My Mother of All Flu Bugs & Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh
NOVEMBER 2, 2015
My wife Anna and I are getting over the mother of all flu bugs. In fact, for the first time I can remember I had to cancel a speaking engagement because I was sick. I was supposed to speak at a pastors’ thing in Miami and then, on Sunday, preach at my friend Kent Keller’s church. We’ll reschedule in the not too distant future and Kent was, as always, quite gracious.
I’m a lot better and in the office. Anna is better too, but she still has a good way to go.
I’m more spiritual than she is. After all, I’m ordained.
Okay, so maybe it’s not that. Could be that pipe smoke kills off the worst of the germs or makes Anna sicker.
Are you familiar 2 Corinthians 12 in which Paul talks about his “thorn in the flesh”? Scholars continue to debate over the meaning of that thorn. Some have suggested that Paul’s thorn was an eye problem because of his statement that he wrote with such “large letters” (Galatians 6:11). There is a tradition that Paul had a serious physical disability (maybe a hunchback) and that was his thorn. Some have suggested that Paul was referring to a besetting sin. When I was a pastor, I often thought that Paul’s thorn was a critical church member (but then that would be a “pain in the neck,” not a “thorn in the flesh”).
However, I now know what Paul was talking about…He clearly had a bad case of the flu.
That fits. In fact, a lot of things fit that passage because God didn’t allow Paul to identify his thorn in the flesh. God hardly ever checks with me, but I suspect that he wanted his people to insert their own weakness, suffering, shame, sin or pain in the text, and then apply the teaching to their own existential situation. That would be so God.
Paul wrote about his thorn after a fairly long section in which he was quite prideful and bragging about his ministry. He wrote, “I’m talking like a fool” (i.e. “This is sinful and I know it”) but then he continues doing it. (I can identify with that.) By the time the Holy Spirit got Paul’s attention and he repents, God inspires him to write one of the most powerful and incredible statements of God’s grace and our weakness ever penned.
Paul wrote that God, to keep him from “waving his peacock feathers in the breeze,” gave him a thorn in the flesh. I don’t know what the thorn was, but Paul didn’t like it and pleaded with God to take it away…not once, but three times. (“If you loved me, Lord, you wouldn’t allow me to have this flu. This is no way to treat your children.”)
Have you ever asked God to take away the pain or sin, to make you a better person, or to take away the shame of and embarrassment over something you said or did? I have, and not just when I was struggling with the flu either. I try to reason with God, but he’s unreasonable in his refusal.
I try to remind him about my witness and how it’s being hurt by my weakness and/or sin, but he doesn’t seem worried. I tell God that I would be a far better servant if I were healthier, nicer and/or better behaved, and he laughs.
What’s with that?
Horace Taft, who was head of The Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, once expelled a boy for bad behavior and repeatedly breaking the rules. The boy’s father was livid and wrote to Taft, “You seem to think you can run this school any way you damn please.” Taft wrote back, “Your manners are vulgar and your language coarse…but you seem to have grasped the main idea.”
God is using our thorns to teach us the “main idea.” The main idea is, of course, that God does as he pleases for his own good reasons and we don’t get a vote. There is a sense (and I don’t want to go too far with this, but nevertheless it’s true in a profound way) in which everything bad is God’s fault. If you’re going to get ticked, be sure and remember who’s at fault.
Paul learned more than that. God was teaching Paul not only about God’s sovereignty, but also about God’s goodness even when it didn’t feel like God was good. This Friday, I’m moderating and speaking at a breakfast for a tremendous ministry here in Central Florida, Christian Help. This morning I met with the new director, Vickie Martin. She is a very impressive woman with a heart for God and a great compassion for the poor, hungry and homeless. I asked her where that came from and she said, “I am one.”
Then Vickie told me her story. I wish you could have heard it. It was all bad—sin, hunger, homelessness, being a single mom, and living a lifestyle that was as far as you can get from Christian. I was amazed and wondered how she got from there to the committed, loving and involved Christian who sat across from me. Vickie told me that it was Jesus. She didn’t know it in the dark, but God had a plan, knew what he was doing, and prepared her (by breaking her heart and showing her what she was really like) for what he was going to do through her in the lives of so many people. Vickie didn’t like it any more than Paul liked his thorn or I liked my flu.
There is one more thing Paul learned that was so counterintuitive, amazing, and crazy he could only learn it the hard way. God taught Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” It’s not in the text, but Paul is a friend of mine and I know. Paul’s response was, “Sufficient? Are you crazy? I offer you my incredible credentials, skills, gifts, commitment, goodness, faithfulness and life…and you don’t give a rip.”
But then Paul repented and realized that, even if he didn’t understand and as much as he hated it, he would be content and trust God. “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamites. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
The flu will do that to you, you know? So will everything that doesn’t kill you. And yes, that would include your sin, failure, pain and loss. One of the most controversial things I’ve ever taught is that our sin is the best gift that God gives…when we know it, and our most dangerous place is our obedience…when we know that. I’ve learned, by the way, that there is a direct correlation between how irritated people get with things I say (and how much I wince when I say them) and how true they are. The more irritated people are and the more I wince, the truer it is. That’s true about our sin and all the other dark places where we are compelled to go.
Everybody tells me that I should make my life count for the kingdom, I should make an impact for good, and I should fight the battle for Jesus. It’s just hard to do any of that when you’ve got the flu. But more important, as long as our gifts, obedience, efforts and perseverance do great things for the kingdom, we get the credit for doing great things for the kingdom. In Isaiah 42:6-8, God says clearly, “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Now that is way cool, but don’t stop reading: “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other…”
One of my favorite quotes is from the late Henri Nouwen. He is referring to leaders but it is true of us all: “I’m deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation.”
I don’t like that very much…any more than I like the flu.
But the flu helps me remember.
He asked me to remind you and said that if you didn’t learn it, he would give you the flu too.