OUR CROWN OF THORNS

 

Paulís thorn in the flesh - something intensely galling in the realm of the natural - is never defined, and never revealed; for, as it stands for everybodyís thorn, it may be any thorn: so that the countering revelation of comfort may cover all thorns. So Paul, at the close, gathers into his hand a whole crop of thorns, "Wherefore," he says (2 Cor. 12: 10), when the revelation is over, "I take pleasure in weaknesses" - fettering exhaustions, physical failure - "in injuries" - slights, insults, losses - "in necessities" - the hard drive of poverty - "in persecutions" - unmerited censure or open hate - "in distresses" - things that hurt the spirit, and wound the heart - "for Christ's sake": it is our crown of thorns. It is doubtful if there is a Christian alive who is not somewhere in that catalogue; and so, through Paul and his undisclosed thorn, the responding oracle of God covers all cases, and embraces all time.

 

Now the refusal of Paul's passionate entreaty for its removal, and the plan of God behind the thorn, remarkably reveal the foresight, the far-reaching providence of God and the ambitions He has for every child of His. The plucking out of the thorn is a desire so legitimate that Paul is never chidden for the prayer: exhaustion, hurt, poverty, calumny. Depression - all such can be, not only a mar to our happiness, but a serious obstacle to our efficiency, and a sharp limitation to usefulness. Why, then, did God refuse? Because even an apostle can be in danger. "That I should not be exalted overmuch, there was given to me a thorn." That he should exult in his Ďrevelationsí was no sin, but that he should exult overmuch was, naturally, the peril of Paulís life. God provides a fence at the precipice rather than an ambulance at its foot. That is, the thorn is not a cure, but a preventive; had it been a cure, it could have been removed with the disease: but since it is a preventive to a possible pride, and pride remains always possible, the thorn remains. For a lifelong peril there must be a lifelong thorn. There is no surer token of the Divine love than an irremovable thorn. The draught is from the hand of Satan, but the prescription is mixed by the Good Physician. "To save Paul from falling, he was impaled upon a stake."

 

But now the whole gravamen of the revelation is not the loss but the gain, not the battle but the victory, as expressed, in words as strengthening as any in the Book of God. "And, He hath said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee." What is grace? Grace is more than a kindly attitude of God, or even a gratuitous salvation: grace is implanted power; it is the Almighty Spirit in man conquering through man. Grace "is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy" (Jude 24).

 

Moreover, the sufficiency is sufficiency at every point, "He hath said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee." Sufficient for what? Write all thy wants underneath. How this has always touched the heart of God's saints! "Christís grace," says Mr. Spurgeon, "is sufficient to make thy trouble useful to thee, to enable thee to triumph over it, to bring thee out of ten thousand like it." "No aim," says Dean, Paget, "is too high, no task too great, no sin too strong, no trial too hard for those who patiently and humbly rest upon Godís grace." "God is able to make all grace abound unto you; that ye, having always all sufficiency in everything, may abound unto every good work" (2 Cor. 9: 8).

 

But now our Heavenly Father gives a reason for the sufficiency of His grace. "For My power" - My inherent, explosive, expulsive strength - "is made perfect" - can only act perfectly - "in weakness" - when lodged in the bruised and battered human. Into the hollows of our nothingness God fits the dynamos of His power: the tears, the depression, the pain, the heart-ache are the vacuum in which the Creative Spirit can act most powerfully. "If I had not lost my sight," says the authoress of Safe in the Arms of Jesus, "I could never have written my hymns." Helplessness clings, and so entangles its wire with Godís live current. As Luther puts it: "Great grace - great suffering; great suffering - great power; great power - great victory: all these are the links in an indivisible chain." The utter helplessness of the martyr, yet enduring the savage fury of the flame, is God in man - it can be nothing else, and nothing less.

 

So Paul now confesses, after the threefold refusal, to a complete revolution in his own attitude. "Most gladly therefore" - that is, in consequence of this discovery - "will I rather glory in my weaknesses" - my irremovable thorns - "that" - in order that - "the power of Christ" - the power by which He gets things done - "may rest upon me." Hindrances, that is, can make me, not weaker, but stronger. The secret lies in the fact that there are different kinds of power. There is the power of the bomb, and the power of the trowel. A bullet can kill a man, but a word can save a soul. To take but a single example: undeserved censure - one of the Ďinjuriesí Paul names - can be extraordinarily beneficial: for it tends to strip us of our pride, to drive us on God, to change our ambitions to the heavenly, to make us more pitiful for the sorrows of others, and to absorb us in a better Age; and all these are enormous accessions of strength, not weakness. The wounded heart is the wounding heart; and the finest steel is tempered only in fire.

 

Paul lands at last on a crowning plateau which we may well regard with intense envy. "Wherefore I take pleasure" - this is much more than mental approval, it is joyous acquiescence - in the whole cluster of thorns - "for Christís sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong." What costs us most enriches others most. "Only two places," says an old writer, "are safe for the believer - heaven and the dust: and of the two, the dust is the safer; for angels fell from heaven, but no one was ever known to fall from the dust." Extract the thorn, and what dread tragedy might not the flesh cause? None but God will ever know from what black pits His saints have been saved by sorrow.

 

Thus a wonderful solution is given for a problem in countless homes. Even a disease which is admittedly from the Devil is not necessarily healed on the ground that healing is in the Atonement, nor is it necessarily removed when God is besought for healing even by the chief of Apostles. The laceration of a believerís flesh - by disease or accident or infirmity - is not always the fruit of sin: Paulís hurt body was not because he was exalted overmuch, but lest he should be so. Pride is so horrible, so deadly, even when it is exultation in Godís most glorious gifts, that a staked flesh, a splintered body, can be a rich gift from God; and while He does not withdraw the Ďrevelationsí that imperil the Apostle, He counters them with a stab and a deeper grace. In the words of Henry Ward Beecher:-"God says - ĎNo; I put the thorn there to bleed you where you are plethoric.í Suffering well borne is better than suffering removed. I know enough of gardening to understand that, if I would have a tree grow upon its south side, I must cut off the branches there. Then all its forces go to repairing the injury, and twenty buds shoot out where otherwise there would have been but one. When we reach the garden above, we shall find that, out of those very wounds over which we sighed and groaned on earth, have sprung verdant branches, bearing precious fruit, a thousand-fold.í" Thus Augustineís prayer may well be ours:- "Hear, Lord, my prayer; let not my soul faint under Thy discipline, nor let me faint in confessing unto Thee Thy mercies, whereby Thou hast drawn me out of all my most evil ways, that Thou mightest become sweeter to me than all the allurements which I once pursued, that I may most entirely love Thee and clasp Thy hand with all the affections of my heart."

 

-------