LIFE’S THORNS

So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. [2 Corinthians 12:7 (NLT)]

roseThe prayer from The Valley of Vision read: “I am at a loss to know what thou wouldest have me do, for I feel amazingly deserted by thee, and sense thy presence so little…” In the margin of the book, I’d written “I feel this way sometimes!” while adding “I’m in need of grace!” For much of the past year, I’ve pondered the question of, “Where is God when you desperately need Him?” I’ve often felt abandoned and alone as if my prayers for relief were falling on deaf ears.

It’s easier to write about Paul’s acceptance of the thorn in his flesh, taking pleasure in our troubles, and finding strength in our weakness than actually doing it! While usually translated as “thorn” the Greek word used in 2 Corinthians 12:7 was skolops which meant anything with a sharp point that could produce pain—from a splinter to a stake upon which he could be impaled! We don’t know the exact nature of Paul’s thorn but there’s no doubt it caused him more distress than a mere splinter and, by the time he wrote 2 Corinthians, it had afflicted him for fourteen years! Used figuratively, the thorn could have been his poor eye sight, another physical ailment, depression, persecution, or an enemy. His vagueness is purposeful since the verse is not about the thorn’s identity but its purpose and, at some time or another, we all will have thorns troubling us.

Although Paul knew he could only survive by depending on the Lord, he initially saw only two options. Either the Lord could remove the thorn so he could get on with his ministry or the thorn would remain troubling him and hindering his ministry. God, however, offered Paul a third option. God would leave the thorn but supply him with grace enough to continue—not on Paul’s strength but, by the grace of God, on His.

For more than a year, a series of painful physical issues have plagued me. Although I had some temporary relief, now they’re back and brought some thorny friends with them. For the past year, my prayers were about returning to what I called normal, which simply was the old routine to which I’d grown accustomed and liked. Like Paul, I saw only two options and it felt like my prayers fell on deaf ears as I pled for relief. Thinking of myself as sort of a super woman who, with enough grit, could power through every setback, it was pride that kept me from praying the right prayer. Finally, rather than pleading with God to remove my thorn, my prayer was one of acceptance; I asked God for grace enough to meet each day and to show me how to serve Him in what is my new normal. God hadn’t been deaf to me but my pride had caused me to be deaf to Him. Giving the same answer He gave Paul, He reminded me that His power works best in weakness and His grace is all I need. God told me to accept my thorns and to trust in His future grace.

Depending on God’s power and strength, I will continue in this ministry but, in acceptance of my limitations, rather than Monday through Friday, God willing, I will publish only twice each week: Monday and Thursday. Paul’s thorn didn’t stop him and, while mine will slow me down, it won’t stop me either!

O that all my distressed and apprehensions might prove but Christ’s school to make me fit for greater service by teaching me the great lesson of humility. [The Valley of Vision – A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions (Arthur Bennett, ed.)]

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.  [2 Corinthians 12:8-10 (NLT)]

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UNWELCOME FRIENDS

“I have told you all this so that you may find your peace in me. You will find trouble in the world—but, never lose heart, I have conquered the world!” [John 16:33 (PHILLIPS)]

When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! … The man who patiently endures the temptations and trials that come to him is the truly happy man. For once his testing is complete he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to all who love him. [James 1:2,12 (PHILLIPS)]
tri-colored heron

Winters in southwest Florida bring sunshine, warmth, ocean breezes, and visitors. Just as guests arriving at your door are unavoidable during winter in Florida, so are troubles (only they arrive all year long)! Jesus tells us troubles are inevitable, James tells us to welcome them as friends, and Paul tells us that we can have joy in the midst of them. I suppose we might as well make the best of them since, like poor relatives when we’ve won the lottery, trouble is sure to find us no matter where we hide. Troubles, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are dead serious while others are merely annoying. Like guests, troubles are unpredictable; when you expect them, they don’t arrive and when it is least convenient, they frequently do! Then, just when you think they’ve packed up and are ready to leave, you discover they’ve cancelled their flight and plan to stay for the season.

