Embrace the thorn

Introduction Albu van Eeden
We have often said that on Sunday we receive what we need from the Lord for the week ahead at the service. Allow me to look at it from a different angle. God’s word is a mirror. As we listen let us look at our lives in the mirror of God’s word and evaluate what we have done, said and thought - as well as our motives - against the standard of God’s word.

Nico Bosman
In the church where I grew up, the pulpit was raised and the minister reached it by climbing a flight of stairs. The custom of the minister was stop halfway up and pray. This is how I feel this morning. I feel the need to kneel here and ask the lord to help me and give me what I need.

Before I begin with the service, I will play a short audio clip by Rev Stegen from many years ago - when he was much younger.

Rev Erlo Stegen
Now I am going to use the ‘wrong’ words, please excuse me if I do it. Forget about your faith just for the moment. Forget about it. Faith is a strange thing, the more you look at it, the smaller it gets, till it vanishes, and you can’t find it anymore. But the more you look at the Lord Jesus, the more He grows - without you realising it and being conscious of it. The Lord said, Forget about that. Mind one thing- that there is nothing between you and Me, that the relationship is unbroken. So that is my business. My business is not to do miracles, not to preach the Gospel, not to save souls. But to do His will. And I know His will for me is that there is nothing between Him and me; that the relationship with Him is unbroken. Not an unkind word, not an evil word, anything, and as soon as something should come or crop up, repent of it immediately, ‘Lord Jesus, may that relationship be perfect with you.’

People may come after a great miracle and say, ‘But when that miracle happened, were you conscious of special faith?’
You scratch your head, ‘Wait, I’ve got to think first of all…I hadn’t thought of that…there must have been but I wasn’t conscious of it.’
‘Weren’t you conscious of it?’
‘So what were you conscious of?’
‘Well, I came like a child to the Father and I asked Him to do it and He did it.’

Jesus is Almighty, all power is given to Him and that is the Man who is in you or should at least be there. Not as a prisoner, not bound hands and feet, the Spirit of God should not be bound in us. That’s why we shouldn’t grieve and quench Him. When we grieve and quench the Holy Spirit it is as if we bind His feet and hands and shut His lips and He can’t work. Let’s not treat Him like that. Let us see to it that there is nothing in our lives that can grieve and quench Him; that He can have free sway. And then there is no limit to what God can do if you only will allow Him. Because His eyes run to and fro throughout the world looking for one person through whom He can reveal Himself and show His strength. May God grant that everyone of us will be such a person. The world could be turned upside down in a day. And if that doesn’t happen, the world will turn us upside down soon.

Rev Stegen’s business was not to preach, not to save souls, but to have a clean relationship between himself and God. If something happened, he repented immediately. We do make mistakes but let us repent quickly.

In the forests of Northern Europe and Asia lives a small animal called an ermine, which is known for its snow-white fur in winter. He instinctively protects his coat against anything that will soil it. Fur hunters take advantage of the unusual trait of the ermine. They don’t send a snare to catch him but instead they find his home, which is usually in the cleft of a rock or the hollow of a tree and smear the entrance and interior with dirt. The hunters set their dogs lose to hunt and chase the animal. The frightened animal flees towards his home but does not enter because of the filth. Rather than soil his white coat he is trapped by the dogs and captured while preserving his purity.

For the ermine, purity is more precious than life. How often don’t we forget it. How often we get to a situation where we say we were forced? We do not want to lose something or be looked down on, to be seen as someone who spoils things. May it be our business to ensure that there is nothing between God and ourselves. That is the crux of the matter.

True, there is nothing to be gained by it, but [as I am obliged] to boast, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—was caught up to the third heaven. And I know that this man—whether in the body or away from the body I do not know, God knows—Was caught up into paradise, and he heard utterances beyond the power of man to put into words, which man is not permitted to utter. Of this same [man’s experiences] I will boast, but of myself (personally) I will not boast, except as regards my infirmities (my weaknesses). Should I desire to boast, I shall not be a witless braggart, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I abstain [from it] so that no one may form a higher estimate of me than [is justified by] what he sees in me or hears from me. And to keep me from being puffed up and too much elated by the exceeding greatness (pre-eminence) of these revelations, there was given me a thorn (a splinter) in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to rack and buffet and harass me, to keep me from being excessively exalted. Three times I called upon the Lord and besought [Him] about this and begged that it might depart from me; But He said to me, My grace (My favour and loving-kindness and mercy) is enough for you [sufficient against any danger and enables you to bear the trouble manfully]; for My strength and power are made perfect (fulfilled and completed) and show themselves most effective in [your] weakness. Therefore, I will all the more gladly glory in my weaknesses and infirmities, that the strength and power of Christ (the Messiah) may rest (yes, may pitch a tent over and dwell) upon me! 10 So for the sake of Christ, I am well pleased and take pleasure in infirmities, insults, hardships, persecutions, perplexities and distresses; for when I am weak [in human strength], then am I [truly] strong (able, powerful in divine strength).2 Corinthians 12: 1-10 (AMPC)

