A Thorn in the Flesh
I recently finished A Thorn in the Flesh: Finding Strength and Hope Amid Suffering by Pablo Martinez. I've read a couple of books on/about suffering and have found that they tend to address the topic by stating over and over (in different ways) that suffering, while hard, is for our good. I know that this is true - I believe the declaration in Romans 8:28 that for those who love God all things work together for good. But while it is true, saying it over and over is not the best way to help those who deal with suffering.
Dr Martinez looks at suffering in a different way. As a man who has dealt with his own 'thorn in the flesh' (reference to 2 Cor 12:7) - his thorn being an ongoing eye disease - he understands not only what suffering means but also how someone in a hard situation can deal with it.
The first chapter, Paul's thorn and ours, looks at the meaning of a 'thorn', different types of thorn and how thorns affect daily life. Dr Martinez then goes on to look more closely at Paul's thorn in various ways including the origin of the thorn and seeing the thorn as a gift rather than as a problem - 'In God's hands, the thorn ceased to be a curse and became a source of blessing...[it] constantly reminded [Paul] not so much of his own inadequacy, but of Christ's full adequacy to strengthen him.' (p25)
The rest of chapter one focuses on God's action in suffering:
He has the 'right' to keep secrets, we can't expect to always know why.
God suffers with us - he is not only a seeing God but an experiencing God (Exodus 3:7).
God has intervened through the cross of Christ.
The second chapter is called The thorn hurts: wrestling with God and oneself.
Starting off with a look at the pain that a thorn can cause - physical, emotional and spiritual, it then goes on to look at the various reactions that we have to that pain. Dr Martinez takes three: anger, anxiety and depression. He reminds us that they are natural reactions and that they are not necessarily sinful reactions - there is righteous anger etc - but there is obviously a point when those feelings can become sinful.
Prayer is the next thing on the list. Going back to 2 Corinthians 12, we look at Paul's reaction to his thorn - pleading with God. Sincere prayer is the right response.
We then see the common thread in the stories of Moses, David and Jeremiah - three men who struggled with thorns – which is trust in God.
What does it mean to accept? Not resigning yourself to the thorn, not putting up a a shield, not implying agreement with the thorn (becoming friends with the source) but to stop seeing the thorn as a foe - instead seeing it as an ally, seeing that 'God can use my life not only in spite of my thorn but precisely through it.'
Coming to this conclusion requires three changes: seeing differently (contentment), thinking differently (with the peace that passes understanding) and living differently (being willing to change). We then look at Christ - the perfect model of acceptance in the face of suffering.
Chapter 4 - 'When I am weak, then I am strong': God's grace and the strength of weakness.
Grace in action - three of the main effects of grace:
Renewed strength: grace empowers,
Change: grace transforms,
Maturity: grace teaches.
A lesson of a thorn - humility. 'All thorns help us to cultivate the humility that the Lord loves so much.'
Chapter 5 - Angels along my path: the love that heals.
People make a difference. When you have a thorn you don’t deal with it or live with it alone. People matter - family, friends and the wider church family. We are called to 'carry each other's burdens' (Galatians 6:2), 'stir up one another to love' (Hebrews 10:24) and to pray both for and with the person/family that is suffering.
We then look at the source of grace: I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me. Christ is beside me, he suffers with me and he intercedes for me. 'This is the best antidote to discouragement.'
Chapter 6 - Recovering the joy of living: new values for a different life.
The priority of being.
Our society is about doing and often a thorn can stop people doing things they want to do. But in this section Dr Martinez shows us the importance of who we are as opposed to what we do - how our goal is to become more and more like Christ.
The priority of a pilgrim.
We are only here for a short while - while living now is important we need an eternal perspective.
Lastly we look at perseverance, patience and hope both for today and for the future. If we have a Revelation 21 perspective we need not fear our thorns.
The book ends with a verse from William Cowper:
'Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break
in blessings on your head.'
I really like this book and think it's both helpful and biblical. If you're going to read a book this year on suffering, make it this one.
Book review by Ruth Field
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