Living Well Among Thorns

Finding Strength in Physical Weakness

It’s easy to romanticize physical suffering — especially when you’re not the one experiencing it.

Saints like Amy Carmichael, who spent over twenty years bedridden, and Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic who lives in constant pain, can evoke peaceful images of unbroken communion with God. We may imagine that it’s easier for them to endure pain and weakness than it is for the rest of us.

Yet the reality of physical suffering is that it’s insistent and intrusive. No one gets used to it. Pain demands our attention. Time slows to a crawl, particularly in the middle of the night, when we’re begging God for the relief of sleep. We feel alone and isolated. No one else can enter the prison that our bodies have become.

Pain Accumulates

If that weren’t enough, physical pain rarely exists in isolation — it’s usually accompanied by loss, weakness, and dependence. Often, we require help with basic daily needs, and we worry about the burden we’re putting on others. We second-guess every request, not wanting to bother someone one more time. Will people get tired and think we’re “too much”? Do they resent their lack of freedom?

We longingly remember the carefree days before our physical struggles altered our lives, when we could do what we wanted. Now we measure our energy in teaspoons rather than buckets. We weigh every decision, every action. Saying yes to one activity means saying no to many others. It is hard not to envy those with fit bodies, who seem to have no cares.

Pain, loneliness, and longing can give way to depression and despair. We cry out to the Lord for relief, but relief doesn’t come. The cancer spreads. Sleep eludes us. The pain intensifies. The medicine stops working. The side effects multiply. Our caregivers grow weary. Our friends stop checking in. Our resources run dry.

Doubt Advances

The vibrant faith we once had begins to fade — which is exactly what Satan wants to happen as we suffer. He wants us to doubt and fall away from God, convinced that he is indifferent to our cries. Satan knows that we’re susceptible to discouragement when we’re physically depleted, so that’s when he attacks. As physical needs scream for attention, Satan whispers to us, “Does God even hear you, let alone really care for you? If he does, why isn’t he delivering you?”

“If God’s greatest blessing is himself, then perhaps sustenance is a more precious gift than deliverance.”

Insidious doubts slip in, making us question beliefs we once held rock-solid: Are we deeply loved by an all-powerful Father? As soon as we recognize the mental shift, we need to stop and cry out to God, asking him to meet us in our sorrow, to deliver us from our pain, and to show us evidence of his goodness and love. Are we fixating on all that we’ve lost, on how God hasn’t delivered us, on how hopeless we feel? Or do we recognize that God is with us, working for our good, and caring for us each moment?

What we think about in the moments of our deepest pain is critical. Our mindset will determine how we approach the questions that bombard us. Here are three common questions I’ve asked: (1) How can God be “for me” if I’m still suffering? (2) How can God use my weakness for good? and (3) What good can come in moments of overwhelming pain?

1. How can God be ‘for me’ if I’m still suffering?

Sometimes God miraculously delivers us when we plead for relief, like at the parting of the Red Sea. Other times he sustains us, as he did with manna in the wilderness. The Red Sea deliverance freed the Israelites, but their need for manna kept them dependent on God. In gathering manna, they had a harder time forgetting their reliance on God. And if God’s greatest blessing is himself, then perhaps sustenance is a more precious gift than deliverance, since it can keep us in constant communion with him.

Take the apostle Paul. He begged God for deliverance from his thorn in the flesh, but instead he received grace — grace to bear the thorn, grace to be content with weakness, grace that would carry him through other trials as well (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).

When we realize that we can depend on God in our weakness, we learn to trust him in everything. Anyone can thank God for quick deliverance from physical suffering, but we often forget him until the next crisis. Yet when he sustains us in our pain, we’re confident that he is with us always.

2. How can God use my physical weakness for good?

We may think our physical weakness is keeping us from maximum fruitfulness, but that’s impossible. Our weaknesses are a part of God’s plan for our lives; they are intertwined with our calling. Paul thought his thorn was hampering his ministry, but God knew that it was the key to his strength: it forced Paul to be wholly dependent on God. When we are depleted and exhausted, lacking any resources of our own — it is then that we fully rely on God.

And in that reliance, we discover the power of God flowing through us — the same power that raised Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19–20). This power keeps us enduring when we want to give up; it showcases God’s glory and brings lasting change. Because Paul relied on God’s provision, he accomplished more for the kingdom with his thorn than he could have without it. His greatest strength lay in his submission to Christ.

Even Jesus’s greatest strength appeared in his greatest physical weakness. Throughout his ministry, Jesus impacted others by his actions. He calmed the storm with a word. He fed five thousand with a few loaves and fish. He cast out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead. He turned the world upside down.

But at the end of his ministry, from the Last Supper on, Jesus allowed others to act upon him: he was led away, he was whipped and mocked, he was beaten and crucified. When he submitted to his captors, the crowds saw weakness rather than what was really there: Jesus’s strength and power.

Just before these horrific events, Jesus begged God to take the cup of suffering from him. But it was through Christ’s submission to the will of the Father — to torture and humiliation, to physical abuse and carrying his own cross — that God brought about the most astonishing display of his power and grace.

3. What good can come in moments of overwhelming pain?

Even when we’ve experienced God’s grace through our suffering, we may wonder how anything good could be happening as pain steamrolls us. Yet in some inexplicable way, this too can be part of our sacred calling. We can submit our pain to God even as we cry out to him, and we can plead for relief, as Jesus and Paul did, while offering up our pain as a sacrifice to the Lord.

“Perhaps the sacrifice of praise in our pain is the most exquisite gift we could ever offer him.”

Few people on earth will see the impact of our worship, and some will say that our physical suffering is a waste. Perhaps it is a waste — just as the woman with the alabaster flask was “wasteful” (Mark 14:4). She poured out her precious ointment as an extravagant act of worship, and its fragrance spread everywhere. There was no utilitarian purpose; nothing tangible was accomplished — but the impact of her seemingly wasteful sacrifice will echo through eternity, as saints recount her story forever.

Perhaps our offering to God, amid our agony and weakness, will have the same impact. Perhaps it is just as precious, maybe more so, in the sight of the Lord than all the work we or others do for him. Perhaps the sacrifice of praise in our pain is the most exquisite gift we could ever offer him.

Of this I am sure: no act of worship to Jesus will be wasted.