Paul was cautious when speaking about what was revealed to him and what he saw. He mentions ‘a man’ I knew. Most people say that that man was Paul. He refers to something that happened 14 years before because he was led by God to speak about it. He is cautious about speaking at the right time. How often do we speak when we shouldn’t? How often do we say something and then afterwards wish we had been silent?
There is no set rule. When Jesus did miracles, He sometimes told the person/people to tell everyone about it. Sometimes he tells you to speak and if you do not, you will sin. Sometimes when Jesus performed miracles, he told the person/people not to tell anyone. There are times when the Lord reveals something, but it is not the right time to speak. Rev Stegen’s wife often said that there are times when the Lord reveals something to you personally which is for you, and you will be judged by it.
There were times when the Lord performed a miracle and told the person to speak to only the priest. There are times when the Lord shows us something and we should only speak to the priest - to a man of God - so that we can get direction and pray together.
There are times when the Lord reveals something and we cannot wait to tell the next person, but if we do not do it prayerfully and possibly share it with a man of God, it can be the wrong thing.
When we speak or are spoken to, ensure that it is in line with God’s will. The Bible teaches us that we will account for every word - whether we say it, type it or write it.

36 But I tell you, on the day of judgment men will have to give account for every idle (inoperative, nonworking) word they speak. 37 For by your words you will be justified and acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned and sentenced. Matthew 12:36,37

Our words will condemn us if we do not say what God wants us to say. Make sure that that which has come to your ears and mind are said in the right places. If it is filth that has come to your ears, go to a man of God, tell him about it so that he can pray with you. Parents, there are certain conversations between a wife and husband that are not for your children’s ears. Do not burden your children with things that adults find hard to bear.

Paul cautioned against pride - which is the reason why he speaks like this: ‘I once knew a man.’ He said that he would not boast, but he had been asked to speak. He is cautious because these words may make him proud.

Pride is a terrible sin. It represents the beginning of all sin. The devil was an angel in paradise, but he desired the honour and glory that belonged to God for himself and he became proud. This was the beginning of sin.

Everyone proud and arrogant in heart is disgusting, hateful, and exceedingly offensive to the Lord; be assured [I pledge it] they will not go unpunished. Proverbs 16:5

If we take what belongs to God, we are proud. If we exalt ourselves above what we measure, we are proud. If we think ‘we have done it’, we are proud. If we take the honour for ourselves and do not give it to God, we are proud.

Allow me to read from Charles Spurgeon’s commentary on the text:

Now, observe, if Paul was in this danger, we cannot hope to be free from it, for he was eminently a holy man, eminently a humble man, eminently a wise man, eminently an experienced man. Though specially favoured, … he enjoyed earthly honours, he had once been a highly esteemed Rabbi among his fellow countrymen, and this did not elevate him with pride; he counted all his honours but loss, for Christ’s sake…he counted himself to be less than the least of all saints, and the very chief of sinners. …he was not readily carried away…or puffed up with self-esteem. Yet, for all that, he was in danger of being exalted above measure; how much more likely, then, are we who have not his judgment…

But there are some men in whom self-consciousness is so uppermost, and so evidently powerful, that you can see it in almost everything they do. It is their struggle, if they are Christians, to keep it down; but it will come up in the form of being very easily annoyed because they are overlooked in some good work, or in being easily irritated because they fancy that somebody is opposing them, when probably that somebody never thought of them.

But there are others to whom the temptation comes in a more refined fashion. They have more knowledge than those among whom they dwell; I mean more scriptural knowledge, more real spiritual knowledge, and a deeper inward experience; and when they hear the prattle of young beginners or listen to the fearful blunders of many would-be great saints, they cannot help smiling to themselves; and, almost as naturally, they cannot help saying, “Thank God, I do know better than that.” The temptation to be exalted above measure, in such a case, is near at hand.

