• Epistle Reading
  • In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be! Toward the end of our Epistle reading this morning, St. Paul writes, “And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations [given to me by God], a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) St. Paul was a man very much beloved by God. He was counted as an Apostle, he had seen the risen Lord in the blinding light on the road to Damascus. He was granted, as he mentions this morning, many Divine visitations. And yet he was given a thorn in the flesh for his humility. The Father’s understand this thorn to be a particular temptation or trial or difficulty, a cross that was given to Paul by God. We’re not sure what the thorn was. But we know his response—he pleaded for relief, received a word from the Lord (“My strength is made perfect in weakness”), and he gladly accepted his thorn in the flesh from that point onward. And we know why St. Paul was given this particular cross to bear, he tells us the reason—to combat the pride that might come from the many graces given to him by God. What I’d like us to meditate on a moment this morning is the question, “Why might we be given the crosses, the thorns in our flesh, that we are given to bear by God?” We heard what St. Paul said, about God’s strength made perfect in our weakness, and boasting in our infirmities because of Christ. We heard the answer to the constant questions of “Why me—why am I suffering, why am I struggling, why are things so bad” that we constantly find ourselves asking. But why is it this way? Knowing that our struggles come from God is some relief, but asking why we have to endure these struggles is a question many of us have. We’ll approach the topic through the words of St. Isaac the Syrian, whose writings on the spiritual life are some of the most revered by the Church Fathers. And we’ll be using his homily, appropriately entitled—“On the Reasons Why God Permits Temptations to Come Upon Those Who Love Him” (The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984, pp. 295-296). St. Isaac provides us with 3 basic reasons that God gives us a thorn in the flesh. Firstly, St. Isaac writes, “For [the acquisition of boldness before Him] God allows His saints to be tried by every sorrow, then to experience anew and to prove His aid, and to understand how great a providence He has for them, for in their perils He is found to be their Redeemer” (p. 295). God allows us to be tried so that we can experience His care, His redemption, His salvation. As St. Paul said, so that we can experience His strength in our weakness. Our faith is increased when He helps us endure our thorns, and with greater faith we also grow in boldness before God. We can stand with faith and boldness before our Savior, with greatest hope for our salvation. Further explaining this point St. Isaac also says, “We learn the weakness of our nature and the help of Divine power when God first withholds His power from us while we are in temptation. Thus He makes us conscious of our nature’s impotence, the arduousness of temptations, and the cunning of the enemy. Thus He gives us to understand against whom we must wrestle…how powerless we are before the face of every passion…” (p. 296). We see the depth of our weakness, and the necessity of God’s salvation, when we’re sunk in the midst of temptations. And our faith is strengthened as we learn to seek salvation only from the Lord, and we see His speedy response to our requests. Secondly, St. Isaac writes, “And again, [God allows temptations] that we may gain wisdom from temptations…so that we may acquire the knowledge of all things, lest perhaps we be mocked by the demons. For if He exercised us only in that which is good, we would lack training in the other parts and be blind in battle…if a man is not first tried by the experience of evils, he has no taste for the good…how sweet is knowledge that is gained from actual experience and from diligent training” (p. 295). Our temptations, our thorns, our crosses, in our struggles in Christ we’re granted the virtue of wisdom. We learn firsthand the choice between good and evil, between God and our enemy. Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, were told not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. At the beginning, they weren’t ready for that responsibility. But the Father’s all agree that eventually they would be ready, and they could have eaten that once forbidden fruit with God’s blessing. God teaches us as we’re ready—as the Scriptures say, He never lays a burden on us too heavy for us to bear. We’re trained in wisdom and in knowledge and in the experience of God according to our strength. And our strength in God, as St. Isaac has already taught in the first point, is built up in times of temptation. The third and final point St. Isaac makes is that God allows us temptations so that as we grow in wisdom, as we persevere, as our faith is strengthened and we gain boldness before the Saviour, He can pour out His merciful grace on us as our training has prepared us to receive. God allows us thorns in the flesh so that we can be adorned with the graces of humility, perseverance in prayer, closeness to God, faith with expectation, stout-heartedness in the face of temptations, boldness before the face of God, and wisdom. St. Isaac writes, “ascetic strugglers (Christians) are tried, that we may add to our riches; the slothful are tried, that they may thereby guard themselves from what is harmful to them; the sleepy are tried, that they may be armed with wakefulness; those who are far away are tried, that they may draw nearer to God; those who are God’s own are tried, that with boldness they may enter into His house. For this reason, then, God first tries and afflicts, and thereafter reveals His gifts. Glory be to our Master Jesus Christ Who brings us the sweetness of health by stringent medicines!” (p. 296) God tests our weaknesses in order to make them stronger, like a bodybuilder working out his weaker areas to hone them and make them perfect. God constantly gives us the chance to attract His grace, to be molded in His image, in our times of trials and temptations. As St. Isaac said, “Glory be to our Master Jesus Christ Who brings us the sweetness of health by stringent medicines!” Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!