Among the bitter consolations of the Christian scriptures are Paul’s comments on suffering and weakness. I am reading my way (under heavy cloud cover) through the Pauline letters right now and I am, once again, arrested by his lamentations, redemptions, and (ultimately) affirmations of brokenness. Human grief and pain, the flesh we carry, the cross born in that flesh; as ever, I find sorting it all out a challenge. What is simply sin and (the pain endured) its consequences? What are illnesses and ailments which, by our carrying, we bring glory to God? And what are the afflictions we willingly serve, serve as if a host to demons?
Yesterday I was struck by the strangeness of one of these passages. In the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul finds himself apologizing left and right for having to boast. He’s “boasting” because the Corinthians are mighty impressed with a few of Paul’s rivals. Apparently, the believers are too fond of some very charismatic voices and are willing to give those voices an authority that they do not deserve. Paul tries to bring them under his influence by reminding them of his credentials as an apostle. Although I have never been entirely persuaded by Paul’s modesty, perhaps because we see ourselves in others and I am a person of much false modesty, Paul seems to have forced himself into some very uncomfortable “boasting.” Indeed, he shares one of his ecstatic experiences by beginning with “I have this friend who ….” In just a few verses, however, he comes clean and owns the experience. Apparently Paul visited paradise and saw and heard things that should not be shared; they were ecstatic experiences for Paul and for Paul alone. There’s nothing too special about that, we all have experiences which are given to us for our own edification, but Paul goes on and shares an oracle in God’s voice. Having had a great time in paradise, Paul needs something to keep him grounded. And so, in chapter twelve, Paul writes: “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated” (12:7). Paul begged the Lord to take the affliction away, but God replies: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). God replies!
Beyond the Gospels and the book of Revelations, there are few, very few, passages in which God speaks to his people in the manner of the prophets. Of course, but for the Gospels and the book of Revelations there are few Christian scriptures that were not authored by Paul. So, perhaps it is Paul’s Christianity which seeks to de-emphasize the role of the oracle in the Christian experience. Afterall, if we are alive in Christ, why should we need special messages, mediated through a prophet to find our way, the Way?
Such a strange and bitter consolation, this rare oracle. I am a weak person; I have my thorns (most inflicted by that most ready accuser, the self); and I cannot see past them. What was Paul’s “thorn”? No one knows. Some have argued for a physical affliction (an illness, a disability, an addiction) and others for communal affliction (perhaps an actual heckler, perhaps the opposition of Jewish leaders he wanted to persuade, perhaps perpetual unemployment and growing debt), but only Paul knows. I am, of course, partial to reading my afflictions into the account; I live with broken people, sick people, disturbed people. I too am a broken, sick, and disturbed person “… for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q.5). We are, together, a great thicket of thorns. What power is to be found in this weakness; this weakness which works counter to love? But for grace, I am nothing.