By Lisa Huddleston
“But if you don’t drive out the inhabitants of the land before you, those you allow to remain will become thorns in your eyes and in your sides …” (Numbers 33:55).
“They will be thorns in your sides, and their gods will be a trap to you” (Judges 2:3).
“Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself” (2 Corinthians 12:7).
Since January 1st, I have been privileged to lead a group of women as we read through the Bible together and meet weekly to discuss what we’ve read. It is an honor as well as a huge responsibility. Each week I feel the weight of it as I do my best to prepare for our meeting by drawing in other resources, choosing points of discussion, or researching some difficult texts. My goal is to foster a love for God’s word and to get myself out of the way of His purpose. However, the second part of this goal is sometimes hard to accomplish.
Last night was one of those times. It had been a long day, and I was feeling the wear and tear. As I was barely into the lesson, I knew I wasn’t ready. Maybe I wasn’t prayed up. Maybe it really was just a long day. Or, just maybe, my old enemy was making a sneak attack when I wasn’t looking. Sadly, I believe that was the case. My guard was down, and Satan saw his chance.
I have struggled with anxiety for many years, and for many years, I have allowed it to win. I haven’t accepted opportunities that I wanted to because I feared the panic and insecurity that would often accompany these occasions. As I stood or sat before a group with all eyes on me, the panic would randomly rear up, stealing my breath away and causing me to feel the shame of once again giving into fear. I figured my best option was to avoid the possibility by avoiding teaching or facilitating. I was wrong.
As I’ve read through the Old Testament this time, I have noticed an interesting phrase—one that reappears in the letters of Paul. In Numbers and again in Judges, the people of Israel were warned against allowing other nations to remain in their midst. They were commanded to destroy all of the inhabitants of the Promised Land, but they failed to do so on many occasions. They bent the rules here. They made exceptions there. And before they knew it, the land was peppered with idolaters—“thorns in their sides” that blinded them in their relationship with the Lord and ensnared them with other gods.
As I read the words, “thorns in your sides,” I thought of Paul. This was the verse most familiar to me, but now I wondered what Paul had meant about his “thorn in the flesh.” What had caused him to choose these words? The thorns in these other verses were there because of the Israelites own failures to obey God’s instructions. Was this the case for Paul? Was it something he had brought upon himself? I wondered.
No one really knows what Paul’s thorn was. All we know is that it was something that caused him to recognize his own weakness and that he called it a gift given to him to keep him from exalting himself, from the idolatry of self-worship. Although his “thorn” was a “messenger of Satan,” it was backward blessing. Because his thorn forced him to see his weakness, Paul learned that God’s grace was sufficient and that the Lord’s power would be perfected through this very weakness. Unbelievably, Paul wrote that ultimately his weakness pleased him because it pointed to the working of Christ in his life.
How did that happen? How did Paul’s thorn become a blessing? Did he ever really beat it? I think the answer is yes and no. I doubt that Paul ever lost his thorn. It remained throughout his ministry as a reminder; however, did Paul let it beat him? No! He didn’t let it shame him into quitting. He didn’t use it as an excuse when faced with difficulties. Rather he let God use it for good—just as God used those other nations to cause Israel to return to him.
Yes, the message is clear as is the choice I face. I could retreat once again from situations that cause me to choke on my own words or I can say with Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong!” I see the choice. I can’t say I’m there yet; but, at least I am looking in the right direction thankful for the grace that is always sufficient even for me.