Embracing Thorns: Spiritual Practices for Cultivating Humility (Part 3)

By Sharon Brown on August 1, 2016

Editor's Note: This is part three of a three-part series by Pastor Sharon Brown. Click here for part one and here for part two.

"Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Insults. Hardships. Persecutions. Calamities. These are not the sort of things we post about on social media under the hashtag "blessed." But Paul contends that these are the kinds of circumstances that reveal the glory of God.

These types of trials provide the soil in which humility can take root and flourish.

A few years ago, I heard a pastor tell a story about confronting some of his denomination's leaders about legalism within the church.

Infuriated, the leadership responded by circulating a letter throughout the denomination, attacking the pastor's character. The pastor, whom I'll call Ken Smith, also received a copy of the letter. "Ken Smith is rebellious, arrogant, and hypocritical," the letter declared. "We the undersigned attest to this." At the bottom of the page was a list of signatures.

When he read the letter, Smith immediately felt angry and defensive. How dare they avoid discussing the issues and instead attack his character? But then he looked at the letter again. "Ken Smith is rebellious." Well, actually, I am, he thought. "Arrogant." Yep, that's true. "Hypocritical." That's true, too. Here's what happened next: "In a moment of sanity," Smith said, "I simply signed my name underneath theirs and mailed the letter back to them."

I long for the freedom Smith describes: freedom from the compulsion to defend myself in the face of accusations (true or otherwise); freedom from the desire to retaliate or to punish; and freedom from the propensity to stew in resentment and bitterness.

Silence

In the pursuit of this kind of freedom and humility, the spiritual practice of silence helps us keep company with our Savior, who, as Peter reminds us, "When they hurled their insults at him, did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:23).

Every time I read the stories about Jesus' journey to the cross, I'm amazed by his restraint. I marvel at how he remained silent when they falsely accused him, how he refused to lash out in anger or defend his own integrity, how he resisted every temptation to prove who he was.

Jesus' humility is stunning to me and illustrates just how much I am not like him. When I'm insulted, I'm offended. When I'm falsely accused, I want to justify myself. Quite honestly, I don't seek opportunities to die to myself regarding my reputation and honor.

But Paul sees insults—particularly insults he endures for the sake of Christ—as providing a potential context for demonstrating God's power, God's strength. I'm not there. I'm not dead to my own vanity and ego. So practicing silence when insulted—and even going so far as to bless those who persecute—these are practices that strike at the heart of my pride.

Truth is, I want to be humble without ever being humbled. I want control over how I humble myself—another manifestation of pride.

Many theories have been offered over the centuries about the nature of Paul's thorn. Was it a physical ailment? Perhaps trouble with eyesight, since he references writing with "large letters"? Or maybe it was the "bodily ailment" he mentions in Galatians 4 that was a trial for the believers there.

Others have speculated that it was a spiritual affliction—a recurring temptation or sin. Or perhaps the thorn was even a person like Alexander the coppersmith, whom Paul describes as someone who "did him much harm."

That last possibility intrigues me. "She's a thorn in my side," we might say of someone who chronically irritates us. But what if the Lord intends to form us in Christlikeness through the one who makes life difficult for us?

Forgiveness and Service

Each Sunday during our pastoral prayer in worship, we spend time in silence, naming to God the people who have wounded us, betrayed us and sinned against us. We name before God the ones who do not have easy access to our affection. And then we pray for the power to forgive them as we've been forgiven. We ask God to bless them and draw them to himself. This is a spiritual practice that cultivates humility, a discipline that reminds us of the grace and forgiveness we ourselves have received—grace and forgiveness we are called to offer others.

When we know—when we truly know who and whose we are—when we are deeply at rest in the love of God, in the grace of Jesus Christ, we will be free from the impulse to prove who we are. We'll be free from the desire to retaliate, free to forgive, to bless, to boast in our weakness—even free to extend love to others through the practice of humble servanthood.

Silence, forgiveness, service—these are spiritual practices that help us cultivate humility through the power of God at work in us.

So prayerfully consider, what holy purposes are the thorns serving in your life? And how does God invite you to respond?

Category: Theology