Thursday, July 14, 2016

Humility and Thorns

 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 ESV


For some time now a precious friend has been nudging me to reread Andrew Murray's little book Humility. I put her off for a while, remembering 16 or 17 years ago when I first read it. During that reading, a mission department colleague at our church asked a carload of students, "What book are you currently enjoying?" "'Enjoying' doesn't seem the right word," I said, "but I'm reading Humility." "What do you mean by that?" he asked. "Does a person really 'enjoy' a punch in the stomach?" I said. "I didn't realize how proud I was until I started reading this." It's a good book but not a pleasant one. (But maybe that's just me.) That disillusionment may be the point of the whole exercise. On this reading, the book proved similarly convicting, but now, in the midst of 6 years and counting of chronic pain, the section on "Humility and Happiness" also proved comforting, in the bracing sort of way that a spray of antiseptic comforts a cut finger, cleansing it so it can heal well, but stinging in the process. Commenting on Paul's thorn in the flesh, Murray wrote this:
Paul's first desire was to have it removed, and three times he asked the Lord that it might depart. The answer came that the trial was a blessing; that, in the weakness and humiliation it brought, the grace and strength of the Lord could be better manifested. Paul at once entered into a new stage in his relationship to the trial. Instead of simply enduring it, he most gladly gloried in it. Instead of asking for deliverance, he took pleasure in it. He had learned that the place of humiliation is the place of blessing, of power, and of joy (81-82).
Let us look at our lives in the light of this experience and see whether we gladly glory in weakness, whether we take pleasure, as Paul did, in trials, in necessities, and in distresses. Yes, let us ask whether we have learned to regard a reproof, just or unjust, a reproach from friend or enemy, trouble or difficulty into which others bring us, as, above all, an opportunity of proving how Jesus is all to us. It is an opportunity to prove how our own pleasure or honor are nothing, and how humiliation is, in very truth, what we take pleasure in. It is indeed blessed--the deep happiness of heaven--to be so free from self that whatever is said about us or done to us is lost and swallowed up in the thought that Jesus is all (84).
Accept with gratitude everything that God allows from within or without, from friend or enemy, in nature or in grace, to remind you of your need of humbling, and to help you to it (90).
Crumbles, I'm not there yet. My family is still experiencing multi-layered, variegated trials, with the emotional roller coaster of things appearing, at last, to level out, only to plummet again. After a few months of relative respite, widespread joint pain has flared back up with a vengeance. Temporarily, God gave grace to help and serve other family and church members, but as we moved toward summer it became apparent that I would be on the receiving end of help instead.
We expected a wrist surgery which would render me dependent on others even to put on my ankle braces and tie my shoes, but the expectation has been delayed and transmogrified and may now shift to the lower body on the opposite side. As my grandmother would have said, I "can't win for losing" as far as health goes. The therapy for one body part makes another body part angry, and the "good" side complains forcefully about the extra workload.
In the midst of this nosedive, I have felt trapped. Stuck. Unable either to move forward or to stay put. Telling me to glory in weakness, to take these trials as an opportunity of proving how Jesus is all to me, to accept these things with gratitude because God has allowed them? That feels like telling an armadillo to spread its wings and fly: impossible.
Then again, the late, beloved Prof Howard Hendricks of Dallas Theological Seminary used to say, "The Christian life isn't hard; it's impossible." By this he meant that only the Holy Spirit dwelling in the believer in Christ could enable the Christian life; it couldn't be achieved through the efforts of the flesh, the old self. The standard the Scriptures lay out is not "good enough" but "perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Jesus Christ the God-man is the only one ever to fulfill this, and only His Spirit can fulfill it in us, though we only experience that inconsistently and imperfectly on this side of death.
Suffering is cause for gratitude because, like this uncomfortable little book, it exposes the places where I've been trying to cope in my own pathetic strength, and that opens me up to a greater experience of Jesus as all.
The last 2 weeks have brought a lot of opportunities for that, from the unexpected shift of pain treatment focus to a couple of extra health tasks that seemed to come out of nowhere and can't be resolved easily. On top of trying to discern the way forward and just keep going with that, there are still hurting people around me. In addition to my own self-pity tears, plenty have also been shed for them and for my hometown, which is still reeling with shock and grief from the ambush of police by a sniper last week.
Having confessed my pride and ingratitude, I also request your prayers: for wisdom for my doctors and for us; for protection and healing of soul and body; for provision of every sort of need generated by these circumstances; for patience and strength for the family members helping me; and for grace to glorify God in my many weaknesses and accept the pain with the same gratitude I have for the more pleasant, comforting, and comfortable gifts He gives. And I suppose, if you're feeling daring, you could pray for the Lord to give this armadillo wings.

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