Content . . . with Thorns?

In 1940, Isobel Kuhn found herself hitchhiking on an obscure Chinese road. She “had always thought that womanly women did not do such things,” but there was no other way to get where she needed to go. She caught a ride with a truck driver, “cringing with humiliation inside.”

She asked God why she had to be put in such situations. The verse came to mind, “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men” (2 Corinthians 4:9). A spectacle was just what she felt like. She was a little comforted. Even though this particular incident was a small one, she felt she endured it for His sake since she was a missionary.

Isobel felt that the spectacle Paul probably had in mind was the Arena in Rome, where Christians were thrown to the lions for sport. Later, she wrote:

Through the several years which followed, years of war strain and danger, this thought kept returning to me. The different trials of us Christians of the twentieth century are like so many platforms in the world’s Arena of today. The unbeliever looks on at our struggles and is only impressed or influenced if he sees the power of God working there. The purpose of the Arena experience is not for our punishment; it is that God might be revealed.

. . . God taught me through the years to view my own trials as platforms in today’s Arena. I thought this concept was original with me, but one day my husband found that Hudson Taylor had formed the same opinion many years ago. He said, “Difficulties afford a platform upon which He can show Himself. Without them, we could never know how tender, faithful, and almighty our God is.” I found it so, too. . . It seemed that my most valuable lessons have been learned on these platforms.

Her book In the Arena was written with this idea in mind, showcasing how God manifested Himself through obstacles, frustrations, strain, necessities, danger, and illness.

In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul had been praying for deliverance from a “thorn in the flesh.” Commentators offer good evidence for the different possibilities as to what that “thorn” might have been, anything from some physical ailment to actual demonic oppression. I agree with what Warren Wiersbe said in his commentary: it’s good we don’t know exactly what it was, so we can apply it to any kind of “thorn” in our lives.

Paul said God gave him this thorn in response to some special revelations He had given Paul. Paul mentioned earlier in this chapter that he had one experience in the “third heaven” that he was not even allowed to tell the details about.

We’re easily prone to pride when we hit spiritual heights, as though we had anything to do with them. So God gave this “thorn” to Paul “to keep me from becoming conceited” (verse 7). Paul asked God three times to remove the thorn. But God said no. Instead:

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

The ESV Study Bible says twice that “Paul’s earthly weaknesses, not his revelations, are to be the platform for demonstrating the Lord’s power and grace” (p. 2238).

That’s just the opposite way we think it should work, isn’t it? We think some mountaintop experience, some spiritual high point, will “show off” God’s power. And God does use those moments in people’s lives. But we don’t reach those heights in our own strength. Moses spent 40 days alone with God, and his face shown afterward. David went from the depths of despair to the heights of praise in the psalms. Elijah faced off with the prophets of Baal for a showdown of their respective deities. Yet spiritual highs don’t keep us from sin. Relying on God’s power does. Each of these men had very human weaknesses for which they needed God’s grace.

Paul’s thorn not only kept him humble; it kept him dependent. God had told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” When we’re tempted to go off on our own, our weaknesses remind us we can’t: we need God’s help. When a trial is more than we can handle, we’re reminded to give it to the One who can handle it.

The ESV Study Bible points out that in 2 Corinthians 12:9, when God says His grace is sufficient for Paul, the word “sufficient” is in the present tense, “underscoring the ever-present availability and sufficiency of God’s grace” (p. 2238).

Sometimes we don’t want people to get close enough to see our weaknesses. We think our weaknesses will mar our testimony. But people see our blind spots that we’re unaware of: they know we’re not perfect. When they see God’s grace and power in our lives, they know there is hope and help for themselves as well.

Seeing those needs in people’s lives makes them more relatable. When we see them recover from a stumble or struggle with human weakness, it encourages us that we can access God’s grace and carry on.

Even our Lord Jesus, though He never sinned, experienced weakness that draws us to Him. The fact that He stooped to experience humanness for our sakes shows us how much He loves us. We know He understands our weaknesses and needs, not just from omniscience, but from experience.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. . .Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:14-15, 17-18).

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).

Paul said he was not only content with “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” but he boasted in them (gloried, the KJV says). Some translations say “delight” instead of “am content.”

My first response in any trial is to pray for deliverance, and maybe secondarily to ask that I might learn what I am supposed to from it. But to be content in it? Even more, to delight in it? I can’t say I am there yet.

But maybe I’d be closer if I looked at the situation like I am supposed to, as a way for God’s power to be displayed.

One guest preacher at my college spoke of giving everything he had over to the Lord. When the car broke down, he prayed, “Lord, Your car needs help.” That’s probably a good way to look at it.

So we can be content with our thorns and even glad for them, because:

  • They keep (or make) us humble.
  • They remind us our strength is not in ourselves.
  • They keep us dependent on God’s grace and help.
  • They’re a testimony to others.
  • They make us more relatable.
  • They showcase God’s power.

How about you? Do these truths help you with your “thorns in the flesh”?

This song written by Mike Harlan and Cary Schmidt has helped me carry these truths with me:

2 Corinthians 12:9

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

30 thoughts on “Content . . . with Thorns?

  1. Thank you, Barbara, for this needed message. You offered fresh perspective to the issue of thorns and God’s daily grace.

