Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
We all strive to grow and improve. In the world we aim to improve our standing among men. For the believer, our aim is to approve our standing with God. But what about when we get stuck? Maybe you’ve got some sort of ailment or handicap that’s stopping your progression, maybe you have a sin or bad habit you can’t shake, or maybe you are in a situation that’s keeping you from doing what God has called you to do. Anyway, now you’re stuck. Is this the end of the road for you? Let’s find out what the Holy Spirit and the Word of God have to say on this topic.
Paul was stuck. He writes,
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
There’s a lot that we can learn from this (in fact, it’s today’s key verse). First of all: Whatever is holding you back is from God. Now I should note that it may not be directly the work of God’s hand on your life; however, everything that happens under heaven must be approved by the Lord. We know this because the Bible shows that the devil (who is the purveyor of bad things) has to ask permission before he acts; for Jesus said, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). (It’s interesting to note that the name “Simon” roughly translates to “he hears,” so it’s like Jesus is telling all who can hear him that there will be trouble, and that Jesus is praying for them.) The Bible also notes in Hebrews 4:13 that nothing escapes God’s eyes, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.”
The second thing we learn is that when you’re stuck, God has a reason (at least for a believer he does anyway). Presumably the reason allows you to get stuck is so that you don’t get a big head, or maybe to keep you from getting ahead of yourself. After all, Scripture warns us, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). And it’s nothing new for the Lord to hold back his people in order to keep them from over-extending themselves before they’re ready. He did that with Israel when he brought them into the Promised Land. Scripture records,
I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land (Exodus 23:28-30).
So although you may feel stuck, God may just be slowing things down so that you can properly catch up and remain in the right mindset in order to better flourish in the things he’s called you to.
A third thing that Paul’s thorn teaches is us is that God allows you to be entrapped by your “thorns in the flesh.” When he wrote the passage, Paul never actually specified what his issue actually was. This has caused scholars to debate it for centuries. However, I think this was done in wisdom; as since we have no idea as to what Paul was referring to when he complained of his personal thorn, we can use this Scripture for any sort of fleshly trapping; be it a health or bodily issue, a sin issue, or some other earthly constraint. Wait, sin too? Yes, sin too, as Paul’s usage of “the flesh” refers to the things of this world, and sin is a part of this earth. Paul writes elsewhere to prove this point, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). And if you read an older translation of the Bible, you’ll see the word “flesh” get used for all sorts of worldly references. Now, although God allows you to get trapped, take heart, for as we could see in Paul’s situation, the Lord won’t stop talking with you or working for your good; the problem will wholly be on your side (though, sometimes that makes things even more frustrating).
The fourth thing we learn is that God might not deliver you from whatever your thorn may be (at least not for now). I’ve been delivered from sinful habits and from sicknesses before; but sometimes God will let you get saddled with something you don’t want- and you’ll have to live with it. Paul got his thorn and even though he begged the Lord to free him, God said, “Nope, lol. But don’t worry; I’ve got grace for you.” Which, quite honestly, when you’re stuck, is not nearly as comforting as pastors seem to think.
So what do you do when this happens? First, praise God. -Wait, what? -Paul realized that if he couldn’t do anything about his problem, he’d have to rely on the Lord to get things done. After all, even if it is impossible for you it’s not for God, “For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). The Lord frequently taught this lesson to Israel by putting them in impossible and hopeless situations and then saving them. Like when the super-country that was Babylon was capturing Israel; the Israelites couldn’t do anything to help themselves. It was an impossible situation that had them stuck. So the Lord spoke to them (and to us) saying,
Therefore, this is what the Lord says:
“See, I will defend your cause
And avenge you;
I will dry up her sea
And make her springs dry (Jeremiah 51:36).
Clearly, Israel couldn’t defend themselves; therefore God said he’d do it and he’d take care of everything. Since God ends up doing the work of eventually relieving you of your thorn, you can’t boast or get a big head. Thus you are humbled, but not entirely encumbered by your thorn. “Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:31). Paul understood this, and so when he got stuck, he praised his Lord and Savior; we read at the end of the “thorn” passage, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Since you’re in a hopeless situation, your only hope is in God, who is infinitely more powerful than you’ll ever be. So when you’re weak, you’re actually at your strongest as you’re relying on the Lord’s muscles instead of your own. If you don’t get this, I recommend you read that “Footprints” poem everyone puts in their bathrooms; it sort of covers this topic.
So if we can’t dig ourselves out and need God to fix our problem does that mean that we should be content to just sit in the mud and let the Lord do everything? Not exactly. While letting God do his work, you should still do your best to overcome your “thorn in the flesh.” We read of Jesus, “Then he said to them all, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23). The Lord expects you to at least try to confront your issues on a daily basis; be it through fervent prayers or difficult works. In fact, Jesus takes it up a notch a few chapters later and states, “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). So you’re expected to do your part in relation to your issues too. We should do our best to continue on the path God has laid out for us through his grace. At the same time though, deal with your issues. Paul notes of his own struggles,
Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).
If you’re being held back by illness, fight it with all you’ve got. And if you’re stuck with a sin, get out of it as quickly as you can; for the Bible says, “Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). And again, the Scriptures state, “Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” (2 Timothy 2:22). Do your best to live the cleanest life you can, both physically (as in taking showers and looking neat) and spiritually (through avoiding sin and bad habits) because it is written,
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Your body is (1) a rental and (2) a representative of God, so do your best with what you’ve got to keep your body pure and holy.
Therefore, in light of all of this, no matter where you are in your life, stuck or not, Paul writes these words, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). And again, we read,
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed- not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (Philippians 2:12-13).
Take note that although the Bible tells us to do good in our lives, it is the Lord who enables us to do so. When good times and bad times come, the answer is always the same,
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all our ways acknowledge him,
And he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).
Always acknowledge that the Lord is there, doing his work, even if everything sucks and you’re totally stuck. Be careful how you acknowledge him though; for James teaches us,
When tempted, no one should say, “God is temping me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (James 1:13-14).
So don’t blame God when things go to hell, but do credit that he’s there and knows what’s up. Paul even goes as far as to advise us, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). It can be hard to thank the Lord always, but you have to understand that no matter how messed up a situation is, our God has a plan and is watching over everything with his loving hand. A good example for how all this works is in the story of Job. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Job, he’s a dude who didn’t do anything wrong, and yet God let the devil run roughshod over his life. But we see that even when things came crashing down, God knew about it before hand and allowed it to happen:
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely cures you to your face.”
The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger” (Job 1:9-12).
Yeah, God totally gave the devil free reign over Job’s life. So then, should Job have blamed God? No, but he did acknowledge that the Lord was present through it all,
At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
May the name of the Lord be praised.”
In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing (Job 1:20-22).
So although the Lord let Job’s life be turned upside-down and horribly ruined; Job praised God, knowing that the Lord is good all the time and had a plan (even if that plan was destroying Job). For a more practical application, I recommend that when things go wrong you remind yourself, “This too is from God.” That’s what I do when things go wrong, and sure enough, by doing so my eyes are opened enough to see the Lord working through the hard times and the stuck times (and even the mildly inconvenient times). After all, it is written, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). We have a good God, and when we realize that and understand that he’s always working, we can praise him through the stuck times and know that he’s always there watching us. His grace really is sufficient (though not always the most comfortable).
Rock on God!