There is logic behind the title to this article, and I promise to do my best to articulate it for you. This topic has been on my mind since last week, when my Bible Study referenced 2 Corinthians. Paul begins this chapter by speaking of his vision of heaven in the third person, not wanting to boast of his spiritual experiences but to confirm the promise of eternal life and to give glory to God without mistakenly receiving any credit or acclaim himself. He then writes:
“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Cor 12:7-10
There is a lot to unpack here, much more than I have the aptitude to cover, but I would like to highlight a few things. First, this is all predicated on the recognition and celebration of life beyond this one. There is eternity with our Savior and with perfect bliss. This is a reality that we all should dedicate our lives towards reaching. More on this later.
Next, Paul explains why he won’t boast. In his book “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis describes pride as the great sin from which most other sins derive. It was the sin that turned Lucifer from a “light-bringing” angel to the Prince of Darkness. So, for the obvious reason that this is a sin against God and he believes in eternal paradise, Paul avoids boasting about himself.
Paul takes it further, though. He does not want to be recognized by what he says about himself, but by what his actions say about who he is. It is a similar sentiment to James 2:18, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” Paul wants a living, acting, real faith that doesn’t merely sequester belief into an intangible box that exists solely within the confines of his own mind. Rather, he wants his faith to be the prism through which he sees all of his life.
As is the case with most people who have this sort of epiphany, it ends up being more than he signed up for. Three times, like the three times Peter denied knowing Jesus, Paul asks God to remove his torment. So why doesn’t He?
First, it’s important to remember that God is not inflicting pain on Paul. Satan is. God is simply adhering to Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.” As strange as it seems, God is not removing the pain Satan inflicts, because by not doing so, it is in Paul’s best interest towards reaching paradise. In other words, the pain Paul experiences is a blessing in that it strengthens him, and more than anything, causes him to grow closer in his relationship to God.
It’s tempting to dismiss this as the beliefs of someone more pious than us. After all, we were not blinded for persecuting Jesus’s followers and we did not hear his voice asking us why we were doing it. Paul lived a life we can’t really relate to.
But, I challenge you to look back at your own life. Think about the moments when you experienced the most growth. Consider when you felt closest to God. Now, think about the most painful things you’ve experienced. Is there overlap?
I know there is for me. The times I’ve felt the closest to God were often the times when I knew I couldn’t stand on my own two feet and I needed Him to carry me through each day. I’ll take it further than that, though, and argue that pain does not only draw us closer to God, but to each other. I think of the people rallying around my family when my mother was sick. There are countless stories of people forging strong relationships after enduring a tragedy together. I’ll even say the grueling basketball practices I survived with my teammates in high school helped to forge some lifelong friendships I still enjoy today. C.S. Lewis put it best:
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
With pain being this surprising ally, then shouldn’t we try to accept it? Or, at the very least, recognize its place in our lives as a potential agent of soul-saving change?
It is with these thoughts that I look at some of the messages we see in our world today and I become disheartened. I watched a movie this weekend with my wife entitled, “Me Before You.” It was really a witty, charming, well-done movie about a man who becomes quadriplegic after being hit by a car and his caretaker who falls in love with him. It turns out he’s planning on committing assisted suicide unless his parents can prove that life’s worth living. And despite seeing the world, works of art, and living in a castle (literally), and winning the love and affection of a good, beautiful woman, the main character still decides to kill himself.
I can understand the intended mercy and warmth meant behind portraying someone as dignified in “choosing to die.” We think of examples like Old Yeller when we convince ourselves that all this poor creature has left is a life of pain and misery, so the humane thing to do is to shorten that misery. And that could maybe make sense, despite the notion that where there is life there is hope, if joy on this world was the sole and ultimate goal.
But, remember the first few verses of 2 Corinthians 12. Paradise exists. Paul goes to great lengths to convince us that it is real based off personal experience. We have our lifetimes to grow and reach and yearn for God and paradise, and cutting that life short in the least is not mercy, even if mercy is its intent. It is theft. Removing someone’s pain by cutting his or her life short is stunting his or her growth. It is not allowing time for God to perfect that person and bring him or her into His kingdom. It is an intended act of humanity that achieves the opposite effect in an eternal perspective.
I suppose you could argue it’s easy for me to say. I’ve never been there. I’ve never had to deal with agony a fraction of what people who choose this course deal with on a daily basis, and you would be right. Like Paul, I find myself praying to avoid that type of pain. You’d be irrational to seek it, and it is not God’s intended plan for us.
God wants us to freely choose Him, but we are encumbered by sin and fault, and we veer from the path. Sometimes, it is too far, we make so many small concessions until we’ve conceded everything while thinking we’ve compromised nothing. In these cases, we must be stopped, and since we cannot stop ourselves, we end up hurting ourselves and one another. Rather than simply removing that pain and letting us continue to make the same mistakes, God will use it to wake us up, to shake us from our stupor, and to save us from ourselves. That is the act of mercy.
Instead of refusing that opportunity to grow, instead of fleeing, hiding, and looking for shortcuts, when we have pain, when we are weak, when we are insulted, persecuted, have hardships and difficulties, let’s trust Him. Let’s rally together, lean on the loving support from each other, and most of all depend on the love, grace, and mercy of God. Let’s not succumb to these tests, but instead, let’s succumb to God.