Now, if God gives any man success in winning souls…we must rejoice in spiritual success, it would be ungrateful not to do so; but we must be on our guard against boastfulness of spirit. https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-thorn-in-the-flesh

God is good to us. He does a lot for us - more than we deserve, but the devil will be there to catch us with pride. It is God’s doing. He can take it away in a moment.

And to keep me from being puffed up and too much elated by the exceeding greatness (pre-eminence) of these revelations, there was given me a thorn (a splinter) in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to rack and buffet and harass me, to keep me from being excessively exalted. 2 Corinthians 12:7

A thorn in the flesh is something painful – something that hurts. It is there day and night. When I turn this way and that, it is there. It hurts when I move. I wish it were not there. If only I could be without it, I could serve Him properly; then I would be on fire for Christ. If only that person had not insulted me, I would not have made that mistake. If only people would accept me, I would live for Him. But God gave him a thorn in his flesh to torment him day and night. What did the thorn do?

It drove him to his knees…Anything is a blessing which makes us pray. This thorn compelled Paul to cry unto God, and, having commenced to pray, he resorted to prayer again and again…We may be lax in prayer when all things flow with even current, but we multiply prayers when trials increase. https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-thorn-in-the-flesh

There are certain things we pray for, and God answers our prayers. We pray with a man of God and God performs a miracle - that can happen. But there are certain things that are meant to be. Paul said that he prayed three times for the removal of this thorn. Note the significance: when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed three times that the cup would pass from Him but after the third time, He realised that it was meant to be. Paul prayed three times and then he probably realised that it was meant to be – for his own salvation.

…there was given me a thorn (a splinter) in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to rack and buffet and harass me, to keep me from being excessively exalted.

Now, note every word here. First, he says, “There was given to me.” He reckoned his great trial to be a gift. It is well put. He does not say, “There was inflicted upon me a thorn in the flesh,” but “There was given to me.” This is holy reckoning. O child of God, amongst all the goods of your house, you have not one single article that is a better token of divine love to you than your daily cross. You would fain be rid of it, but you would lose your choicest treasure if it were withdrawn.

At first, the apostle may not have seen his thorn to be a gift, but afterwards, when experience had taught him patience, he came to look at that sharp, pricking, festering torment, as a boon from his heavenly Father. You, O tried one, will come to do the same one of these days. https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-thorn-in-the-flesh

Jesus said to him that His grace was sufficient for him. It is the unmerited gift of divine favour in the salvation of sinners. My grace is sufficient for you, it is all you need. His grace supplies us with the power to serve, preach the gospel and endure suffering. There are some things in our lives that are very difficult, but they are for our own good. It can be there all the time, or for a period. It can be a collection of challenges over time. Let us never desire to be rid of those restraints which God has seen fit to lay upon us; they are more needful than we dream.

Learn, also, that we must never envy other saints. If we hear Paul speak of his visions, let us recollect his thorn in the flesh; if we meet with a brother who rejoices abundantly, and whom God owns and blesses, let us not conclude that his pathway is all smooth.

I remember a man once told me what his mother taught him: if every person in the world could be in the same place and see the cross or the difficulty of the next person, and exchange his cross with another one there, everyone would return home with his/her own cross. If you could see the next person’s challenge, you would say, ‘Lord thank you for the challenge You have given me for my salvation.’

I do not know what ‘the thorn in your flesh’ is. What torments you day and night? It could be anything. Sickness? Men of the gospel suffered sickness. One does not understand it, but God knows. The thorn in the flesh might be a concern for people who are close to us – family. It may be an inability, ‘Lord, if only I could speak but I cannot.’ God possibly wants you to serve Him and speak for Him regardless. This can be a temptation - and they are real - even for mature Christians. I once asked Rev Stegen why there are still so many temptations? They are real. They are there. His answer was, ‘Even is a temptation comes 100 times a day, resist it 100 times.’

Your thorn could be failure. Perfectionists hate failure. Sometimes God allows it (not when you sin and then things go wrong). We must serve God with all our hearts, regardless of the circumstances.

