Perhaps the best place on earth to see the commonality of humankind in their pain is the emergency room. Walk in there, and it suddenly ceases to matter if you’re rich or poor, black or white, clean or dirty. The ER is one of those places where the stark but often unspoken reality of the desperateness of our situation comes to the surface. And there’s nothing like desperation to focus your prayers.
When you find yourself in an emergency room, you pray for healing. For relief. For divine intervention into a pressing situation. You pray like Paul prayed in 2 Corinthians 12:
Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so that I would not exalt myself. Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times that it would leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.”
Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:8-10).
The word skolops in Greek can mean thorn, but it’s also sometimes translated as stake. It has a violent bent to it—stake doesn’t conjure up warm and fuzzy images in my mind when referring to pain. Instead, I picture almost savage pain. This leads us to believe that Paul wasn’t talking about some moral, habitual sin he continued to live in; the apostle was in real physical pain.
And not just a little pain either. This was a continual, throbbing sort of pain that went with the apostle wherever he went. Some believe his ailment was severe headaches. That would certainly explain Paul’s eye trouble that he mentions at the close of the Book of Galatians. Others say it was a recurring malaria fever that Paul picked up on one of his island adventures. If that’s the case, then the pain from others suffering a similar disease has been described as something like a dentist’s drill boring down.
Paul was in the ER of prayer, asking God to do something about this pain he was experiencing. But in the preceding verses, we see that Paul was also in the throws of glory. In the first part of chapter 12, Paul broke out into a description of some glorious vision he had—a vision of heaven so amazing that he had to stand outside himself and say it happened to someone else. He was enraptured. He experienced the fullness of joy; the essence of existence. He was living in the greatness of eternity, but not for long.
Imagine being caught up like that, and then crashing back to earth. Further imagine that what sends you back to earth was the thorn. The pain. The ache. The sadistic dentist drilling ceaselessly into your head. That’s a rude awakening, but a fall like that might feel familiar to us, for it’s the feeling of having life feel good and right and blesssed—and then suddenly being brought back to earth with your own thorn.
And yet this is the Christian experience.
As Christians, we can identify with Paul because we truly do have a foot in two worlds. Once we come into Christ, we have a new home, and it’s not here. The Bible reminds us that we are going to experience trouble of all kinds here on earth, and yet that our ultimate treasure and citizenship is in heaven. So we are citizens there, but living here. We have one foot in heaven and one foot firmly planted on earth. We live between joy and pain. Between glory and dejection. Between elation and depression.
Most of the time, our thorns are not removed. We still have to take the pills. We still have to go to the treatments. We still have to wake up and haul ourselves out of bed in the morning. But amazingly, and according to this passage, God promises that on the days when we are at the end of our ropes are also the days when the sustaining grace and strength of God were to be most visible and apparent. He does not promise to remove the pain, but He did promise in the midst of it, His grace would sustain us.
Believing in that grace, for today, must be a choice. And tomorrow—it will be a choice then, too. But perhaps it’s helpful to recognize that we aren’t the only ones who know what it’s like to be between heaven and earth. For this sustaining grace comes from One who was raised up on two crossbeams to where He was physically positioned not quite in the air and yet not quite on earth. It comes from One who knows what life is like “in between.” When we look into the face of Jesus, we can know that when we are weak, we are strong.