I don’t know anyone who likes thorns. They’re ugly. They’re mean. And they really hurt. Until today, I never considered that thorns, at least in an agricultural sense, might have a purpose. I should have, because God creates nothing without purpose. But I suppose I’ve subconsciously adopted the popular theory of humanity, figuring that what feels bad must be bad.
Turns out I was wrong. Not a big shock, as I’ve been embracing my own propensity toward imperfection a lot lately. It seems like the older and wiser I get, the less I think I know. I hope that’s somewhere on the right end of the maturity spectrum…
Anyway, I decided to look up whether thorns – particularly on roses – have a purpose, and I found that they have been deterrents to both burglars and animals. When planted beneath windows or around the perimeter of a property, they make it difficult and painful for a thief to trespass. In many plants and crops, the growth of thorns is a natural defense against invading creatures. I’m sure there’s so much more to God’s vision for thorns than just what we can observe and speculate about, but it was enough to humble me in my own opinions once again.
There is another kind of thorn which proves not only useful, but beneficial in our lives. It is the spiritual thorn. Paul speaks about it candidly in 2 Corinthians 12:7. He says that he was given a thorn in his flesh in order to keep him from becoming too prideful because of the great revelations he had received from God. Here is where we tend to get all kinds of confused. Why would God give us something that hurts? Most people would consider that unloving. Paul considers it protective.
Just like thorns in an agricultural world protect homes and crops from being invaded and destroyed, so the thorns God gives protect our souls and our joy from being robbed by pride and boasting. God opposes the proud, but He gives grace to the humble, James 4:6 tells us. I’m getting a little ahead of myself with the gift of grace that’s wrapped within the gift of the thorn, but the point is that pride will always destroy us, and since God desires to prosper us, He sends the gift of thorns.
Quick little nugget a wise shepherd once taught me: Pride is blinding. Most prideful people would tell you that they’re not, because we can never see our own pride. It takes an intimate walk with God and people who we trust and invite to be honest with us, in order to identify and root out the dangerous presence of pride from our lives. Blessed is the one who ensures that both relationships are present in her life!
Returning to the theme of thorns, Paul throws another wrench in our already perplexing passage when he says that the thorn arrived as a messenger of Satan. Whaaaaaat?! How can this be? How can God send Satan with something painful, with the intention of protecting and prospering us?! This is more than most people can – or want to – process, and so it’s often where people drop out of the race of faith and decide just to “believe in” God, but not actually have a relationship with Him.
I get it. It looks bad. It feels bad. Therefore, in our finite minds, it must be bad. But Scripture does not operate under the law of human logic. In fact, Scripture aims to offend and challenge that logic, and to bring our minds into a higher law – one that transcends reasoning. It isn’t that we aren’t supposed to think. It’s just that we are supposed to think with renewed minds – minds that see beyond the realm of what is humanly visible, into the realm of what can only be seen with the help of the Spirit of God.
So, from that lens, let’s take a little peek at God’s purpose in using one who is bad to bring a thing that is bad, to somehow bring about good in us…
To do that, we have to read a little beyond Paul’s announcement of the thorn, to what He tells us that thorn produced in his life. We know what God intended for it to produce: the destruction or prevention of pride. Another name for that is humility. But how did something so awful produce God’s purpose? Paul says that the presence of the God-given thorn, working through a demonic messenger, caused him to lean into God for help. Because he couldn’t handle it on his own, He turned to God.
Like many of us, his first approach involved begging God to take it away. He asked three times for God to remove it from his life. Sounds like someone else we know, doesn’t it? Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed for God to remove the cup of suffering he was about to drink as He faced the agony of the cross. But God didn’t grant Jesus’ or Paul’s request. (Actually, Jesus’s request was followed by, “Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours be done,” so that was a request which God honored).
Instead, God gave something much greater than immediate relief from the pain and torment Jesus and Paul were experiencing. He gave Paul His grace. Grace which He said would be sufficient. Scripture doesn’t tell us what He gave to Jesus, but we know from what is revealed throughout the Bible about God and the way He moves through prayer that – without question – He gave His strengthening presence.
In Paul’s case, the word sufficient might seem a bit of a weak promise. He had a thorn which was harassing him, through a demonic agent, and God gave him grace that was “good enough.” Actually, the Greek word originally used for our English translated word “sufficient” meant a whole lot more. It meant that what God gave Paul – His grace – would cause him to be possessed by an unfailing strength, would defend and ward off the devastating effects of the thorn, and would cause him to be satisfied and content with the gift God has chosen to give him. God then followed that promise and that gift with an added reminder: His promised strength would be made perfect in and through the weakness of Paul as he became willing to endure the thorn.
Most of wouldn’t stand in line to sign up for this deal. But sooner or later in our spiritual walk, we are going to encounter it anyway. We won’t always be strong. We won’t always be able. We will face – or rather receive – thorns which God intends to use to build and strengthen us by causing a weakness in us that invites us to lean more into Him.
The culminating beauty in all of this is that we are invited into the lifestyle of relying on God’s grace, which is the very thing that He used to save us (Ephesians 2:8). Grace was the promise on the horizon as Jesus wrestled in the garden. Through His death, grace was born for us. He wrestled for what Paul received, and what we, too, are positioned to receive as we embrace our thorns. Some have said that grace is God’s favor toward us. But it’s much more than a favor. It’s the force that moves things into their destined positions in the spiritual realm. We can’t really do much of anything with eternal impact without relying on the power of God’s grace.
I remember the day I received this revelation, because a weight came off of my life that never returned. I realized that I didn’t need to always be the strong one. People told me all throughout my life that I was strong, and I argued with them internally. I just felt like I had survived – and barely, at that – and that didn’t feel very strong to me. But I had survived by relying on my own ability to do so, finding my own way through, and that had worn me down. It was a heavy load to carry. The day I received the gift of God’s grace, to help me endure a nasty thorn, I fell to the floor in exasperation and got up singing and dancing. It changed me permanently.
I do nothing on my own now. I throw myself upon God’s grace to help me live every day. I tell Him, “I can’t do this, but you can.” When people compliment me on my gifts, abilities or accomplishments, I laugh. And then, if they will hear it, I tell them the story of how I really have no ability except for what I trust God to help me do. They are amazed when they hear my story, when they see my thorn, and it helps them to see the greatness of God in the weakness of me.
I am happy and free, content and satisfied, because I know that – whatever comes – I have the grace of God to help me through it. I wouldn’t trade that for a thorn-less life any day!
Dear Woman of Breakthrough, God’s grace is only a theological mystery until you receive and embrace your thorn. But when you do, remember that, wrapped within it is the greatest force in the universe: the beautiful grace of God. The God who gives you permission to be weak, because He promises to be the strength you cannot, and were never meant to find within yourself. As you trust Him, and as you embrace the thorns of your life by leaning into His grace, He will not only supply you with all that you need. He will also transform you! This, dear one, is the good thing which God has purposed through the seemingly bad.