Sunday, August 2, 2009

Thorns in Paradise?

What is the most beautiful thing you have experienced this week? A sunset on the beach; the smell of a rose, or a good meal; something coming together at work, an unexpected opportunity, a loving glance from someone you care about; the squeeze of a child’s hand? Have you ever tasted Paradise? Most of us long to experience Paradise, and may even have tasted it.

Last week we visited my brother and his family in Maui; certainly one of the most beautiful places on earth. The deep blue water that is so clear you can see 20 or 30 feet down; the colorful tropical fish and the giant sea turtles that populate its coral reefs; the rainforests filled with hanging vines, exotic plants, waterfalls and rock pools, mango and passion fruit trees; and the songs of native birds…these things for me offer a taste of paradise.

Then there are the times of deep Christian fellowship and worship that have tasted like paradise; working together for a cause greater than myself; or enjoying a spiritual retreat like we did two weeks ago with many St. John’s families; seeing a guy I met last year who gave his life to Christ and what a profound difference he is making in his life. These experiences offer to me a taste of the joy and beauty of paradise.

Then there’s the Apostle Paul who actually visited Paradise. He’s one of those guys who can top anyone’s vacation! In 2 Corinthians 12: 1-10 he explains that fourteen years before, he was “caught up to the third heaven….into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (3-4). What could top an experience like that? Yet Scripture tells us that God has created this world in such a way that its beauty gives us a taste of the paradise that is to come, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made so that we are without excuse" (Romans 1: 20). Every one of us longs – whether consciously or unconsciously, to be in the place of overwhelming beauty and contentment and joy; and we may even feel (perhaps not as intensely as Paul) that we’ve tasted it here on earth....

Yet the reality of pain and suffering in the midst of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring experiences reminds us that Paradise has been lost. Despite Paul’s amazing experience he was very honest about "the thorn" that was his constant companion and teacher. For he says that “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan … to keep me from being too elated” (7).

What was this thorn? Christians have been pondering that question for 2000 years and have come up with many different answers. Some think he may have been referring to the pain of opposition and persecution which he experienced because of the gospel; others that he was referring to spiritual temptations like doubt or despair. One of the oldest theories was that Paul suffered from some physical malady; that Paul was speaking plainly when he said he had a “thorn in the flesh”. It’s been suggested from his letters that he had eye trouble; or that he had a recurrent form of malaria which was common to the Mediterranean and caused an intermittent stabbing headache. Notice that when these theories are put together, they sum up the variety of things that can cause pain and difficulty in this life…doubt, despair, loneliness, guilt, conflict with other people; the stress of a chronic illness or health problem.

The Bible tells us that these things are the result of human sin which has separated us from God, and spoiled our relationship with other people and with the creation. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” says the Lord to Adam, “in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…until you return to the ground; for out of it you were taken” (Gen. 3: 18-19). God intended for this world to be a paradise…but it’s been spoiled by human pride and our determination to reject God and go our own way.

Last week I thought I was in paradise…but I wasn’t. Even a beautiful place like Maui has pain and problems. We visited a woman last week who paints for a living and lives in the most beautiful home overlooking Napili Bay that I have ever seen. We were there, because my sister in law is making some extra money helping her around the house. But she did not hesitate to tell us how lonely she has been since her husband’s death; and she acknowledged that she was not a Christian. When she told me she had diabetes, I told my own story and how I experienced God’s love in the midst of my dependence upon insulin. The experience reminded me that even in a so-called Paradise…there is loneliness, there is illness, there is grief.
Believe it or not, there are thorns even in Hawaii. While driving along the road to Lahaina, my brother pointed out some large kiawe trees that grow beside the road and shoreline. He explained that they were brought to the islands by the Spanish because they grow quickly, and are a good source of firewood. The problem is that they have thousands of sharp thorns; that litter the beach. Sin is like that. It’s a foreign invader. It was not part of the original design. It spreads quickly; it’s hard to eradicate; and it causes a lot of pain. It reminds us that we’re not in paradise. But with all that said…there is hope.

Through a life of joy and hardship, God is forming the character of Christ in us; empowering us to serve him here and in the true Paradise to come. Paul made an amazing discovery. Three times he asked the Lord to take this thorn from him; but God said this: “My grace is sufficient for you; for power is made perfect in weakness...Therefore (says Paul) I am content with weaknesses…for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (10). Jesus has shown us the way to overcome the troubles and temptations of this world…and that is not by denial or running away; but by humbly surrendering to the grace and power of God in the midst of them. In his commentary, William Barclay points out the all-sufficiency of God's grace in Paul's life:

It was sufficient for weariness. John Wesley preached 42,000 sermons and averaged 4500 miles a year; riding 60-70 miles a day on horseback, preaching 3 sermons a day on average. At age 83, he wrote, “I am a wonder to myself. I am never tired either with preaching, writing or traveling.” That was the work of our Lord’s all-sufficient grace.

It was sufficient for physical pain. A few months ago, our girls had the opportunity to meet Joni Erikson Tada; a woman who was paralyzed from the neck down after a diving accident in her teens. Today she inspires millions with her testimony of God’s power in her life…despite this affliction; and her work on behalf of the disabled. That’s the work of our Lord’s all-sufficient grace.
It was sufficient for opposition and ridicule. All his life, Paul faced those who opposed him and even wanted to kill him, yet he never gave in. No amount of criticism or opposition could break him or make him turn from Christ. That was the work of our Lord’s all-sufficient grace…the One who overcame the powers of sin, death, and hell, when he died for us on the cross and was raised to eternal life.

Sitting out on the balcony of my brother's house in Maui, as the sun was coming up over Molokai and Lana'i, I turned in the special Bible I use for a daily devotional and read Romans 6:22 where we learn that for those freed from sin and claimed by God through faith in his Son, “the end is eternal life.” As I read those words, I was reminded that as good as things may seem to be in this life (or as bad) this is not the end! The end is eternal life. Paradise, real paradise, is yet to come. Through his all-sufficient grace Christ is empowering us to serve him here in this imperfect world…and in the paradise that is yet to come. And for that I say, “Mahalo!”

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