Editor’s note: This article is an adaptation of a sermon preached at the Pastoral Evangelistic and Leadership Conference, Oakwood University, Huntsville, Alabama, United States, December 6, 2011.
Every Christian preacher and leader ministers in the context of a problem. Paul, the New Testament apostle, could confound the scholars on Mars’ Hill; but he had a problem. His powerful proclamations are impressive, but he still had a problem. We only hear Paul speak of his problem once, as if the problem was not of great importance. This single mention of his problem is much like our practice today of minimizing our struggles. Too many preachers are out of touch with the reality of their own problems because they specialize in helping other people with their problems.
Paul’s problem seems to be revealed in 2 Corinthians 12:7 where he describes “a thorn . . . in the flesh” that was given to him.1 This is a problem for Paul because it is painful. This “thorn” was thought to be of a physical nature and caused the preacher great discomfort and pain. How does one preach and lead in the midst of pain?
All preachers lead with a type of pain. And sometimes, the temptation is to attribute the source of pain to the people we lead. Some pastors believe if they get a new parish or move to a new ministry location that the pain will dissipate. But this kind of pain cannot be circumvented by relocation because it is in the flesh, it’s personal. Paul also describes it as persistent. He is recorded asking God three times to remove the pain. God does not grant his wish. How does a preacher, who prays successfully for so many other people, deal with the fact that his personal pain persists even though he has requested a reprieve?
The challenge of his pain is that it is chronic. All of us can get by a season of pain or discomfort, but Paul’s pain was one that lingered. To make matters worse, his pain was also permitted by the same God who called him to preach the gospel. If we are honest, the greatest pain is sometimes brought on—not because of what happens to us—but by who allows it. Paul was busy advancing the kingdom of God, so perhaps one of the fringe benefits of his work should be safety from such pain. However, he is left to tell people about a God who permits his personal pain. Paul’s problem is painful, personal, persistent, and permitted. And yet, he must preach.
The problem is not the problem
We may first be led to believe that the pain of Paul’s thorn was the problem, but that was not it. We all would rather not have pain and, if possible, would eradicate the pains we experience as preachers. But Paul’s pain was not his real problem, and neither are the pains we experience. In fact, Paul’s pain was the antidote for the real problem. The potential problem every preacher faces is the success of his or her ministry. In many cases, the devil is not our greatest nemesis. Paradoxically, our greatest danger can come from being used mightily by God. This danger could be the feeling that comes from delivering a stirring message, the euphoria of being asked to serve as the keynote at a stellar event, or accepting the election to a high-ranking administrative office. The real problem Paul faced, and every preacher faces, is pride. Every minister that stands in front of a congregation or constituency on a regular basis must wrestle with the problem of becoming too conceited due to the surpassing greatness of the message.
I must admit that this has been my problem as a preacher, for I have had the opportunity, in my short tenure as an ordained minister, to preach internationally. There have been times when Divinity has flashed through my pitiful manuscript and set the place ablaze with conviction and celebration. I have often witnessed the miracle of scores of penitent people coming to the front of the church in response to what the Holy Spirit said through me. I am quite cognizant that all the praise belongs to God. I agree that it was the result of His Spirit speaking to the hearts and minds of people. However, in many of those moments of homiletical glory, I have often been tempted to steal or at least share the glory with God. I have been tempted to believe that the power flowing through me originated from me.
This internal nemesis is often present with me in the pulpit. There are times when an invisible wrestling match breaks out in the pulpit as my pride wrestles with God’s desire to speak plainly to His people. I can sense when God is telling me to deviate from my studied and rehearsed notes, but I struggle to obey because I want to finish my carefully crafted phrases. There are even times when I sense God telling me to end a sermon early, but I argue with Him that I still have a few more sagacious gems to share. So sadly, I must admit, sometimes my selfish will wins. I have a thorn and I suspect all preachers do.
The preacher’s ego is a fragile thing, easily fed by the opportunities we intend for ministry. The nature of public proclamation of the gospel is that it places the messenger in a precarious situation. The reality is that although all the praise belongs to the God who gave you the message, the people cannot see or touch God. The people can, however, see and touch the preacher. They attempt to respond to a spiritual and divinely inspired message while they show appreciation to a flawed and frail human messenger. This presents a seductive temptation of narcissism for the preacher. “Christian leaders often use those they lead to enhance their own image and improve the way they feel about themselves.”2 The truth? Many preachers suffer from emotional and psychological wounds that color the way we view and practice ministry.
Unfortunately, due to the superhuman expectations we either place on ourselves or accept from our parishioners, we neglect to be healed in these deep and dark places. So we begin to heal our broken and fragile self-esteem by “medicating with ministry.” This practice of ministry medication allows us to preach and lead with the intention of glorifying Christ while, in reality, we are feeding our pride and self-esteem in a subconscious effort to deal with our own emotional and psychological issues.
Comparing and competing
The practice of comparison and competition is also used in ministry to feed our pride. We have created a corporate business mind-set as it relates to the measure of our ministerial success. We use baptism numbers as our bottom line. Church edifices are seen as expanding the church’s portfolio. Attendance becomes the weekly statistical measurement we use to determine progress. We use these metrics to compare with other “competing” churches.
