The pastor’s thorn

Paul David Tripp writes:

I was a failure and I was running. I couldn’t imagine a life of pastoral ministry anymore. It had once been a passion, a dream that seemed too good to be true but that passion had now morphed into a burden, one I no longer wanted to bear.”[1]

I’m sure that Tripp’s words will speak to the experience of many pastors, church planters, missionaries, youth workers etc.  It may be that this describes an acute moment of crisis or more something of the weekly grind and a constant battle going on in your mind and heart. 

It could be because you feel that you are failure due to a specific area where you’ve failed, a loss of temper, a misjudgement and you can’t see a way back. It could be because you are struggling with a sense of overwork and exhaustion.

It could be because of how you are being treated by others in the church as you find yourself in constant battles with cliques and those who hold informal power in the church or with fellow leaders that seem to be on a different page. Indeed, I think one thing that leaders struggle with is how they are treated when they are perceived to have failed even when they haven’t. It’s not that you consider yourself to have reached some level of sinless perfection. It’s not that you have nbever made or never owned up to mistakes. It’s that the way they treated you with legalistic harshness even when you weren’t actually in the wrong opens up questions about how you would have been treated if you were.

Then there’s the struggle that many leaders face with physical and emotional suffering due to health factors. I’ve recently contributed a chapter to a book where 7 pastors write about heir experience of depression.  It’s called “The pastor with a thorn in his side.” The title alludes to a Morrisey song (most of you probably won’t get that) but you will get the allusion to 1 Corinthians 12: 7-10.

“7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,[a] 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. 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

In that passage, Paul describes an incredible vision he received from the Lord. It is to prevent him from boasting that the “thorn in the flesh” was given. There has been much speculation about what that thorn was.  Some have speculated that it was a form of illness. After all, Paul himself experienced physical suffering through beatings, shipwrecks, stoning etc that would not have done his health any good. Furthermore, we have evidence that his eyesight was poor. Certainly, the book I’ve contributed to leans into that perspective.  Depression is not something that anyone would willingly choose and those who suffer from it will frequently express the desire for it to be taken from them. My own experience seems to have been circumstance specific and acute rather than ongoing but even in the period when I was struggling I longed for the darkness to lift. Furthermore, knowing that you’ve been vulnerable to depression and anxiety means you go forward with the sense that you minister with a limp, that there may well be an ongoing vulnerability there. Others suffer with more chronic and long term or recurring versions of the illness.   

However, others have suggested that Paul’s thorn was not an illness at all,  physical or mental. Rather, it described the struggle he faced with people, those who persued him from city to city seeking to obstruct his ministry or those who got into churches he had planted, causing division and slandering Paul. This would fit with the sense of Paul having “a messenger from Satan” and of being “harassed”.  It also fits with the language of “thorn in the flesh” and its nearest English equivalent, “a pain in the neck.”  It is tempting for pastors to believe that the gifts they have been given, the deep wells of patience, the knowledge of God’s word and skills in teaching, persuasion and discipleship are sure to help them win over dissenters and opponents.  We think that everything will get sorted if we just preach on the subject, take time to answer questions at a members’ meeting or pop round for a coffee with this or that disgruntled person. So we end up surprised, bewildered, flattened when they seem angrier than ever.

Paul does not state what his thorn was and that is a good thing. It stops us focusing on his particular struggle and helps us get to the point that all of us may experience afflictions and struggles that we wish would be taken away whether health, opposition or even that persisting temptation we wish would magically disappear but instead we have to keep battling with.  The effect is to teach us humility and the consequence should be that we learn to cling closer to Christ and find his strength in our weakness. 

We need thorns.  The thorn in my side reminds me to cling to the one who bore thorns on his head. It reminds me to stay clear of prosperity teaching.  The way we are called to follow is the way of the Cross, not the way of power and success.  The thorn in my side gives me greater compassion and empathy for others in their suffering and weakness.  The thorn in my side pints me forward reminding me that we are not there yet, there is a day to look forward to when we will be with Christ and the thorn will be removed.  The thorn in my side gives me a deeper appreciation of God’s grace to me.

[1] Paul David Tripp, Lead, 193.

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