The life of the apostle Paul—unmarried man living 2,000 years ago, Jewish convert to Christianity, known-world traveler who survived beatings, shipwrecks, and imprisonment—can seem distant and foreign to our 21st-century existence. But there is one aspect of Paul’s life that resonates down through the centuries to every believer: his famous “thorn in the flesh.” A thorn in the flesh is a near-constant irritant causing discomfort or pain in life, something you may be able to ignore briefly but is frequently on your mind, and is presumably not there by your own doing.
This thorn is such an unrelenting and problematic part of Paul’s life that he pleads repeatedly with God for relief, as he relates in his second letter to the Corinthians: “… a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-8)
Name That Thorn
Almost without fail, the first thing a modern reader wants to know upon reading these verses is, what is Paul’s thorn? We begin to speculate, digging up clues from his other writings and revealing our particular fascination with another person’s secret problem. What could it be? Of course, we aren’t the first to have grappled with this question. Many theories have been proposed, among them: depression, malaria, epilepsy, vision problems, and Jewish persecution. We can speculate and debate all we’d like, but the fact is, we’ll never know. And there’s a reason for that.
It’s hard to admit this in 2020, but for my whole life, I’ve enjoyed politics. I find it fascinating to know about political systems and leaders, how they rise and fall, and how they affect the people who live under them. I plop my kids down in front of the TV with an electoral college map every fourth November and we watch the returns while they color in the results on their map. I read a (print!) newspaper every morning with my coffee because I like to know what’s happening in the world, my country, and my city.
Admittedly, it’s been more difficult to maintain a positive attitude toward current events over the past few years. Back in 2016, I assured my new-voter children that this particular election was not normal, that I had never seen anything like it in my entire voting life. And then along came 2020, which for many is a similarly difficult campaign and election season, only this time accompanied by a months-long pandemic, economic crisis, and ongoing social unrest and upheaval—each a challenge on its own, but taken together, an incredible strain on every individual and on society as a whole.
In one of the most famous first lines in literature, Leo Tolstoy boldly states, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Now, I haven’t read Anna Karenina, but I can say with confidence that, while he certainly captured our attention and still has us quoting him after nearly 150 years, he is wrong about happy families being all alike (although they may look that way from the outside). But he has a point about unhappy families.
Unhappy families can have an endless number of reasons why they are unhappy, and many of us are sadly familiar with one of them: generational sins (a.k.a. generational trauma or generational dysfunction). This is the tendency of persistent sinful behaviors to be repeated or “handed down” from one generation to the next, contributing to the unhappiness of that family and its individual members. This might be a particular problem with one member of the family, or an overall environment that permeates the day-to-day life and outlook of each person.
I wasn’t going to write about the coronavirus, the stay-at-home order, or the social distancing. I’ve been pondering the effects of this pandemic in my heart, talking it over with close family and friends, and reading others’ observations online. But as Month One drags into Month Two of this unique and difficult season in all our lives, I find myself returning again and again to the word that is beginning to define the spring of 2020 for me. The word is loss.
Loss is not the same as missing people or things. Missing people, places, and familiar activities is a very real (and often daily) part of this experience, for sure. We all miss these things—some people more than others, depending on our life situations and our own God-given personalities. And we know that one day, sooner rather than later, we hope, we’ll reunite with people, return to our activities, and go back to church, among other longed-for places.
“…in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me,when as yet there was none of them.” Psalm 139:16b
Deep in the human heart is a desire to hear, and sometimes tell, a good story. It’s there from the beginning, as babies, sitting on a lap for story time. It’s there when we’re growing up, reading books, watching television, going to movies. It’s there when we get old, telling our own story to others, reminiscing with siblings about a shared childhood, or reliving long-ago moments when our present life is fading before our eyes.
The blockbuster Broadway hit Hamilton capitalizes on this universal human desire by telling the story of an often ignored founding father and his unknown but impressive wife, Eliza. After telling their fascinating story for more than two hours, the company asks the audience, “Who tells your story?” It’s powerful and poignant. It grabs your heart and reminds you that you do indeed have a story that may be someday forgotten to history but is equally important to every other story of anyone who’s ever lived. For those who cry easily, like I do, have a tissue handy for this one.
“Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” —Psalm 27:14
There’s a lot of waiting that goes on in our house.
One teenager waits to see if he’ll be accepted into a technical program that will greatly alter his remaining high school years and give him practical skills and knowledge that he feels are relevant to his life now and in the future.
Another teenager waits to see if she’ll get a resident tutoring position at college that will greatly affect her financial situation, her commitment to living on campus, and future professional and academic possibilities.
My advice to both of them is about the same: Do what you can to achieve this goal, don’t miss any deadlines, and then wait patiently. And remember that no matter what the result, God knows what’s best for you. Even if the outcome isn’t what you would have wanted right now, it’s amazing how God works behind the scenes in our lives and we sometimes realize only years later that he did, in fact, work everything for our good.