And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh; a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated (2 Corinthians 12:8).

In today’s New Testament reading Paul spoke about a special revelation which he had and was tempted to boast about it. The uniqueness of this revelation had the potential for spiritual pride. Embarrassed by the thought of boasting about this revelation, Paul spoke as though it was someone else who had the revelation when in truth and in fact he was speaking about his personal revelation.

Whatever the revelation, Paul claimed that to stop him from being too elated and to save him from pride “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.” We are not sure what was the ‘ailment’ but the fact he called it a ‘thorn’ signified it  was a painful and humiliating experience. Paul saw it as a form of evil, a messenger of Satan sent to torment him. Implicit in Paul’s claim was the belief that it was God who gave him the ‘thorn’. Paul saw it as serving some useful purpose. Conscious of the benefits derived from the experience Paul saw the ‘thorn’ as a gift from God. Its purpose was to save him from spiritual pride. In John’s Gospel Jesus sees his suffering as coming from God: “Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me” (John 18:11)?

We should not interpret today’s reading as indicating that it is God’s design that we should suffer in our lives. God does not ordain suffering but he allows it. Whatever suffering comes our way we can accept it with the knowledge that nothing happens without God’s knowledge and he can use it for good. Paul is not glorifying suffering; he accepts it for what it is worth confident that God’s grace is present when we suffer. Paul teaches that we can use our suffering to glorify God.

Our positive view of suffering does not mean we should do foolish things to make us suffer. It does not mean we should not seek to change the situation and improve our circumstances. Paul accepts his thorn but he prays for relief: “Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me.” Paul’s prayer is not answered in the removal of the thorn, but in the granting of God’s grace which is all that we need to help us endure our thorns.   Prayer is critical  in times of suffering. Prayer is the expression of our faith and trust in God who is our Father. God is a loving Father to whom we can go with our personal petitions knowing that he will answer them in his own time and as he thinks best for us.  Prayer comforts us in our times of distress as we seek God’s will and align ourselves with that will which seeks our ultimate growth as God’s children.

Although we are encouraged to pray for deliverance from our sufferings, there comes the time when we have to submit to it. Jesus knew that the cup was not going to be taken away and he submitted to his Father’s will. We must be honest with ourselves and confess that from a human perspective there are times when we have to change our prayers from asking for deliverance to one of acceptance. We accept life as it is and ask for strength to bear it.

As we experience our various forms of suffering we can be assured that God will be there for us. This was the assurance he gave to Paul and which he gives to us in our present trials: “My grace is sufficient for you.” Our sufferings might not go away but God will be there for us. God’s grace is sufficient for all needs. It is God’s grace which helps us to bear our burdens and carry our sorrows. We must not rely on our personal strength to get us through our thorns; God makes his grace available and offers it to us freely. God meets us in our frustrations, agonies, failures, disappointments, vexations, sickness, and anxieties-and gives us his grace. God’s grace gives us spiritual strength which enables us to triumph over the thorns that have the potential to rob us of life; “My grace is sufficient for you.” God does not abandon us to fate.

St. Paul is of the view that there is something positive in suffering. For him it saved him from pride and instilled humility. We must always remember that suffering cannot frustrate God’s will; this is the message of the Resurrection.

This question is often asked: “Is there any value in suffering?”

Suffering is part of the human experience. Once we are alive there will be thorns, we will have our moments of suffering in the forms of sickness, persecution, death, broken relations and many other ways. We should not be ashamed of our suffering in whatever form it comes.

Suffering helps us to realise that we are not self-sufficient; therefore the need for help from a power greater than ourselves. This realisation should reinforce our dependence on God and the need to serve this God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

One of the benefits of suffering has to do with the fact that it reveals the fragility of human nature. We are not as invincible as we claim to be; we are not as great as we think we are. We are all mortals who share a common finite nature. This should cause us to be humble and to avoid the temptation to be arrogant, boastful and self-serving. God allows suffering to come our way to humble us; it might come in the way of sickness, infirmity, poverty, persecution, oppression or some other act that can be so humiliating that it cause us to become humble. You might put it in common parlance and say that suffering cuts us down to our size. We should be thankful for those acts that teach us humility.

Paul sees his thorn as an occurrence which saves him from being too elated. It saves him from pride and the worship of self. In a similar vein suffering exposes our helplessness and saves us from boasting about our success, money, achievement, fame, ability, social mobility – forms of self-worship that separate us from our neighbours. Suffering also saves us from spiritual pride that separates us from God.

If we accept that suffering is a phenomenon we share with all humanity it should move us to seek to live in peace with all people. In times of suffering we need the support and goodwill of others.  As such we should endeavour to establish loving relationships with all people, to be kind, caring and compassionate, forgiving and loving.

Suffering can be an occasion that brings us into a closer relationship with God. God can use the experience to bring us closer to him. God speaks to us in our suffering and asks us to allow him to enter our lives and ease our pains.  Any form of suffering we go through should move us to seek God’s forgiveness and bring about a change in our way of living.

Sometimes God uses suffering to accomplish his will in our lives. In these circumstances his grace is all we need to help us through the storm.

Paul concludes by boasting of his weakness: “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.” Paul rejoices in his suffering and counts it a privilege to suffer for Christ. In his trials he is the recipient of God’s favour and he counts this a joy. When we are weak and at our lowest God’s grace gives us strength to carry on. In our weakness we experience the power of God. Many of us can testify to the times when we felt weak and down spirited; in these times we experienced new life and were able o stand on our feet. When we are weak and in need of aid, Christ shows his power in supporting us and making it possible for us to survive.

What can we learn from the New Testament reading?  God will give us his grace which will enable us to live with our thorns.

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