A Thorn in The Flesh – Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul states that, “to keep me from becoming too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh.” This claim is connected with his conviction that “God’s power is made perfect in weakness.”
Paul says that he will boast of his weaknesses, so that the power of Christ will dwell in him. “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities …” He says that, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong”.
Other translations use conceited or proud instead of elated. My preference is for proud. My experience is that we have to be careful and discerning about making statements such as Paul’s without qualifications.
Used indiscriminately, I think that far too many people can allow ideas such as this to justify a form of passivism and resignation. I have encountered women and men who suffer from an unhealthy sense that they have to be passive in the face of their weaknesses or in light of personality traits that they mistakenly see as flaws.
One of the last things we should be doing is encouraging a kind of resignation whereby a person acquiesces to the way things are, rather that continually striving for a better way. There are certainly enough self-centred people out there who would be happy to hear others put themselves down. It makes them feel even more smug than usual.
There are plenty of reminders in both the Old and New Testaments that we are called to a healthy form of self-pride, to stand up for who we are and the gifts we have.
So, what about those thorns? My experience is that we do not have to search far to see how that thorn reveals itself in our life.
Indeed, life itself usually offers enough thorns, if we are paying attention to our life. There are plenty of reminders to be humble. I have no idea what the thorn was for Paul.
I would suspect that a personal issue that he couldn’t easily get beyond is the fact of his history: he was infamous for his persecution of followers of Christ. It’s not so different from a slave trader becoming a strident critic of slavery, or a former hedonist to adopt a morally upright approach to life.
There is the danger of being labelled a hypocrite. In another of his Letters, Paul says that he forgets the past and strains ahead for what is still to come. He can’t easily dis-remember his personal past, but he can determine that he won’t be held back by his past.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews offers a wonderful line: “But we … we do not shrink back.”
The tension between power and weakness, pride-filled boasting and humility, was wonderfully addressed in a TED talk offered by Pope Francis earlier this year. Here’s a link to the whole thing https://www.ted.com/speakers/pope_francis. And here is an excerpt.
“Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility. Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.”
Let’s embrace our thorns and scars, discovering in them our reliance on God.