If we are in Christ, then suffering cannot interrupt or interfere with his love for us. Even our worst trials are forced, through his powerful and loving hands, to serve our good — to draw us nearer to him, to strengthen our faith to endure, to prepare us to comfort others, to expose and uproot our remaining sin, to carve out deeper, stronger wells of joy in him.
But sometimes, the good that God does in suffering is something averted rather than something gained. In these cases, we often do not realize what we’ve been spared. As a Father, God knows not only what we need, but what we desperately need to avoid. While some pain awakens us to our sin, other pain is God’s way of lovingly preventing sin — like the dark, dangerous, and inviting sin of pride.
The apostle Paul suffered a specific and persistent pain that awakened him to temptation and restrained his pride:
To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. (2 Corinthians 12:7)
To keep me from becoming conceited. He makes the point twice, in just one sentence. Why repeat himself? Because he knew the deadly, seductive appeal of pride. When God reveals his greatness to us, we can be tempted to think we are great. And the more he reveals, the more tempted we might be.
Pride’s Real Perils
Knowing more about God can be dangerous, even deadly. Even Satan might encourage you to learn more about God if learning causes you to rely more on yourself and less on God. God gave Paul his thorn “because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations” — because he had seen more of God than most. If we, like Paul, knew the spiritual dangers of pride, we would not despise our thorns like we do — our chronic pain or illness, our unfulfilled dreams or expectations, our relational brokenness and strife, our besetting temptations, or whatever else harasses you.
Paul uses the word for being conceited elsewhere when he describes the antichrist that will rise up one day: “the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:3–4). He is, in one heinous and horrifyingly destructive person, a life-sized portrait of the seeds of conceit in each of us. Conceit convinces us that we deserve what only God deserves, until we declare ourselves to be God, and harden our hearts against God.
In another letter, Paul warns us that a new believer thrust into leadership “may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6). Even after a church wants to make a man an elder, pride may yet well up in him until he falls over into Satan’s hands. The temptation to pride has a terrifying and ruining power, even (and maybe especially) within the church because of all that people in the church think we know about God.
Unless we learn to see the devastating power of pride, we will not see our thorns as blessings — and we may begin resenting God for having anything to do with them. But if pride really destroys people forever, and if we are vulnerable to its temptations, then our thorns — though genuinely unpleasant, even dreadful at times — will take on a new and surprising dimension of loveliness.
To be clear, any loveliness we see in our thorns will not dull or remove the pain, and Satan still harasses and threatens us among the thorns (2 Corinthians 12:7). But we will suddenly and slowly begin to see how the pain is being forced, by God, to protect, and refine, and serve us. The thorn that felt like a curse now becomes unexpectedly precious, because of what it has produced in us and for us.
Paul suffered more severely, and more often, than most. So he never minimizes the real agony of suffering. But he also would not let the heartache of suffering, any suffering, rob him of the good God is working for him through suffering. He was afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down (2 Corinthians 4:8–9), but he could still say, in every circumstance,
We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Corinthians 4:16–17)
The wasting away was real. Yet the tremendous, never-ending weight of glory was just as real, and even greater than what he lost or suffered. The affliction was intense, even unbearable at times (2 Corinthians 1:8), but the blessing always outshone the suffering, like a sunrise conquering the morning horizon.
Pleading with God
As much as Paul eventually embraced his thorn, he did plead for it to go away. Our thorns may be producing eternal good for us, good we would not trade for temporary comfort, but that does not mean we must want our thorns — or that we can’t ask God to remove them. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this,” he says, “that it should leave me” (2 Corinthians 12:8).
Paul pleaded with God, just as he pleaded with churches (he uses the same word in Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Ephesians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:12). Paul pleads a lot in his letters, but only once does he plead like this to God. What can we learn from his pleading? First, it is okay, even good, to plead with God for suffering to pass. Paul does here, and Jesus himself does in Gethsemane, even when he knew what he must suffer (Matthew 26:39).
Second, not only is it good to plead earnestly, with humility and faith before God, that he remove whatever thorn harasses us, but Paul pleaded repeatedly. Not just once, or twice, but three times he went to the Lord, begging for relief and deliverance. Even though he knows our every need and prayer before they touch our lips, God loves when we ask — and when we keep asking (Luke 18:1–8). So, when the pain or heartache feels overwhelming, don’t be shy to plead with him again.
Last, he did not plead forever. He pleaded, and then pleaded again, and then pleaded again, and then he embraced his thorn, almost as a calling, trusting that God meant to use his weakness in ways greater than he might have used his strength. If he truly needed this thorn removed, God would have removed it. Paul trusted that God knew what he needed and would give it freely, in his perfect timing. We are not limited to pleading just three times, but we should also, like Paul, prepare to embrace a “light and momentary” lifetime with our thorns.
We should not be afraid to plead with God, and then plead and plead again. But he also would have us cultivate a heart that can receive, embrace, and even boast in his all-wise, always-loving No — knowing that our trials and weaknesses reveal his grace far more than our triumphs and strengths do.
Content to Carry Thorns
We do not have to want or ask for our thorns, but if God is for us and with us, we can learn to be content with them. Paul says, “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” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Content not just with weaknesses, but with hardships, with calamities, with persecutions.
In the previous chapter, he rehearsed his hardships in brutal detail:
Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Corinthians 11:25–27).
And yet content. And not just in them or through them, but with them. Why? “For the sake of Christ” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Because of how Paul’s weaknesses, hardships, persecutions, and calamities bring the power, wisdom, grace, and love of Christ into fuller, more brilliant color. His thorns, however severe for now, served to frame all that he loved about Jesus.
And he was content with his thorns because they kept him from conceit. Therefore, when your thorns come or stay, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7). Pride foolishly demands to be exalted now. The humble love to exalt God — his grace, his power, his wisdom, his timing — even while we must carry our thorns for now. And the humble happily wait, with great and sincere contentment, for the day when God will exalt us forever and free us from every thorn we’ve ever carried.