Those pains that you feel, those frustrations that seem to stick with you? The way you find yourself reacting out of a mixture of fear, jealousy, worry and other such negative emotions? The way your body refuses to work in the ways you want it to, the ways you believe it should because you’ve been taught a certain way? The way that your heart leans when certain things are said and done? The embarrassing ways you sometimes show up, a myriad of failures and mistakes, heartache and tragedy in tow?
You’ve probably been told that these things are what Paul called “thorns in the flesh.” They are designed to keep you humble, small, reliant and dependant, made to keep you from thinking too much of yourself and growing too large, so large that you might consider yourself bigger than the divine God Himself. Having an inflated ego and grandiose, boastful and overly prideful sense of self does not contribute to wellbeing or positive self esteem. It is just a mask at face value for a deeper and more complicated battle with self.
Maybe you’ve discussed what your particular thorns are within your community or faith based circle and how you can navigate them properly. Or perhaps you thought it wiser to take the lead and go straight to the source, as Paul did. If you’ve asked God to take your ailments away, free you from them, to heal and render you whole, at peace, clear of these pains and frustrations so that you can breathe and be and do whatever comes next without limitation, you’re not alone.
God’s words to Paul held a special place in his heart and now they resonate greatly with me too. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Obstacles, within reason, can infuse our life with meaning and purpose. The things we overcome give us character and may become pages in someone else’s survival guide. I have long found my clarity in hindsight and realised that I don’t have to obsessively micro manage a plan, much less His plan, for my life.
Maybe, strange as it might seem, you’ve found yourself praying in gratitude, thanking God, for all the things that leave you fractured and frustrated and less than the wonder of a person you are. It can feel uncomfortable making peace with or embracing the struggle when we are so often told that energy attraction is real. We don’t exactly need more tribulations, right? It is hard to wrap your head around the fact that God would give you these thorns so that you might stay small and end up thanking Him for all the ways he keeps you in check when you were made so large. God is infinitely greater but he does not lord power over us nor does he wish for us to feel paralysingly indebted to him.
Paul was not the first one to speak of thorns in the flesh. Way back in Genesis, the very beginning, the Midrash, a Talmudic biblical interpretation, tells us that Moses was given a speech impediment. When it came time for him to return to Egypt and demand his people’s freedom from Pharoah, whenever he spoke on behalf of God, his speech changed and became clear and articulate. In this way, both Paul and his people were aware of a great divide, of the sheer power God himself exhibited not only through miraculous events but just being. They all knew that Paul was a vessel, a receptacle abundant and overflowing in nature.
Isn’t that why Paul said he was given thorns in his side? So that people would be able to differentiate between fallen humanity and Divine God, never confusing the two? The most widely touted and popular interpretation of the events of Moses and Paul’s lives have led to a diminishment in self and belief and promotion of God reliance. We’ve been told that there is no in between. We must deny ourselves in order to embrace God or we can’t possibly trust him enough, hand ourselves over fully into his care.
This entrustment is not about one or the other, your power or God’s. You just have to resist falling into the trap of believing that you do things entirely on your own, apart from and independent of God. That is the height of pride and a highly disabling state where you can’t enjoy the full bounty of God working in your life. We must always draw from a wealth, from abundance. We must sit at the right table. Pride comes before a fall, after all.
We are seemingly secure in highly dualistic ideas of God and humanity, pain and grace, power and reliance but they do nothing but lead us in circles of stagnation and actual disempowerment. This particular theology teaches us that the one way to God is through complete disconnection or divorce with your body, to consider yourself low so that you may render God high. Such a notion is wrong!
The idea that everything comes from God, that his power is not ours and an indictment on our humanity needs to be reframed. What if it was a way for us to include it all? What if the fact that Moses had a speech impediment and Paul had ongoing frustrations simply meant that our humanity is a conduit for grace, not a mere downfall? When we commit ourselves to a lifelong practice of learning, unlearning, relearning, when we foster a curious nature instead of quelling it, we are the best teachers.
What if the idea that it all comes from God, that it is God’s power not your own, is not an indictment on your humanity, but a way for you to include it all? What if the fact that Moses had a speech impediment and that Paul had ongoing frustrations simply means that our humanity is the conduit of grace, not its downfall?
God works through us at any given time as a reminder that nothing is impossible and we live in a constant state of impermanence. We are persistent works in progress and there is gold to be found amongst the rubble. God takes ordinary people the like of you and I and plays his hand. He is not taking a chance on us but demonstrating his belief in our inherent worthiness. God’s work is done in a variety of ways, through people who blend in, seem relatable. This is why we listen.
Grace doesn’t cover up your humanity. It doesn’t hide it away so that you can finally be acceptable. Instead, Grace is a tool of empowerment that allows you to rise in your fullness, while with kinks and tics and scars and beauty. We are encouraged to embrace a holy human self with the same love and endearment that God looks upon us with and knows we are deserving of. Grace will never take you from here. It will never take you away from the root of who you are. Instead, Grace moves you close to now, the present, to the version of self you call a reality. To love and power.
Here’s a mindful prompt: Choose to listen to your life, see it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness, touch, taste and smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” Frederick Beuckner.