Stewarding Thorns: Spiritual Practices for Cultivating Humility (Part 1)

By Sharon Brown on July 25, 2016

Editor's Note: This week, we've invited Sharon Brown to offer a series for the blog related to spiritual formation. Sharon is an adjunct professor for GRTS as well as an author, retreat speaker and spiritual director.

"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)

Twenty-five years ago, during my first semester in seminary, I had a dream that profoundly impacted my life with God. In the dream I was applying for a job at a police station. The officer told me that if I wanted the job, I would have to bench-press 200 pounds. "Two hundred pounds!" I exclaimed. "But I haven't done anything athletic in seven years!" (That was a way of saying I'd never done anything athletic. I was the girl whom captains fought to not have on their team in P.E.)

The officer didn't blink. "That's the job requirement. Is it gonna be a problem for you?"

To my surprise, I answered, "No—it's not going to be a problem for me, because my Lord Jesus will do it for me."

Without replying, he led me over to this enormous machine and strapped me in. At first I could hardly move. But then suddenly, I was lifting huge weights high above my head over and over again, effortlessly.

When I woke, I knew this was a significant dream to ponder. So I recorded the details and asked the Holy Spirit to grant me understanding. As I prayed, these thoughts emerged: "This is humility: when you know you have no strength on your own, but you're absolutely confident that you can do everything through Christ."

That dream gave me a vivid, lasting image for understanding the truth of God's words to Paul, words that long ago became life verses for me: 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.

The thing about humility is that—like any Christlike virtue—humility is not something we can work hard to attain. It's not something we can achieve through self-effort.

But even though we don't have the power to make ourselves humble, we can practice humbling ourselves. And this means embracing weakness as a gift, as a way to grow in the grace of humility.

What Paul testifies to is that thorns can serve the very important purpose of keeping us from being puffed-up, proud and self-reliant. Thorns can remind us of our limits, of our utter dependence upon God, so thorns can be gifts in our formation into Christlikeness.

As with any gift, however, we need to be mindful about how to steward it.

Though we don't know what Paul's thorn was, we do know this: Paul did not initially view the thorn as an instrument of grace but rather as a messenger of Satan, designed to torment and afflict him. Because the thorn brought such affliction to him, he pleaded with God to remove it. You can imagine the rationale Paul might have used with God in prayer:

  • If you remove this affliction, Lord, I can be so much more effective in ministry!
  • If you remove this thorn, Lord, I can be free to reach so many more people with the gospel!
  • If you'll just deliver me from this torment, Lord, I can bring you even more glory!

These would be good reasons. Kingdom reasons. And if the thorn is Satan's attempt to torment and discourage Paul, why wouldn't God remove it?

Because, Paul says, what Satan intended to use for evil, God intended to use for good.

The very thing intended to be an affliction in Paul's life instead becomes a holy instrument in the Lord's hands, able to shape Paul's character and keep him from pride. The thorn is transformed from a source of discouragement into an agent of grace. This taught Paul the gift of utter dependence upon God and revealed to him the wonder of God's power made perfect in weakness. The thorn helps to cultivate the soil where humility can take deeper root and flourish in Paul's life.

It's not that the thorn changes. It's that Paul's perception of the thorn changes as he seeks God in prayer. Paul sees that if God will not remove it, then God will use it.

That paradigm shift makes all the difference.

Truth is, thorns can lead us to despair, self-pity and resignation, where they serve the enemy's purpose of tormenting and afflicting us, OR thorns can lead us to greater intimacy with and dependence upon the One who loves us and has called us according to his purpose.

God's purpose is to display his glory through us, a glory which is often best glimpsed through our weaknesses.

Rethink Your Thorns

As a spiritual practice this week, prayerfully identify the thorns in your own life. What torments you? agitates you? discourages you? afflicts you? Bring to mind whatever you view as inhibiting your fruitfulness in the kingdom—the thing you wish God would remove from you, maybe something you've even pleaded with God about.

  • A fear?
  • A pattern of sin?
  • An addiction?
  • A physical weakness or limitation?
  • A past failure?
  • An emotional struggle?
  • A sense of being restricted in your opportunity to serve?

Some thorns might come to mind quite quickly; others might take more time to discern (and courage to name). Ask God to help you identify the thorns and then speak to him about them.

I wonder what purposes God might accomplish in you and through you because of the thorn? How might the thorn become a holy instrument to shape and form you? And how might the thorn deepen your dependence upon God?

May Paul's testimony also be ours: that God's grace is indeed sufficient and that his power is made perfect in our weakness.

Category: Theology