In light of Joshua’s recent stay in the hospital, I have been thinking alot about how Christians have one foot in heaven and one foot on earth. So I wanted to write a little from 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. In that passage, Paul claimed in that passage that if anyone has a reason to boast, it is him, for he had seen visions and walked with God as few others have. But in order to keep him from boasting about his spiritual experiences, he had been given a thorn in his flesh, probably some type of physical ailment, which served as a constant reminder of his weakness.
Simple. Straight forward. Those are the facts of the text, and that is a proper description of Paul. We have the luxury of being able to look at the life and times of Paul the apostle from a distance. But I wonder how someone closer to Paul would describe the situation? For example, what if Paul had a brother or a sister or someone else close to him that had also come to believe in Jesus? That person probably would not have been so clinical. I’m sure he would have been proud of Paul, but his feelings of pride and joy would always have been a little bittersweet, because the thorn was never far from mind.
The word skolops in the Greek can mean thorn, but it is sometimes translated “stake.” This was not a minimal, nagging pain but something that was always with Paul throughout all of his great spiritual conquests and triumphs. In fact, the word stake conjures images of an almost savage pain. Some believe this ailment was severe headaches, and that would explain Paul’s eye trouble he mentions in Galatians 6. Others say it was a recurring malaria fever that caused pains in the head that some have described being like that of a dentist’s drill. Regardless of what the malady was, it was always there. No matter where he went, what he did, or how many people he led to the Lord, there was still this constant reminder of his own frailty.
Even here, Paul breaks out into a description of some glorious vision he had – a vision of heaven so glorious that he has to stand outside himself and say that it happened to another. It was a vision where Paul had been so intimately connected with God that it must have been like those first days when Adam walked with the Lord. Even in that description of the marvelous vision of paradise he experienced, the thorn was still there, bringing him back to earth.
What must the conversations have been like between Paul and someone who didn’t observe his travels from afar but was intimately connected with him? “Paul, tell me again about the Philippian church and how they supported you.”
“Oh, I have wonderful friends there,” Paul must have relayed. “In the strangest way, I feel closer to God in their company because they receive and love me with the love of Christ. I long for the times when I get reports about their well-being.”
“Fantastic. In fact, I know what you mean,” his brother would have responded. “And the Corinthian church? I understand that you got a good report from them, too.”
“Things are going much better there. I’m excited to see them again. Maybe I will get to spend the winter there. It seems like they are returning to the basic principles of the faith, and that they have not abandoned my teaching after all.”
“That’s great. I’m glad to hear it.” And then would come the question that he really wanted to ask. “What about the headaches, Paul? How are you feeling?” And Paul’s face would darken and he would look down at the ground for a moment. “Not so good. They’re not getting any better. Sometimes it’s hard to think. It’s a good thing Tychicus is there to write for me – I just have such trouble concentrating for a long period of time.” And they would both be quiet for a moment, thinking about the glory and yet unable to escape the pain.
Maybe you have been in a similar situation. Maybe your grandmother is the greatest prayer warrior you have ever known and yet she has a constant battle to get out of bed because of arthritis. Or maybe your father is on his second or third or fourth battle with prostate cancer. He is always telling you about what the Lord is doing in his life, and yet he struggles to find the breath to say it because of the side effects of the radiation therapy. But even if it is not that close, you know the feeling yourself in some way. It is that feeling that comes when you finish preaching a sermon that you believe to be the worst thing anyone has ever put together and yet the Lord uses it to bring people to Christ. It is the feeling that you know you want to share the gospel with your neighbor and yet you always seem to stutter when beginning relationships. It is the feeling that comes when you come to a place to be surrounded and immersed in the things of God and yet you struggle to find intimacy in your own marriage. It is as if as Christians we live life with one foot in heaven and yet one foot unable to escape the earth.