We all go through trials and tribulations. All of us, both believers and nonbelievers in Christ, go through times of stress and struggle. A product of a fallen world, there are no limits to what these struggles can be. Ranging anywhere from diseases, fallen economies, deaths of loved ones, or difficult relationships, these tough times in life are seemingly unavoidable. As believers in Christ, we have a hope that we will one day be delivered from these rough spots in life. We look forward to times free of troubles and an eternity with our Lord Jesus. However, upon this earth, believers are still going to go through tough times. The difference in how believers should go about enduring them has to do with how we embrace them. We need to rejoice in our tribulations while realizing that God has a plan and purpose for us, even in the midst of the most perilous circumstances.
In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, the Apostle Paul is describing a situation that had recently come upon him. Known as the “Thorn in the Flesh” passage, Paul has been allowed several trials to plague him while he is conducting his ministry. The passage is as follows: “And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (NKJV).
Not knowing why or what purposes his afflictions serve, he asks God several times to remove them from his life. Paul describes these troubles as “thorns in the flesh,” which isn’t a pleasant picture to imagine. At my home, the dominant trees upon my landscapes are Osage Orange and Locust trees. Osage Orange, commonly known as Hedge trees, have small thorns that make working with the trees a painful procedure, but Locust trees, in contrast, have thorns that average about three inches in length. These thorns are large enough to do some serious damage to the physical body, perhaps even punching right through a hand or a foot, if enough pressure is put upon it. My father, a retired First Lieutenant in the United States Army, the US Army Airborne divisions have nicknamed these locust trees “Jesus” trees, because that’s who you’ll be calling to if you ever land in one of these trees after jumping from an aircraft! (Please note that although this is a good example of the power of these thorns, I don’t support using Christ’s name in vain). As we can see, Paul’s thorn in the flesh was capable of greatly slowing his ministry.
Even though he asked God frequently to take these things away, God declined the request, making it known that His grace was sufficient enough for Paul to overcome these trials. Paul then realized that these trials were allowed into his life to remind him that He is small, and that God is great. They kept him humble; Paul’s realization of his weakness strengthened his faith and therefore made his ministry more effective. It is important to note that a successful servant for Christ depends on a weak servant. A person realizing their weakness realizes that they would be literally nothing without God’s grace. A person who learns to rely upon God to get them through whatever it is they may be facing will see the goodness and the power of God, therefore equipping them to turn around and help anyone who may be struggling with similar circumstances. This is one way weakness in tribulations will help to strengthen believers’ faiths.
I find it easiest to illustrate this principle with an example from my own life. My major struggle in life is dealing with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Commonly, people associate this condition with people who constantly arrange things into specific patterns or excessive hand-washing due to a fear of germs, but my obsessions are much different. I deal with obsessive thoughts and fears regarding many things. In previous years, for example, I would constantly worry about the position of my shoulders; one of them seemed higher than the other, which caused me to worry what people would think. These fears were the sources of many panic attacks, which is a sudden surge of anxiety-causing chemicals in the brain that cause the victims to seemingly lose all control of their actions for a time. There were times when I thought that my eyes were opening too wide when I was at school, which made my social life a major struggle when I was dealing with those thoughts. Recently, and for many years, my mind latched on to the thought that God may not be real, and that I believed a lie. My struggles with doubt then ensued, and even though I was able to correct myself of these thoughts, it was a long and painful process, with many years of painful mental struggle. My father describes the condition as an “over-active mind” syndrome. The brain runs on “over-drive” mode in order to keep itself busy, and often, whenever it does this, it generates junk thoughts. People who suffer from an over-active mind will always have something to obsess about, if they allow themselves to listen to their obsessive thoughts. The struggle here is to discern what thoughts need to be ignored and which ones are worth paying attention to.
I have asked God countless times to take these thoughts away, much more than three times, as we see Paul doing in our passage. The chemical imbalance in my brain causing all these hardships was not what I wanted to deal with, and I was exceedingly frustrated as to why I had to go through these times. However, God showed me this passage in Scripture, and when He did, I was greatly encouraged. I realized that God had a reason for me going through these trials; although I didn’t understand why at the time, I now realize that if God had just taken away those specific trials right when I asked Him to, I would have never learned how to deal with them in future years. Because I went through those trials, I now know not to latch onto my obsessive mind when it generates trash. Because I have gone through those tribulations, I am a much stronger and wiser person than I was in my younger years. Finally, because I underwent those struggles, I am able to turn around and strengthen those who may be going through similar circumstances. Therefore, as Paul did in verses 9-10, I will praise God for those afflictions and will find ways to praise Him in the midst of the storm, because I know that God has a reason to why I am going through these storms. When I was weak during the trials, I know that God was strong; His presence was felt in my weakness in a way that I would never have experienced anywhere else. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10b).
As hard as it may be, believers need to rejoice in afflictions and be patient in persecutions, because our Creator knows what He is doing. It is never easy to remain positive in tough times, and it is even harder to thank God for them when they come. However, when everything is complete, we will see what God has done, and we will be glad that we praised Him in the midst of the storm. In our weakness, whether we be depressed, burdened, or afflicted with the most painful circumstances, God is always near to us. As Paul found out, God’s strength is found in weakness; Paul was reminded that the most successful and efficient servants of God remain humble and realize that they are at their best ministry during their weakness. Therefore, let us praise God when we suffer for Christ’s sake, for we will witness the power of God in ways that are rarely seen in any other situation.