It’s been said that fish and house guests start to stink after three days; I’m inclined to think that problems start to stink about that time, as well. Unfortunately, it often is easier to get rid of spoiled fish and unwelcome company than it is to free ourselves from difficulties.

In spite of James’ words, I’m not sure any of us can welcome troubles the way we do friends. Nevertheless, while we don’t have to be thrilled about the arrival of troubles, we can maintain a positive outlook during their stay. Knowing God has a purpose for our trials, we can even find some joy in their presence. While we may not welcome challenges, we can welcome the refining of our faith, the development of our endurance, and the building of our character that accompany them.

When I look back over my lifetime, I realize that I’ve become a better person, not in spite of my troubles, but because of them. In retrospect, I see that good truly came from all the bad that happened. That said, I’m the first to admit that I don’t look forward to any more faith-strengthening or character-building experiences. Thank you, God, but I’d just as soon stop right here. God, however, doesn’t give us a say in that matter and He’s not done with any of us until our last day on earth. While I’m not putting out the welcome mat for misfortune, calamity, trouble, and trials, I won’t fear their arrival.

Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician prescribes because we need them; and he proportions the frequency and weight of them to what the case requires. Let us trust his skill and thank him for his prescription. [Sir Isaac Newton]

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we have only a hope of future joys—we can be full of joy here and now even in our trials and troubles. Taken in the right spirit these very things will give us patient endurance; this in turn will develop a mature character, and a character of this sort produces a steady hope, a hope that will never disappoint us. Already we have some experience of the love of God flooding through our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us. [Romans 5:3-5 (PHILLIPS)]

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YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” [Isaiah 55:8-9 (NLT)]
spiderwort

During our summer travels, we were seated with a young couple during breakfast at a rural B&B. Upon discovering they were PhD candidates at the University of Chicago, we asked for an explanation of their research. Our eyes glazed over as the man used words like photons, leptons, mesons, baryons, and hadronic interactions. By the time his wife explained her materials research and mentioned macromolecular interactions, microstructures, interface dynamics, nanoparticles and stress variations, I think we would have preferred a flippant, “We’d tell you but then we’d have to kill you!” response to the ones we got. As patient as they were and as dumbed-down as they made their explanations, we barely knew more about their studies at the end of our conversation than we did at the beginning.

Perhaps a better answer to our questions would have been, “You wouldn’t understand even if we told you!” Nevertheless, if they’d said that, even though they were right, we would have been offended by their answer and insisted we could figure it out. Their world, however, is so far removed from ours and their vocabulary so specific that it would have taken them hours (more likely days) of explanation before we could have a vague understanding of what they did and why they did it. Nevertheless, we managed to find common ground in our fondness for Chicago, the charm of the B&B, and the delicious breakfast we were enjoying.

Even though the Bible clearly explains that God’s thoughts and ways are not ours, Scripture’s answer is neither satisfying nor comforting in the face of tragedy. Naturally, we want an explanation but God is strangely silent. Perhaps that’s just His way of saying, “Trust me, child, you really wouldn’t understand even if I explained it all to you!” While it’s not found in the Bible, the old maxim, “God works in mysterious ways,” is true. If the world of physics and materials science is beyond my limited understanding, I know I’m incapable of ever understanding what makes God run the universe the way He does. I’m still having trouble understanding a love so great that He gave His son as propitiation for our sins! I can’t fully grasp an all-powerful God who has always existed and always will—an all-knowing God, unconstrained by time or space, who can be everywhere at once—a God who can see yesterday, today and all the variations of tomorrow at one time. If I can’t fully comprehend God’s traits, what makes me think I could ever comprehend His reasoning?

We mortals want a detailed explanation of our lives from God but, even if He offered us one, we’d never understand it. Moreover, I’m not so sure I really want to know—the weight of such divine knowledge would be overwhelming. As we did with those grad students, however, we can find common ground—in God’s case, that would be His love for us and our love for Him. For now, that will have to suffice.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! [Romans 11:33 (NLT)]

The teaching of your word gives light, so even the simple can understand. [Psalm119:130 (NLT)]

God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs And works His sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.
[William Cowper]

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DO NO HARM

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8 (NLT)]


Rather than in the Hippocratic Oath, “To do no harm” is found in Hippocrates’ History of Epidemics. “First, do no harm” actually dates to medical texts from the mid-19th century, and is attributed to the 17th century English physician Thomas Sydenham. Whoever said it first, I’m relieved those words weren’t the only ones recited by my doctors when they graduated from medical school. Simply doing no harm seems to set the bar too low. I want my physicians to do more than not harm me; I want them to help!