  2. I have appreciated Isobel Kuhn’s writing because her testimony is so frank and I identify with her little gripes.
    Thanks for this invitation to practice gratitude for my thorns

    • I love that Isobel is so human and lets us in on the fact that missionaries aren’t super-saints. Yet she seeks God’s grace even in “thorny” situations–an example to me.

  3. Thanks Barbara, as always, for some great food for thought. I think I need to read more about Isobel Kuhn. Just this past week I finally lay aside the devotional I’ve been reading this year. It was all about expecting more from God, having faith that He would give us so much good, etc. I don’t know; my mind just kept going to all the people I knew and had read about who followed faithfully and yet faced so many hardships. I could see the point the book was making, but it didn’t ring wholly true for me. Your post does.

    • So many devotionals and articles seem to come from that angle. But it’s so much more helpful to acknowledge that hard things will come and to encourage each other seek God’s grace for them.

  4. Learning humility in the ups and downs of life is often a painful, yet very important, part of our journey here. I need God’s help in that area as in all others… You’re right that others are often quite aware of our weaknesses even when we think we have them covered up (or are unaware of them ourselves). 🙂

    • When i get frustrated with other people’s blind spots, I have to remind myself that I have them, too. One of my frequent prayers is that God would reveal mine to me.

  5. Hey Barbara, thanks for the encouraging post. I was reading 2 Cor 12 yesterday and it spoke directly into something I’m going through – esp. v 10. I was contemplating writing my own blog post about contentment through trials when I found yours. Not sure I could add much to what you said, to be honest – it’s great! God bless you.

  6. Barbara, thank you for the beautiful and encouraging post. I love your honesty when asking questions. I love that our trials should be looked at as a way for God’s power to be displayed.

  7. Paul had learned the secret of being content, and it surely had plenty to do with God’s sufficient grace. I’m glad for Paul’s example of pleading for the ‘thorn’ to be removed as well as his example of being content when God said No.

  8. I remember my husband saying during one of our trials, I sense God is taking us through this for the sake of others who are watching us, including out children. You brought life to that Scripture on being a spectacle.

    • Realizing that God sends some trials for that purpose helps me remember to seek His grace to endure them well rather than just trying to get away from them. One time our former pastor preached on Ephesians 3:10 in a way that was eye-opening to me: “So that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Even those “in heavenly places” learn something about God through His interactions with us.

  9. Showcasing God’s power sounds like a good reason to rejoice with my thorns, praying for God’s enabling grace to do just that. Thanks for confirming what God has been whispering to my heart.

    • It’s a reminder to me, too, that life is supposed to be about showcasing Him. We’re not our own, we’re bought with a price, and should glorify Him with our body and spirit–yet I still have to fight my tendency to focus on my own desires.

  10. I have always the ‘thorns’ in my sides over years of pain and surgeries, but none compared to those of others. Thank you for this reminder of God’s use of thorns in our lives and all for His glory.

  11. I so want to read more of Isobel Kuhn. This post is so encouraging. This >> “The purpose of the Arena experience is not for our punishment; it is that God might be revealed.” Perhaps in looking at difficulties or challenges as an arena experience instead of a thorn, it takes our focus off ourselves as it reminds us of Whom should be seen. Beautiful post!

    • Thank you, Joanne. I love her books–she’s so real, so human, yet seeking God’s grace in everything. I often need that reminder that my life is supposed to be about pointing to Him, not getting my desires met.

  12. Barb, I love reading about Isobel Kuhn. She was one of the first women I read about when we first went to the mission field. How silly I felt complaining inwardly and too often outwardly about our difficult conditions when I read her story!
    Yet even now as you mentioned when I encounter trials my first prayer is for deliverance, then maybe what I can learn, but rarely for contentment!
    Oh dear, how I need to make friends with the thorns.

  13. This is a powerful thought, “The purpose of the Arena experience is not for our punishment; it is that God might be revealed.” I read Isobel Kuhn many years ago, but I don’t think of her as often as Elisabeth Elliot or Corrie ten Boom, but she is an inspiring woman of faith who has gone before us. Thank you for this reminder, Barb, that thorns help in our transformation into His likeness.

  14. I am becoming more aware of a few thorns and they do keep me relying on God’s grace, which He is so generous to pour into me. He really does want to be my strength and I am learning to not despise my weaknesses so much anymore. In my weaknesses, He is made strong. Beautiful post sweet sister …🙏❤️

  15. So good! I especially love how you point out that we don’t usually want people to see our weaknesses and struggles, but that they actually make our testimony about God’s greatness and power all the more credible. Many days I wish there was some other way, but at least we have meaning and purpose in our struggles! Thank you for this excellent encouragement.

  16. Barbara, I greatly appreciate the idea of looking at our weaknesses and thorns as a platform from which God can display his glory and grace. Especially when I think of how the word “platform” is typically used these days, in terms of building our own following and influence. I want to trust God to use my weaknesses and trials for His glory, rather than purposefully trying to draw attention to myself. Also, the fact that Paul wasn’t permitted to speak of his experiences in heaven always makes me a bit skeptical of modern-day people who claim to have gone to heaven and come back to tell about it. 😂

  17. “Paul’s thorn not only kept him humble; it kept him dependent.” To know that we must continually lean on God. Thanks for giving fresh perspective to this part of the bible.

  18. Pingback: May Reflections | Stray Thoughts

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