Monday, June 06, 2005

Why a Thorn?

In North America, there seems to be a dichotomy of feeling about whether there's a devil or not and therefore whether he acts in our lives or not. Some theologians expound on the devil, even famously seeing him in rock music. Others see no devil, only human brokenness. Yet the Bible speaks about Satan and his angels. Job suffered because God made a bet with Satan. Satan tempted Jesus three times in the desert. Satan tormented Paul. As God exists, so does Satan. But Satan seems to bother us only as much as God allows...I think. C.S. Lewis observed that those who do not believe in the devil and those who think too much about the devil, both make easy prey. But we're all prey. Some of us are just easier to catch than others.

In 2 Cor 12: 7, Paul writes about Satan sending a messenger to torment him. Paul entered Satan's hit list when he became an evangelistic follower of Jesus. Up until then one could argue that Saul/Paul was an effective actor on Satan's behalf so Satan had no need to torment him. But once he switched to the other side and became such an effective advocate, Paul received a "thorn." Paul asked God three times to send this messenger away, and the Lord refused. That seems kind of callous to me. Why would God want Paul to be tormented? Still, despite the torment, Paul was able to accomplish the tasks set before him, and God had declared earlier that "I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." (Acts 9:16) (Kind of a neat revenge on your persecutor: convert him to your cause, then cause him suffering while he advocates most ardently on your behalf.)

I suppose that since Paul was still able to evangelize, to write, to travel, to convert people, with only hiccups along the way, God didn't feel it necessary to stop Satan's messenger, who, in a way, was doing God's work: the torment prevented Paul from getting a puffed up head. Perhaps it also caused Paul to evangelize even more vigorously -- you know, when someone tries to stop you from doing something, you redouble your efforts? But if the messenger had prevented Paul from achieving most of his accomplishments, from evangelizing, would God have intervened then? And would Paul not achieving his mission be because Satan had overpowered him or because Paul had capitulated? I think when God said to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you," (2 Cor 12:9) He was letting him know that Satan would not be allowed to overpower him. Satan would only be allowed to go so far as being a thorn, but not enough to stop Paul unless he let it. In the end, Satan did not catch Paul.

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