Remembering Two Worlds: Lifestyles of the Poor and the Infamous and Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh (2 Cor 12:7-10)

Once upon a time, at a video game store far, far away a group of friends were anxiously awaiting the release of a new action RPG that promised to deliver the epic size of Elder Scrolls Oblivion with the gameplay and online multiplayer of World of Warcraft, right on their home consoles.  Excited wasn’t the right word… they were euphoric with the possibilities and eagerly preordered the SPECIAL edition of the game so they could have the full experience.  They lapped up each new screen shot, devoured every leaked detail, and on launch day they happily thrust their fistful of dollars into the game clerk’s hand and took home their new shiny copy of Two Worlds to embark on an epic co-op quest to save the world… or two of them if the title was to be believed.

Now for you young’ns, this was before the days of day one patches and title updates.  The game you bought and took home was exactly what your system would play, and you were at the mercy of the publisher if any bugs or issues existed post-launch.  The reason why that tidbit of information is important is about to be revealed.  We all loaded up our copies and immediately launched into the multiplayer, which was the whole reason we all bought the game.  And all of a sudden Two Worlds happened all over my TV screen.  It was not a good thing.

My generic looking hero had legs that wouldn’t move so I looked like a medieval Gumby just skating across the ground with immovable legs.  Everyone else would disappear and reappear at random.  I skated my way to an area that was covered with red boxes, which seemed like it might be exciting.  But as I tried to interact with the red boxes, I noticed my health bar kept dropping.  Confused, I tried another red box.  None of them would open, and I was nearing death.  At that moment one of my friends yelled over the headset that I was surrounded by monsters.  Not red boxes.  Not red boxes at all.  They were enemies that were killing me but I couldn’t see them because the textures would not load properly, so they appeared as red “place-holder” boxes that concealed their true identities as giant monsters of death.  I was not amused.  After a few hours of trying to love the game, we simply gave up.  Two Worlds never saw the inside of my console again.  I heard that patches were issued many moons later and the game can now be played as it was originally intended,  but I had already moved on.  I can play badly on my own, thank you very much.

It is one thing that be less than successful at playing a game.  I have personally made my opponents gaming experiences more enjoyable through my unintentionally less successful efforts a great many times.  “Making your game experiences better through losing since ’84” is my gaming motto.  At least that’s my earliest gaming memories… it may go back further.  Regardless, I have accepted that despite my best efforts there will be many times that I will fall short, and as a result my character will make the sad face of agony while I watch my opposition dance over my pitiful score.  That doesn’t bother me.

What is significantly less enjoyable is when I am placed into a position of losing and my skill (or lack thereof) is not even a factor.  Instead, the creator of the game either intentionally or unintentionally afflicted me with a losing scenario that makes my already limited chances for victory even less possible.  And while there are many games that lay claim to varying levels of unfairly challenging their players, in my personal experience none affected me as significantly as Two Worlds.  Maybe it was because of the early anticipation that went unrewarded, or perhaps it was influenced by the money I wasted that could have went towards literally anything else that would have been better.  Either way, it still sticks with me to this day, all these years later.

As we continue to move into the New Testament wing of our Survivor’s club, our charter member must surely be considered to be Paul the apostle.  We honestly don’t have to search too hard for the list of Paul’s losses, because he does an excellent job cataloging them for us.  We get a taste of this in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13, where Paul lays out a brief diatribe in what sounds like an episode of “The lifestyles of the poor and infamous: Apostles edition”.

Verse 9 is where Paul really starts to tell it like it is, saying “It seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena.”  Wow… tell us what you really think Paul.  In verse 11 Paul gives a very direct description of what this looks like:  hungry, thirsty, dressed in rags, brutally treated, homeless.  And in verse 14 he caps off the thought with the sentiment, “we have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world.”

At one point Paul was in a pretty good spot, at least from the ground floor point of view.  He was an upcoming Pharisee who had carved a niche out for himself as a special prosecutor for blasphemous cases such as these “Christ-followers” that were becoming all the rage.  He was well-educated and had been a student of one of the most prominent leaders of the time, which greatly improved his status. This man, who was in the midst of a rapid ascent into the good graces of the governing council of the Jews through his crusades, had a life-altering intervention with Jesus Himself and this changed the trajectory of his life forever.

