Every Christian struggles with something. Maybe it’s some form of addiction or perpetual pattern of temptation. Maybe it’s a way or stage of life – singleness, widowhood, financial instability, or a rough personal relationship. Despite the various forms our “thorns” can take, one thing is sure – we’ve all got one of those prickly, troublesome nuisances lodged in our side.
And this is nothing new.
For the past 2,000 years, men and women who love God dearly have suffered severely at the hand of various trials and temptations. Walking with Jesus while plagued by thorns in flesh, as Paul describes them, has always been a facet of life in Christ Jesus. But I think what is new, at least in our American Christian culture, is the tendency to let our struggles absolutely consume our lives. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of the individualistic, self-consumed air we breathe here in the U.S., but the vast amount of books, blogs, ministries, and conferences produced solely for the purpose of overcoming specific issues seems to show we are a people fixated on our struggles. . . even more than we are fixated on Christ.
I jokingly said to a friend the other day, “I think more Christians practice ‘Strugglanity’ than Christianity today.” From what I observe on the Internet and in the media, along with the many personal conversations I have with people through my blog, it seems that so many lovers of Jesus think more about their struggles than they do about Jesus. Even their seeking of Jesus doesn’t sound like it’s motivated by a desire to be close to Jesus, but by the hope that somehow their seeking will result in the eradication of their pattern of temptation, their singleness, their financial state, etc.
And that’s a tragedy.
Please hear me, I am not belittling the very real pain these trials and temptations cause us. I personally experience two dreadfully spikey thorns – same sex attraction and singleness. I am 26 years old, mainly attracted to the same gender, and unmarried. Most of my friends my age are married and have begun to start families. I am the only grandchild in my family who has yet to find a spouse or have kids. In my current context, I am an anomaly. I am the odd one out. According to societal definitions of what is “normal”, I am a weirdo.
Given my circumstances, I don’t think anyone would find it hard to imagine how easily I could sink into the quicksand of despair. Sometimes I do!
“Why doesn’t God take these desires away? Why couldn’t I just be normal and have a marriage and family so I could better fit in? Is this how the rest of my life is going to be?”
There are days these questions relentlessly bombard me and I am tempted to feel sorry for myself and settle into self-pity. But, when I look into the Bible I can’t find one bit of justification to walk in a woe is me attitude.
The Christians in Hebrews 10 had immense joy while their property was being plundered. When Peter and other apostles were arrested and beaten on account of preaching Jesus, they went away rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name (Acts 5:40-41). Paul was single, and far more afflicted than I will probably ever be, yet his joy overflowed . . . in the midst of his suffering. Here’s just a glimpse into what his life looked like:
“Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food in cold and exposure.” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27)
Not to diminish our struggles, but these folks suffered to far greater extents than most of us do. Yet they had joy. They had peace. They praised God with energy and passion! How? Because they did not “account [their lives] of any value nor as precious to [themselves], if only [they] may finish [their] course and the ministry that [they] received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” – Acts 20:24.
Paul didn’t obsess over his thorn, nor did it debilitate him. Instead it humbled him and propelled him toward increased reliance on Jesus.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 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 12:8-10.
The souls of Christians of old were not consumed by their very real struggles in this life, but by their greatest love and treasure, Jesus Christ. Am I saying we should just ignore our struggles or that we shouldn’t be transparent with others about what we’re going through? Am I saying when people come to us with their issues that we should tell them to shut up and focus on Jesus? NO! We should be vulnerable and let others in on our struggles, and we should “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). My point is that God doesn’t call us to spend the whole sum of our lives centered on our thorns in the flesh. Christianity is not primarily about “dealing with our struggles”, but about joyfully worshipping Jesus and taking his gospel to those who are separated from him.
You may think it’s hypocritical of me, a blogger who’s most known for writing about his struggle with homosexuality, to be sitting here writing about how people shouldn’t focus on their struggles. But if you’ll peruse my many blogs, you’ll find that when I write about homosexuality, I don’t really write primarily about homosexuality. Instead, I use the subject as a doorway to talk about a much more intriguing and life-giving topic: the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every time I blog about my struggle, one of my main motives is to encourage my readers to look away from their temptations, attractions, singleness, whatever – and to gaze upon Jesus instead. It’s in a life of absolute obsession with Christ in the midst of our issues that joy, peace, and comfort are found.