I have a confession to make: I have a thorn in my flesh.
For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with social anxiety. I mean, really struggled. As a child, I didn’t talk to anyone outside of my immediate family. If I had to speak, I’d do it in as little words as possible or use non-verbal signals to communicate. It felt like something was physically holding me back preventing me from engaging with others even when I really wanted to. Because of this, I was isolated and excluded from my peers. It was heartbreaking to say the least.
However, God turned things around for me and after eleven years of not speaking, slowly things began to change. I met friends who refused to allow me to stay as I was and gently pulled me out of my box. I learned how to push past my fear and somehow the invisible hold fell off me.
But, I still carry that thorn in my flesh: even though things are significantly better, I still struggle with social anxiety. I experience irrational fear and other mental and physical symptoms of anxiety in social situations. Sometimes, it feels overwhelming. Many days I wish I didn’t have this thorn in my flesh.
Grace helps us to thrive with thorns in our flesh
And yet, this may be one of the most beautiful things in my life. I am a firm believer that God not only lets me thrive despite the thorn in my flesh, he lets me thrive because of it. God is glorified in my life because each time I am weak, his Spirit takes over and helps me to do what I couldn’t do in my own strength.
Maybe you have one or two thorns in the flesh, yourself. Grace can help us to thrive with thorns in our flesh. Don’t believe me? Ask the Apostle Paul.
I want to take the rest of the article to break down what thorns in the flesh really are, why we have them, why God doesn’t remove them and how, by his grace, we can thrive because of them, not merely in spite of them.
What is a thorn in the flesh?
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.2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV
We find the mention of thorns in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12. We don’t know exactly what he was speaking about but we know that whatever it was, it was a challenge for Paul.
When we speak about thorns in the flesh, we are referring to challenges or struggles that we either live with or endure for a certain period of time.
Examples of thorns in the flesh
- Chronic Illness
- Mental Illness
- Unfulfilled desire
- Difficult relationships
Why do we have thorns in the flesh?
I believe that we have thorns in our flesh for three reasons. To keep us humble, so we learn to rely on God’s grace, and finally, so that God’s power and glory can be seen through our lives.
Thorns keep us humble
Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.Proverbs 16:18 ESV
Paul said that he was given a thorn in his flesh to keep him from becoming conceited. In other words, the thorn in his flesh kept him humble. He had so many wonderful experiences being a minister of the Gospel. He saw amazing things and had powerful revelations. God allowed a thorn in his flesh so that he would remember that although God did many incredible things through him, the glory was God’s and not Paul’s.
God knows that pride has the potential to destroy us. Pride takes us out of our place and causes us to covet God’s place. Our place is to glorify God not to get his glory. We know that God does not give his glory to another. While it’s challenging to live with thorns, God’s grace is more than enough to keep us.
Thorns teach us to rely on God’s grace
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”2 Corinthians 12:9a ESV
Next, thorns teach us to rely on God’s grace. We have to remember that God sustains us, we don’t sustain ourselves. But, we’re human and we are prone to forget. Without thorns, we often forget how much we need God.
Personally, almost every social encounter is a challenge for me. But, despite the challenge, God empowers me to succeed. I can show up and engage with others socially because of the grace of God.
If I walked through life without any challenges, I’d never know what it’s like to overcome. When I remember my weakness, I also remember God’s grace. I remember that even though it’s hard, God is with me.
Thorns allow God’s power and glory to be seen through our lives
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 12:9b-10 ESV
Finally, thorns cause God’s power and glory to be seen in our lives. Paul says something really profound here: when I am weak, then I am strong. Ordinarily, when I am weak, I’m just weak. But through Christ, when I am weak, I become strong.
My weakness doesn’t disqualify me. Instead, it makes room for God to step in and help me do what I couldn’t do myself.
It leads me to worship because I recognize that it is only through supernatural strength that my weaknesses do not overwhelm me.
Why doesn’t God remove our thorns?
You may be wondering why God allows us to live through painful situations such as chronic illness, depression or anxiety, disabilities or unfulfilled desires. I want you to know that regardless of the magnitude of your thorn, God is good and he promises to sustain you through it. I know it’s hard but God is with you.
We touched on this a bit earlier but God doesn’t remove thorns in our lives because he knows that it will bring greater good for us than if we lived without them. Thorns help us to be more kind, compassionate, humble, loving, and empathetic. Thorns remind us to spend each day relying on our Father.
This world is a broken world and pain and suffering exists everywhere but God is so gracious to us to use our pain and suffering for our highest good. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care that you’re suffering – he does. He wants nothing more than to comfort you. While your thorn may not be removed in this life, if you are in Christ, it will be removed in the next. But in the meantime, rest in this: the God of the universe sees your pain and is not only walking beside you but he’s also giving you the strength to thrive amidst the challenges.
How does God help us to thrive with thorns?
I can’t speak for everyone but I can speak for myself. Social anxiety is hard, it’s frustrating and it feels overwhelming at times. Sometimes I feel like something is wrong with me. Like Paul, I have prayed that it would be removed from me. But, it has not.
One of the ways God helps me to thrive with social anxiety is by giving me the power to show up even if it’s not done perfectly. Particularly, showing up on social media, getting on camera, connecting with readers of this blog, meeting new people, and telling people about the goodness of God.
See, my social anxiety comes from a deeply rooted fear that I’ll make a fool of myself, say the wrong thing, or offend someone unintentionally. And as I walk into social situations, all the fears are present. But it is because of grace why I still show up even when I am afraid. Even when I do make a fool of myself or say the wrong thing. A deep love for God and love for his people compels me to show up.
When I see that he is glorified even in my imperfection, it fills me with so much joy. I’m probably one of the least qualified to show up and tell people about God’s goodness but God allows me to do it anyway. That is how I thrive with the thorn of social anxiety.
So, now that you’ve read this, I’m curious. What are your thorns? What has been your attitude towards them? How do you think God wants you to see them? How can you trust and submit to him so that you can thrive with these thorns?