These measurement tools are inadequate and incongruent with biblical principles. While all of us would naturally desire our churches to grow in number and stewardship, these are not the only measurements God uses. In fact, Paul gives us a rundown of his ministerial résumé in 2 Corinthians 11:23–30, and it does not read as a usual curriculum vitae would read today. Paul asks, “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death” (v. 23). Paul defines his ministry not by how many he has won for Christ. He defines his service to Christ by how many challenges and hardships he has suffered because of his faithfulness to the call. Paul goes on to list them for us; he was beaten with 39 lashes on five different occasions, beaten three times with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, under constant danger on the sea, in the city, and among his own people. He describes sleepless nights, and days filled with hunger. He concludes his somber list of experiences by declaring, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (v. 30). Paul measures his ministerial success by his scars, while we often measure ourselves by our stars.
Modern-day experiences seem in direct opposition to the experience of Paul and many other New Testament preachers. In the first century, you had not really preached until someone tried to kill you. Popularity and acceptance of the message was not the focus, unlike our present-day celebrity context. The definition of success in ministry must not be performance, attendance, size, or even finances. It must be faithfulness to the assignment He has given us. To this end, God permits the painful thorns. To paraphrase and adapt an old Negro spiritual: I’ve got a thorn, you’ve got a thorn, all God’s preachers got a thorn.
Paul describes the thorn as “a messenger of Satan” (2 Cor. 12:7). This raises the question, Who is responsible for the thorn? It seems as if Paul pins the blame on Satan for using this thorn to torment him. However, Paul says the thorn is necessary to keep him humble. Is the thorn the agent of Satan or of God? Either God or Satan can use the thorns in our lives. There are painful realities in the lives of all preachers that Satan tries to use to discourage and silence us. The thorn represents something in your life that causes you some great anxiety or pain and may be the feeling of inadequacy. The evil one uses the thorn to convince you that you will never be good enough. He uses the thorn to tell you that you are inadequate and ineffective. In 2 Corinthians 12:7, the word we translate as “harass” is kolaphiz. This word communicates the picture of being punched in the face with a closed fist. These discouraging blows can become persistent and overwhelming in the mind of the preacher. They can cause you to approach the pulpit or the board meeting with the internal bleeding of doubt. The persistent thought and doubts can make a preacher feel that he or she is unable to accomplish the tasks of ministry. And the truth is that Satan is partly correct. We are inadequate and ineffective to accomplish the true goal of ministry. The Bible points out the futility of preaching and calls it “foolishness” since flawed human agents promulgate it (1 Cor. 1:18). We will never be good enough or worthy of the calling that lives on in our lives. This is true. However, this is only a half-truth like so many of Satan’s messages to humanity.
Why does God permit such thorns?
God permits this thorn in our flesh to show us our weakness and frailty. What Satan meant to discourage us has the potential of humbling us. Humility is the true position of power. When one experiences humility, the barriers of ego and human agenda are moved out of the way, which makes way for God to be revealed. Greatness is always accomplished by people who are not seeking personal glory. This is why Jesus often talked about and modeled humility. Jesus understood that pride was the origin of sin in heaven and the only cure for it was humility. Jesus permits the thorn in order to place Paul, and every preacher, in the position of real spiritual power. Charles Spurgeon was known as one of the greatest preachers of his generation; but his thorn was a painful ailment that also kept him quite depressed. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most influential men of his century, and yet he was constantly misunderstood by his own race and hated by many Americans. The thorn seems to be the trademark of every preacher who seeks to transform the world through the Word. All God’s preachers have thorns.
The resolute faith of Paul, after pleading for the thorn’s removal, may be due to his understanding of the use of the word thorn in classical Greek. The word skolops, translated as “thorn,” is only used once in the entire Bible. However, this word, used in classical Greek, means a stake used to keep a tent driven into the ground. The fact that Paul was a tent maker was no coincidence. Paul uses this word to show us a picture of the thorn’s purpose in his ministry. The thorn acts as a stake to keep the preacher grounded and in place. Paul knew that without the stake the tent could possibly be blown away by howling winds and terrible tempests. The thorns in our ministries act like stakes to keep us in place so that we are not blown away by the unexpected pain of ministry. God knows, if it were not for my thorn, I would have allowed the demands of ministry to ruin my marriage. If it were not for the thorn,
I would have left the ministry over bitterness and unfair treatment. But the thorn keeps me in place. The thorn will not let me leave. It will not let me be silent. The thorn drives me into the ground of fervent prayer. The thorn reminds me that I am nothing but dust. The thorn demands that I be still and know that He is God (Ps. 46:10). The miracle of the thorn is that what I asked God to remove was the very thing He uses to save my ministry.
In the end, there are these two realities that save every preacher’s ministry from destruction: thorns and grace. The thorn humbles us; grace encourages us. The answer to our ministerial pride is the thorn represented by our painful life situations and inadequacies. God assured Paul that what he needed most was not removal but refocus. The focus now shifts from the preacher’s pain to God’s purpose. Pastoral weakness has the potential to reveal divine strength. The truth is that preachers do not have to be superhuman. We do not have to be OK all the time. We, too, can hurt, cry, and struggle. Our thorns reveal His grace. So then there is an inherent call to all preachers to embrace their “thorny” ministry. Paul says, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Our strength comes not from hiding our insecurities, disappointments, and pains but from confessing them. Our churches, constituents, and communities need to understand that we preach and lead with human “thorns.”
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is an act of public confession. He knew that you never conquer what you do not confess. Paul’s example for every preacher is to live in the authenticity of your weakness. Confess the pride that seeks to derail your preaching. Embrace the fact that your ministry is only about revealing God’s glory. Remember that faithfulness is the measure of ministerial success. Put the façade aside and be the inadequate conduit of His grace. Preach, minister, and lead with your thorn. When you do so in humility and with the grace of God, the preacher’s problem becomes the preacher’s power.
1 All scriptures used in this article, unless otherwise stated, are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
2 Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima Sr., Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1997), 99.