Pain with a Purpose

by Robert Jacobs

Brace yourselves. The “new year, new you” advertising campaigns are about to begin. I always laugh when marketing agencies replace their advertisements featuring gluttonous holiday table spreads with ones introducing the newest revolutionary diet pill. I suppose this is simply the natural cycle of a culture torn between consuming to satiate our feelings yet longing to be different than we are.

While this desire to change ourselves seems to fall out of our cultural consciousness sometime around February first when Russell Stover makes its bid for our hard-earned money, the truth is that we are a society obsessed with transformation. From photo filters to carefully curated social media profiles, we desperately desire to change who we are, to transform ourselves into anything other than the hot mess we perceive ourselves to be.

Given the centrality of transformation in the gospel, it is amazing that so many people are hostile to the message of Christ. After all, Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This seems to be the kind of earth-shattering transformation that people are longing for. Why are they not lining up outside of every church to find out about this Jesus?

Although there are many possible answers to this question, I believe that one answer can be found in the photo filters I mentioned earlier. These technological innovations are systemic of a deeper truth, the reality that we desire radical change with no pain and little to no cost. But as Paul will show in his second letter to the Church of Corinth, transformation through Christ can be a painful endeavor.

Comparing himself to other leaders in the Church who had begun to elevate themselves because of their works, Paul recounts his own suffering for Christ, ultimately highlighting his weakness: “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:28-29). Rather than covering up his temptations, Paul admits that he, like all Christians, faces the daily task of choosing God over his feelings. He even admits that he inwardly burns, a Greek word used by other writers to describe being inflamed with passion.[1]Yet rather than complaining that God has not taken away these pressures or temptations, he boasts in these weaknesses.

Eleven verses later, Paul explains why he would choose to boast in these apparent detriments: “In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given 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’” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).  While scholars debate the exact nature of this “thorn”—literally “anything pointed” in Greek—Paul reveals one of the reasons God chooses to leave temptation in our lives: to keep us from becoming arrogant.[2]In other words, Christ left the temptation in Paul’s life as a form of protection, a tool used by God along the path of sanctification.

This thorn caused Paul a great deal of pain, but it was pain with a purpose. I have to wonder, do our temptations serve a similar function?

One of the first things people say when they first come to Living Hope is that they want to get “fixed” (or “healed” if they are particularly spiritual) and then move on with their now “normal” life. While I think that Christ is capable of this kind of healing, the Bible more often shows how God, while delivering his people out of many dangerous situations, almost always leaves them in this fallen world (Enoch and Elijah excluded). Thus, his people are forced to face the daily task of “[choosing] this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). Although it is easy to see this as a lack of “total deliverance,” Paul shows us that the existence of temptation is, in reality, a blessing, a tool used to bring us repeatedly to the feet of Jesus. In this way, the cycle of temptation and rejection of that temptation serve as a painful yet important component of our spiritual development.

Do you see your “thorn” as a blessing? Do you see the pain of struggling to choose God as a positive force in your life? Although our culture desires transformation with no pain, the refiner’s fire must be incredibly hot to be effective. Indeed, without that extreme temperature, no metal could be refined. The same can be said of our lives. In the words of Peter, “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).

[1] Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992) s.v. πῠρόω.
[2] Ibid, s.v. σκόλοψ.