It’s never enough to stop at doing no harm; as Christians, we are to do what is right and good. Remaining on the sidelines may do no harm, but it rarely does any good either. We can’t stand idly by while people are in need nor can we ignore the plight of our neighbor, whether he lives right around the corner or half-way around the world. Rather than Hippocrates’ “do no harm,” I prefer the words of St. Ambrose in a 391 AD treatise setting forth the duties of the clergy: “It is not enough just to wish well; we must also do well. Nor, again, is it enough to do well, unless this springs from a good source even from a good will. … It is thus a glorious thing to wish well, and to give freely, with the one desire to do good and not to do harm.”

Of course, “to do good and not to do harm” requires determining what is good and what is harmful. In medicine that line often is blurred. Take chemotherapy—while it kills dividing cancer cells, it also kills dividing healthy cells like hair, skin, bone marrow, and the lining of the digestive tract. Nevertheless, it is used to treat cancer because it does more good than harm and the damage done to those healthy cells usually doesn’t last.

In everyday life, the line between doing good or harm also can be blurry. After he advised clergy to be generous in giving, Ambrose explained that generosity didn’t mean they should give an extravagant man the means to continue living extravagantly, facilitate an adulterer in his adultery, or aid someone plotting against his country because, in those cases, giving would do more harm than good. While his examples seem pretty straightforward, determining whether we’re helping or hurting others rarely is so clear-cut.

As Christians, we have the desire to help others, especially our loved ones. We must prayerfully determine whether we are empowering people to achieve something they couldn’t do by themselves or simply enabling them to perpetuate a problem. While empowering helps, enabling harms. There are certain battles that are not ours to fight, debts that belong solely to the debtor, and work that must be done without our help. There are consequences that others must face—things that will be lost, disappointments that will occur, hardships that must be endured, tears that must be shed, restitution that needs to be made, and even time that must be served. We do more harm than good when we deny our loved ones those life experiences that rightfully are theirs. Sometimes denying help is the best way to do good for someone.

Father God, guide us in our efforts to do your good works. Keep us from ignoring the many needs around us but don’t let our efforts to be helpful to those we love do more harm than good. Give us the means and desire to do good and the discernment to know the difference between doing good and doing harm. Show us the path you want us to take so that we always do the right thing.

Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. [James 4:17 (NLT)]

Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. [Romans 14:10 (NLT)]

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PETER WENT FREE

O Sovereign Lord! You made the heavens and earth by your strong hand and powerful arm. Nothing is too hard for you! [Jeremiah 32:17 (NLT)]
angel

Herod Agrippa I was a good politician who knew how to manipulate people to gain their loyalty and support. When his approval rating went up after the execution of James, the king arrested Peter, the acknowledged leader of the apostles. Perhaps he thought by literally cutting off the head of this new sect, he could put an end to the troubling Nazarene movement. After imprisoning Peter, Agrippa planned to try and execute him once the Passover ended. The trial’s delay was because Jewish law did not allow for executions during the eight-day celebration.

Since this was Peter’s third arrest, Agrippa made sure he was not going to be released with a slap on the wrist or allowed to escape, as he’d previously done. Peter was guarded by four squads of four soldiers each.  Although a prisoner usually was attached by chain to one guard, Peter was chained to two soldiers while the other two guarded the door to his cell.

At this point, it appeared that evil had won. John and the others were mourning James’ death and Peter was in custody facing execution! Rather than lose heart, however, the church spent the eight days and nights of Passover fervently praying for Peter’s release. I suspect that while Peter was chained in his cell, when he wasn’t evangelizing his captors, he prayed as well. Herod may have had prisons and chains but the church had the power of prayer. On the night before his trial, Peter was miraculously freed by an angel. Herod Agrippa thought Peter was secure in prison but he didn’t take into account the power of God—the cross and sealed tomb couldn’t stop Jesus and a cell wouldn’t stop Peter!