As he grew in power and knowledge of the Lord, his worldly status crumbled in a directly proportionate ratio.  From prosecutor to prosecuted, he became a literal fugitive who spent the remainder of his days moving from one location to another to stay one step ahead of those who on multiple occasions swore to take his life.  Hell hath no fury like a group of Pharisees scorned it seems, as they deployed an incredible amount of resources and energy chasing this man who wanted nothing more than to share the love of Jesus with others.    The result?  Well, let’s let Paul give us the tale of the tape in 2 Corinthians 11:23-33:

Multiple stays in prison

Flogged (whipped) five times

Beaten with rods three times

Stoned with rocks once

Shipwrecked three times and an entire 24 hour period adrift in the sea

Gone without food, clothing, shelter, and sleep on countless occasions

And Paul hadn’t even wrapped up his evangelistic career at the point of that writing, so doubtless the list continued to grow up until his graduation from this life.  Doing the right thing and ending up on the short end of the stick is one of the most frustrating feelings I have experienced.  You spend years as a child having the thought reinforced that making the right decision pays off, and yet here we are in the middle of an epicly long list of losing on the resume of the world greatest evangelist.
One would think this would be enough.  A simple lesson in how we sow in sadness and reap in joy.  It all gets better for Paul, right?  But this is precisely where things get sticky… or more appropriately “thorny”.  We are not through with Paul’s indignities yet… not by a long shot.  In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 we get one of the most intimate glimpses into the Apostle Paul’s life yet.  In the context of the chapter, Paul has been relating to his audience about some amazing revelations from God that have occurred.  And right in the middle of this celebration of the Lord’s gifts we have Paul confess a challenge he was “given”.  And he does not mince words… to keep him from becoming proud in what he has experienced, he was given a thorn in the flesh, which he describes as a messenger of Satan to buffet him.  Let’s slow down for a second and unpack what has happened before we go into Paul’s response.

Much has been written and spoken about Paul’s thorn in the flesh, but we will not engage in conjecture here on what it was.  Truly, the beauty of this remaining vague is that it insures that we can all imagine that Paul was afflicted with a similar challenge to what we personally endure ourselves.  The Greek word for thorn that is used here (skolops) is not used anywhere else in the Bible, and its definition is fairly accurately rendered as something with a painful point.  Additionally, when he uses the word flesh (sarki) he is speaking of a real, actual physical affliction.  The most enlightening area of the text for me is in the understanding that Paul is referring to an actual physical issue that is satanic in its essence but divine in its permission.  It was GIVEN to Paul purely for the purpose of keeping him fully reliant on the Lord and His grace to make it through each day.  Paul asked his Creator three times to let this cup pass from him, but God wasn’t budging.  The same Lord who personally turned Jacob’s hip in a wrestling match causing a permanent limp so he could finally walk in faith is now the same One who was allowing Paul to endure this unnamed affliction in addition to the incredible challenges he had already overcome.  It seems God has a special way of dealing with His strong-willed followers, but once again it serves a purpose.

My list of losing in life pales in comparison to all Paul endured.  But I believe we can all relate to the pain of fighting through so much adversity only to have one critical prayer for deliverance receive a “declined invitation” response.  After all the ways the Lord has shown His power and answered prayers in your life and the lives of those around you, to have such a painful and constantly present reminder of what He hasn’t answered is difficult to understand.   And the knowledge the He is not only aware of this, but intentionally allowing it is even harder to accept.

But Paul doesn’t leave us hanging.  He closes the loop with not only accepting that the answer to His prayer is, “No”, but records the Lord’s reason why.  And as we have observed with Job previously, we don’t often get to hear the reason why something happens so this is pretty big.  The answer is God’s grace is sufficient, but the reason why is because God’s strength is demonstrated through our weakness.  See, Paul the human being did not endure all of those trials we listed earlier.  He couldn’t have.  He should have been dead many times over.  It was the Lord and His grace that protected Paul even as he suffered, because these trials were the demonstration of God’s power in his life.

I don’t identify with famous celebrities who have endless sums of money and the world at their feet.  It simply doesn’t connect with me.  But when a fellow “loser” tells me how they are fighting their flesh daily and building a stronger relationship with God through their adversity, I can relate and I leave that experience inspired and re-energized.  It is their weakness that shows how strong God is in their life.  And in verse 10 Paul finishes the thought by saying he takes pleasure in both his life challenges and his daily thorn because it is THROUGH these that he is able to show God’s strength to others.  An apostle who traveled in a golden chariot, ensconced in velvet robes and being fed grapes as he reclined would have never accomplished what the beaten, damaged, and wounded Paul was able to achieve.

It is right to pray to God for deliverance, but when the answer is “no” we must not become bitter.  That thorn you hate so much might be attached to the life-bearing stem on the rose of your ministry.  Jesus accomplished His greatest and most critical mission not when He was at His best marching in a triumphant entrance into Jerusalem amid praise and adulation, but when he had been carelessly hammered to a pair of boards and hung naked and bleeding for others to mock and insult.  Paul was at his most lethal position to the gates of hell when he was at his lowest points.  And you are also the most dangerous when the losses begin to overwhelm the scoreboard.  Because that is when God, and only God, can step in and use this to serve His higher purpose.  Don’t bitterly endure your weakness… embrace it and allow God to use it.  Your ability to minister for God is often found at the point of what you believe is your greatest setback.

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