Rev Stegen once said that the character and worth of a soldier is never known in peace. If we are soldiers in his kingdom, the devil will attack. There will be difficulties, but that is where our lights must shine, that is where God’s strength must be revealed in us. That is where we must say: regardless of that, I will serve Him with all my heart. If we do not, then how will we stand on Judgement Day in front of the heroes of the faith and say, ‘This little thing made me stumble.’ How will you explain why you lost your temper, why you got irritated, why you did the wrong thing? We might be ashamed if we see what they have been through, and we will realise that what we have been through is nothing.

That thorn can be a small splinter. It is there all the time. ‘If our enemies would stop attacking us then we would serve God,’ we say. God allows it. People may criticise you and speak badly about you and God allows that. We need to serve Him with all our hearts, regardless. There is no excuse.

In conclusion, a short story:

In the north-eastern United States, codfish are a big commercial business. There's a market for eastern cod all over, especially in sections farthest removed from the northeast coastline. But the public demand posed a problem to the shippers. At first they froze the cod, then shipped them elsewhere, but the freeze took away much of the flavour. So they experimented with shipping them alive, in tanks of seawater, but that proved even worse. Not only was it more expensive, the cod still lost its flavour, and in addition, became soft and mushy. The texture was seriously affected.

Finally, some creative person solved the problem in a most innovative manner. The codfish were placed in the tank of water along with their natural enemy—the catfish. From the time the cod left the East Coast until it arrived in its westernmost destination, those ornery catfish chased the cod all over the tank! And you guessed it, when the cod arrived at the market, they were as fresh as when they were first caught. There was no loss of flavour nor was the texture affected. If anything, it was better than before.

Each one of us is in a tank of inescapable circumstances. There are God-appointed catfish to bring sufficient tension that keeps us alive, fresh and growing. It is part of God’s project to shape our character to be more like His Son. There are certain things God allows, certain difficulties and we should serve Him more because of them. They should never deter us from serving Him with all our hearts. Not that we do not have to pray that the Lord will remove things, but there are things that have been put there for our own good. We can take hold of these things and use them as a steppingstone to bring us closer to the Lord. May we use everything that comes our way to draw closer to Him.

No matter how difficult, there is no excuse, we cannot say, ‘But Lord, this and that.’ One day when we see Him and stand before Him, we will see that it was for the best and we will understand. Let us serve Him with all our hearts.

Conclusion Albu van Eeden
Friends, I felt as if we were standing on holy ground. What we have heard is not a joke. If God humiliates you, it is a terrible thing. There is no way out. You cannot excuse it, you cannot talk it away, you cannot hide it. And yet pride is the most common sin we fall into. We look down on others’ decisions, the way they do things, their knowledge. If you have something like this in your heart, you are set up for trouble. Some people ask God to make them humble. This is a dangerous prayer which I do not say you should not pray. If you ask the Lord to make you humble, you do not always realise what you are in for. God will do it and when He does, you will not recognise it as something from God. You will be reminded of that verse: It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. When God humiliates you to rid you of your pride, it is terrible to fall into the hands of the living God.

Very often God allows you to pray for this prayer for years – 10 years, up to 15 years, before He begins to answer the prayer. When it happens and the water boils and God’s pot begins to boil, everything inside feels like screaming, jumping and running; you cannot tolerate it. But then you remember that this is what you had prayed for for years. The fact that you had to wait so long is the only thing that keeps you in the pot.

I am reminded of the words of Jesus before He went to the cross - because that is what you feel like praying when God humiliates you. He said, ‘Father, save me from this hour.’ Lord, save me out of this. ‘But for this I came into the world. Lord, may your will be done.’

Pride is a monster. There are few people who will stay in the pot when God starts dealing with their pride. Yet, it must happen. God must deal with it - that slight looking down on another person who does foolishly. I experienced this some years ago in a small way when God humiliated me. From that day on, I was uninterested in the extent to which others were doing foolish things because I was so convicted about my own pride and foolishness.

Let us plead to God for mercy. Do not take this message lightly. It is serious. We walk around with sin that will drag us to hell but if God deals with it, it is no joke. Thank you for this message. The Lord heard Nico’s prayer. A young boy once asked his mother why the pastor stopped halfway up the stairs to pray and his mother replied that he was asking the Lord to help him. The boy said, ‘But mum, why does the Lord not help him?’ In this case today, it was not like that. The Lord helped you.