Of all the characters in the New Testament, Paul is my favorite. His writings have shown me Jesus in a very real way. Yet, he’s such a conundrum.
When we meet Paul in Scripture he despised Jesus. Yet, claimed to love God.
His knowledge of Scripture was impeccable. He was a Pharisee of Pharisees. A Hebrew of Hebrews. Yet, he eventually delivered the Good News to the Gentiles.
He never knew the “Pre-Easter” Jesus. Yet, his knowledge of Jesus would surpass the disciples.
He approved the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Yet, 13 of the 21 letters in the New Testament bear his name.
He was fueled by pride, self-righteousness and zeal. Yet, he boasted about his weakness.
He breathed murderous threats against Jesus’ disciples. Yet God chose him for a special purpose.
On the road to Damascus, Paul had a plan. But God had a different one. In a flash of light from heaven Paul fell to the ground. And was blinded. For three days. For the first time his pedigree and resume were worthless rags. He became helpless, weak and broken.
When the time was right, the Spirit came and healed him. Paul’s old purpose died and a new one emerged.
And for the first time, Paul could really see.
God saw Paul not for who he was, but for who he would become. Certainly God could have chosen someone more qualified, even-tempered or likeable. He chose Paul. Isn’t that amazing? It amazed Paul. His powerful testimony became his greatest evangelical tool. He was living proof of God’s grace.
Lest he not get too “puffed up” in his divine selection, Paul said, “there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” (2 Corin. 12:7)
No one knows for sure what Paul’s thorn was. Sickness, temptation, even poor eyesight top the list.
But, maybe it was something simpler, more human. Maybe he struggled with loneliness.
Maybe he felt excluded by Peter and the Jerusalem Christians who never really accepted him into their inner circle. Perhaps he regretted words spoken in anger to Barnabus and others; that his temper sabotaged yet another relationship.
While the Christian brothers and sisters he met on his missionary journeys looked up to him and respected him perhaps they were too intimidated to call him “friend.” Maybe he longed to experience physical love with a wife. Or all the time he spent traveling and in prison left him feeling there was really nowhere to call home.
No one knows what Paul’s thorn was; as God probably intended. His thorn could be my thorn—or yours.
I love that God used all of Paul—his strength but especially his weakness—for His good. It gives me hope.
It gave Paul hope too. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corin. 12:9)
Paul was a mess. But in God’s capable hands, he became a beautiful mess.
Some days I feel the yuck overshadows the beauty. The thorns prick my side, and I’m tempted to linger and lick my wounds. Self-pity lurks, ready to set up camp.
But then I read Paul’s words and know God’s grace is sufficient for me. And it’s sufficient for you, too.
Because there, in the mess, is the beauty. And power. And hope.