We may safely trust Him with the enriching of our lives. He knows when pain is needful, when loss is the only way to gain, when suffering is necessary to hold us at His feet. He gives trouble—in order to bless us in some way. We shall always be losers—when we chafe or reject our thorn.