What’s interesting in this narrative is that Peter thought it was just a dream when the chains fell from his wrists, the angel led him from the cell, and the gates opened by themselves. It wasn’t until the angel left him on the streets of Jerusalem that the apostle realized the Lord actually freed him! In the same way, in spite of their week of fervent prayers, when Peter appeared at the home where the church had gathered to pray, they were so astonished that their prayers were answered that they didn’t believe the servant who said Peter was at the door nor did they believe their eyes when they actually saw him! They were like the Iowa church during a several months’ long drought. When they called for a prayer meeting, everyone came and prayed for rain but nobody believed enough to arrive there with an umbrella!

As Puritan minister Thomas Watson pointed out, “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.” Even though the odds against Peter were astronomical, we should never bet against God nor should we be surprised when He answers our prayers or exceeds our expectations!

Forgive us, Lord, when we’re surprised by answers to our prayer; Increase our faith and teach us how to trust Your loving care. [Sper]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:27 (NLT)]

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.  [Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)]

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THIS JAMES WAS KILLED WITH A SWORD

A little farther up the shore he saw two other brothers, James and John, sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, repairing their nets. And he called them to come, too. They immediately followed him, leaving the boat and their father behind. [Matthew 4:21-22 (NLT)]
blue jay

The sons of Zebedee, James and John, were among the first to follow Jesus. Along with Simon Peter, they were part of Jesus’ inner circle. The three men knew Jesus the longest, saw Him raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead, were witnesses at the Transfiguration, and went with Jesus to Gethsemane. It was these brash brothers who wanted to rain down fire from heaven upon an inhospitable Samaritan village. Because of their impetuous tempers and fiery zeal, Jesus gave them their nickname: “sons of Boanerges” (meaning sons of thunder). It even may have been at their urging that their mother brazenly asked Jesus to grant special places for her boys in His kingdom.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus around 33 AD, the first followers of Jesus were tolerated by the Jewish leaders. They considered Jesus’ believers to be a minor sect that would die out in time. But, instead of diminishing, the Christian movement rapidly grew with its acceptance of Gentiles. By the time of Herod Agrippa I (41 to 44), Jewish leaders became alarmed at the number of Christ’s followers. Rather than a minor sect, they were becoming a religion—something the Jews considered apostasy. Like the Herods before him, Agrippa ruled over Palestine on behalf of Rome and his main purpose was to keep the peace for the emperor. Knowing the importance of currying favor with the Jewish leaders, the king began to persecute some of Christ’s followers and James, the brother of John, was the first of the disciples to die.

Acts 12 tells us he was “killed with a sword” which is just a polite way of saying James was beheaded. According to the Talmud, people were to die of the sword when found guilty of communal apostasy and James may have been accused of convincing the Jews to forsake Yahweh and Mosaic law for the “false teachings” of Christianity. Given what we know of James—outspoken, zealous, impulsive, and quick to anger—the apostle easily could have offended both Pharisees and king. Although the Sanhedrin lacked the right to execute without Roman permission, as king, Agrippa could execute at will, which he did!

We know little about this fisherman from Galilee who was among the first to be called and the first of the apostles to die. When Jesus called the brothers to come to him, they responded without hesitating, analyzing their options, or asking questions. The men immediately left their father and livelihood to follow an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus asked them if they could drink from the same bitter cup of suffering from which He would drink. Again, without hesitation or asking what that might entail, John and James said they could.

James died more than a decade after Jesus’ ascension and Scripture is silent as to what he did during those years. Although legend has it that James evangelized in Spain for several years before returning to Jerusalem, it took eight centuries before that legend took hold and there is no historical basis for it. In all likelihood, James probably limited his preaching to Judea and Samaria but we don’t know. All we really need to know, however, is that James was an ordinary person, like you and me. Although his life was cut short and his brother John lived more than one hundred years, both apostles lived for Jesus and always said, “Yes!” to Him. Can we say the same?

But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?” “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!” Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering.” [Mark 10:38-39 (NLT)]

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