Confession: inherently, I am not the most patient person. I’ve come a long way over the years, but I’m nowhere near others who come to mind—humbly standing in the background as pillars of peaceful restraint. To borrow the clever phrase of a former parishioner: patience is not a flower that grows in every garden. Though I have other gifts, for some reason, my plot doesn’t contain the rich soil needed to bear the delicate produce of patience. Still, it’s a practice that I’ve learned and grown in significantly these past few years since both becoming a parent and serving as a pastor. Whatever temperance others claim to see in me, if any, can best be attributed to the gracious modeling and wise teachings of those closest around me. Actually, if I’m completely honest, some of my most influential formation with regards to becoming more patient in the realm of the church has come from a thorn in my side that I acquired in my first pastorate. You could say, perhaps ironically, a particular person who made my life very difficult for much of my time in my first call inadvertently taught me—dare I say, blessed me with—one of the greatest lessons in learning patience. Though very much a piercing nuisance, since then she has become for me an unexpected gift in how I (should) enter into situations with grace and pause.
Towards the end of his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul vaguely refers to a thorn in the flesh (12:7-9) that he has recently received. Over the years, biblical scholars have offered a wealth of educated guesses as to what this thorn of Paul references. Is it something physical—illness, an impediment acquired along the journey? Is it something mental or emotional—a burdened conscience or depression from continual struggles and strife? Is it something spiritual—temptation(s) as a result of personal or professional trials and tribulations? Is it relational—an individual or group painfully hindering him in his ongoing work of proclaiming the gospel? It’s unclear as to what exactly is this tormenting pain for the apostle. In his brilliant book, Paul: A Biography, N.T. Wright moves beyond the speculation, suggesting instead: “What [Paul] does say, and it’s worth more than all the actual information we could have, is what he had learned through that experience” (316). Whatever the disability or weakness, through it Paul learns, grows, and sees more clearly how God’s grace works through powerlessness. The pain Paul feels from this wound penetrates also through what could be blissful blindness. That which Paul claims Satan has intended to torment him, actually serves to become a blessing in disguise—a tool for ministry.
If you had said to me four years ago: “Though you can’t see it right now, this deeply hurt and compulsive person who is treating you harshly in ways that speak more about herself, is actually going to be a tremendous blessing to you in learning and growing personally and pastorally” I would’ve called you CRAZY. There was no way for me—green out of seminary, and still very wet behind the ears—to see then and there that the pain that felt so agonizing from that one person was a lesson in listening, loving, and letting go. Now let me interject with a crucial disclaimer: I have, by no means, perfected patience. Those who know me best—and my immediate family can attest to this—will vouch for this being a daily work in progress. Sometimes it’s one step forward followed by three back. Patience is no less a practice painstakingly kept up with than medicine is for the physician—never mastered, at best it becomes habitual. We never run out of opportunities to test it though. God blesses us with countless occasions to practice patience; and if we are fortunate, our eyes are opened at just the right time to see the situation for what it is and what it potentially may become. I would be arrogant if I were to use this space to list off all the times I’ve portrayed perfect patience with others—it would also be an embarrassingly short ledger. Others have been far more faithful than me in this discipline, and yet look for no accolades.
My point in all of this, if there is one to be found, is that I’m (slowly) coming to learn that sometimes in the struggle there is a lesson to be learned, a gift to be received, a revelation to be shared. At the risk of affirming the cliché, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (which I don’t buy, and in some regards despise)—maybe what I’m saying is even a thorn in the flesh can serve as a means to learn, grow, and be transformed. I don’t know if that’s the same as a silver lining as much as a trust and hope in God’s providence or the prevailing work of the Holy Spirit in and through all things. Not all pain and suffering—no matter how great or small—bears some good or redeemable qualities. Some of it is simply random and meaningless. I’m not a it’s all part of God’s plan kind of person, but rather more of a maybe there is something to be taken away/learned from this kind of person. That being said, however, sometimes the pain, if not ignored or disregarded, can serve to open our hearts and minds—if not our physical eyes—to see the situation before us more clearly and respond more faithfully than we otherwise would. It’s taken me a long time, but I give thanks to God for the thorn in my flesh that I would have never hoped for—she, too, has taught me something very valuable.
– Pastor Andrew