It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Would that Christian faith were a magic wand – such that merely to wave it over difficult and unwanted circumstances resulted in them being transformed as we would wish or, in some cases, disappear altogether. On a more virtuous day we might be prepared to limit their use to the improvement of other people’s lives rather than our own; more often than not, however, it would be tempting to use them for ourselves.
Would that life were a bed of roses – idyllic, sweet-smelling and beautiful – with no weeds or thorns. In our least self-centred moments we might be able to claim we wish it were such for other people; more often than not we long for our own lives to be such.
Faith is, of course, nowhere near being like a wand or a perfect bed of roses so it is refreshing and reassuring to learn, in today’s passage, that even St Paul was given “a thorn” rather than a wand. He speaks of appealing three times for the removal of the thorn but to no avail. Rather than the removal of the thorn he speaks of all-sufficient grace – enabling him to hold on rather than give up: an inner strength in the face of weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities.
In his book, “There Are No Strong People” (*), Jeff Lewis suggests, “There’s no such thing as a strong person. Only a person with strengths, who is strong in some areas. We all know that we all have weaknesses. But we are also weak because we are strong, because our strengths can become components in our weaknesses.” Similarly, St Paul writes that it is in his weakness that he finds strength – God’s strength rather than his own. Thorns remain but God’s grace can enable us to live with them.
(*) There Are No Strong People, Jeff Lewis, CWR 2012.
God we pray for those afflicted by thorns: grant them grace sufficient that in tough times they may be given the strength they need. We pray for ourselves – calling to mind the thorns that cause us pain: grant us grace sufficient and in our weakness strengthen us that we may remain faithful and hopeful.
We offer our prayer in the name of the One whose head was pierced by the crown of thorns. Amen.