In my day, the gallant thing to say to a woman who found herself seated between two men was, “Ah, my dear, you are surely a rose between two thorns.”
Of course if I said that today to anyone under fifty she would probably think that I was strange to say the least. In the Song of Solomon the young woman refers to herself as a rose of Sharon (SS 2:1). Some commentators understand the Song of Solomon to be an allegory of Christ and the church and so, in this context, they see the rose as representing the Lord Jesus. Certainly, when Jesus was nailed to a cross between two criminals He was the epitome of a rose between two thorns.
The Apostle Paul uses the illustration of a thorn in his flesh to describe a troublesome condition that the Lord made use of to keep him humble and grounded; ‘To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh…’ (2 Corinthians 12:7). Paul pleaded with the Lord three times to have it taken from him but Jesus’ answer was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (Verse 9).
There is no end to the theological debate that has ensued over the centuries as to what Paul meant when he wrote that his ‘thorn’ was a messenger of Satan sent to torment him, but I won’t attempt to deal with that in this short article. My view is simply that Paul had some sort of affliction that God used redemptively to keep him humble, and the devil used to torment him. There has also been endless speculation as to the exact nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Some say anxiety over his pre-Christian past; others claim it represented his critics such as the ‘super apostles’ of Corinth; yet others claim that Paul was an epileptic or that he suffered from migraines. It is all just speculation, but I believe there is reasonable evidence to show that Paul was probably suffering from deteriorating eye sight (Galatians 4:!3, 15 6:11).
Perhaps it is best that we do not know for sure what the thorn in the flesh actually was because it allows us all to relate to Paul in his affliction. If we are struggling with relationship problems or physical illness or infirmity we can relate both to Paul’s problem and also to Jesus’ prescription. When Paul asked for relief the Lord simply said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). When Kenneth Taylor produced the original Living Bible he translated the first part of this verse as; “No. But I am with you; that is all you need.”
Here’s the thing – afflictions have the potential of drawing us closer than ever to Jesus. Often, it is only when we are experiencing a severe thorn in the flesh that we realise our need for the Lord and admit our dependence upon Him. We cry out to Him and ask Him to heal or release us, but sometimes He simply says, “No….. but I am with you and that is all you need.”
About a year ago a member of my congregation was living through the final stages of a long struggle with cancer. One Sunday after the church service I sat with her and asked her how she was doing. She told me that she knew she only had a short time left in this world. She expressed her concern for her family and confessed her moments of doubt and fear. Then she looked me in the eyes and said, “It has been hard Chris, but I would not swop this experience for anything because it has drawn me so close to Jesus.” She was not trying to be pious or religiously correct; she was expressing a profound and sincere truth – His grace was sufficient for her.
When times of affliction overtake us, as they surely will, we have but three possible responses. Some people become angry with God and cry out, if only in their hearts, “Why me? I don’t deserve this! Why don’t you do something God!” This is not a good response. God does not afflict his dearly loved children. If we think that He has sent our affliction upon us then it is likely that our anger will simmer in defensive resentment and any redemptive value in the ‘thorn’ will be lost. Other folk see their afflictions as an attack by the devil and focus their time and energy on fighting him to the death. As a pastor I have sometimes seen people reacting aggressively to their condition and putting themselves, and their families, through a pseudo-military campaign to combat the devils attack on their health and welfare. So often this yields very little other than strained relationships and the loss of valuable time, energy and resources. The third option is to see the affliction as an opportunity to draw closer to Jesus. He becomes the first priority for time and effort; other key relationships become the second priority; and then together with the Lord and our loved ones we utilise all the resources of medical science, society and church to journey together through the time of affliction. If we do this we will find the Rose among the thorns – we will find Jesus in the midst of our affliction.