A Thorn in my Flesh
How God works with Flaws, Frailties, and Failings
by Teri Daily
"Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
-- 2 Corinthians: 12: 7-9
The Princess Diaries first came out in theaters fourteen years ago. In this movie, a clumsy high-school student named Mia Thermopolis finds out that she is, in fact, a real life princess. She undergoes the transformation from awkward to graceful at lightning speed and ultimately accepts her place as next in line to the Genovian throne. It’s a modern-day fairy tale. The Princess Diaries showed almost nightly at our house during an entire summer after its release on DVD. Our daughter Emma was seven years old at the time, and she was spellbound by the idea that an uncoordinated, middle-class teenager might actually be a princess. And so I understood exactly what was going on when she asked one day: “Mom, is there any chance that I might be adopted?” I felt a twinge of guilt as I answered, “No, Emma, I’m sorry. We really are your biological parents.” Maybe everyone clings at least a little to the hope that one day they might discover themselves to be the heir or heiress of a royal kingdom, or at least to be in some way exceptional in the eyes of the world. We don’t have to desire this for selfish reasons; sometimes we think that to make a positive difference in the world, we have to possess a certain lineage, prominence, and power.
After all, wasn’t that the problem that the people of Nazareth have with Jesus in today’s gospel reading? They’ve heard about all these wonderful acts of healing Jesus has done, and now here he is, in the synagogue of his hometown, teaching with such wisdom. The problem is that the people know Jesus a little too well to be comfortable with the influence and power he seems to have now. They know his working-class parents; they know the run-down street where he grew up; I suspect they’ve even seen him throw temper tantrums as a child when he didn’t get his way, or scuffle with his brothers over whose turn it was in a game. They knew his weaknesses and couldn’t help but ask the question: What God-given mission could Jesus of Nazareth actually have? Could God really use this particular person, limited by these circumstances and his own unique gifts and weaknesses, to reveal God’s power and goodness in the world?
It’s a question that also confronts Paul in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians. It’s the mid-50s, about twenty years after Jesus’ death, and rival missionaries that Paul calls “super-apostles” have come to Corinth—tempting the people to subscribe to a picture of Jesus unlike the one they’ve come to know through the teachings of Paul. With their fancy speech and their accounts of visions and revelations, these “super-apostles” seem to be gaining influence among the Christians in Corinth. And so Paul writes this letter in part to defend himself; he just doesn’t take the usual tactic. Instead of calling on his strengths to vindicate himself, he speaks of his weaknesses.
Now, I admit, the language of our epistle reading for today doesn’t really sound all that humble to me. Paul speaks of “someone” who was taken up to the third heaven and received revelations of “exceptional character.” We ultimately find out that this someone is none other than Paul himself. He writes: “to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger from Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7).
Paul doesn’t tell us exactly what this thorn is—whether the affliction is physical, psychological, or has to do with persecution. But he does say that he appeals to the Lord three times for it to be taken away. The Lord simply says to Paul in return: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Even with this weakness, whatever it may be, Paul continues to be a missionary and to proclaim the gospel. It seems God’s power is actually manifested and perfected precisely through and in this weakness Paul has. This correspondence between power and weakness shouldn’t really be all that surprising to us given the fact that we worship a crucified Messiah. But, to be honest, we sometimes have a hard time believing that weakness and faith can go hand in hand.
My brother-in-law Steve was a vibrant person—the father of two boys, a lay pastor of a Presbyterian congregation, someone who learned Spanish so that he could converse with workers at the family sawmill and even attend church with them on occasion. He was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor at the age of thirty-one. A year or so later, a well-meaning woman sent him a letter saying that if he just prayed hard enough, God would cure him of his illness. It took a lot of help for Steve to write a response; by then his disease had begun to take away his ability to choose words, to write, and to formulate ideas. But his faith was strong, and with my husband Dave’s help he sent back these words:
I share your faith in the almighty power of God to heal and sustain us. There may be times, though, when God’s greatest miracle is not the miracle of physical healing, but the miracle of giving us strength in the face of suffering. … I sincerely hope that if my cancer continues to grow, no one will see it as a failure of my faith in God, but that perhaps people can see me as faithful even if I die while I am still young.
Steve knew that God’s power and strength could be made manifest not only in his cure, but just as surely in and through his illness.
So many of us wish we were different than we are; we want to see all of our weaknesses and limitations vanish; we want to have the gifts that others have and be that image of perfection that we see advertised all around us. But I think we often end up confusing our own desires and expectations with those of God. Here’s the truth: God doesn’t wait for us to become perfect before God works through us. God works through us just as we are—weaknesses and all. In fact, God’s power is made manifest not despite our weaknesses and disadvantages and limitations, but in and through these very things that make us uniquely who we are. Sometimes we find that, in some strange way, our gift and our weakness is one and the same.
That’s why knowing who we are, not who we want to be, is crucial to discerning our call. That’s why the journey inward and the journey outward are inevitably linked. That’s why we have to discover who we are in order to discover who we are called to be. That’s why we can’t be afraid to take a good, honest look at ourselves, especially those places in us we would rather not see; because those are the places that may hold the greatest possibility. That’s why such soul-searching honesty is indispensable to our spiritual strength. Alan Brehm puts it this way:
When you look closely at life, there really seems to be a correlation between weakness and spirituality. It seems the more vulnerable we realize that we really are, the more open we make ourselves to the presence of God, and the deeper our faith and our spirituality. On the contrary, the more we try to protect ourselves, to control our lives, and to avoid pain and weakness, the more we cut ourselves off from the presence of God, and the weaker our faith and spirituality. That means the very path to discovering new strength is through embracing and facing our weaknesses. But in order to do that, we have to take the step of faith that God’s grace truly is sufficient for us in any and every crisis we find ourselves. We can only discover that strength if we entrust ourselves into God’s hands.?
The truth is that there are a myriad of thorns and types of thorns that confront us, a myriad of weaknesses and types of weaknesses. At the end of the day, though, the gospel is simply this: In the midst of human and sometimes very imperfect lives, God’s grace still meets us, surrounds us, transforms us, and works through us in unique and magnificent ways. Weakness and power inextricably bound together. And for that, thanks be to God.
 Alan Brehm, “Strength in Weakness,” The Waking Dreamer website: http://thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com/2012/07/strength-in-weakness.html.