Throughout the Bible, the picture of thorns is often employed at various times to communicate difficulties, treacherous paths, and barren wastelands where God’s blessing has ceased to fall. Where thorns flourish, movement is hindered, fields lay choked, and life is bitter for the inhabitants of the land.
Perhaps the most well-known reference to thorns in Scripture is located in Paul’s writings to the church in Corinth in 2 Cor. 12:7, where he speaks about having a “thorn in the flesh”. In the classical Greek, the word “thorn” is ‘skolops’, meaning a “stake or a sharp wooden shaft used to impale.” There have been many theories regarding what Paul meant by this phrase, everything from a chronic illness, to an eye disease, to sorrow, and to a literal ‘messenger of Satan’ meant to keep him humble in light of the revelations given him. Whatever this “thorn” was, it served to hinder Paul and made his journey much more difficult. Most importantly, it forced him to rely upon God. For when Paul prayed to have the “thorn” removed, God answered with, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness”. (2 Cor. 12:9)
As those who are in Christ Jesus, we too are not immune to the effects of the thorns, nor are we exempt from having to traverse through them from time to time. In fact, the Christian life seems to be fraught with thorns, ripping through our clothing, tearing into our flesh, and even causing us to become stuck at times. And the more we fight, the more we seem to be ever more stuck, bleeding and agonizing until we realize that the only thing that will get us out is to simply “be still” and do nothing. In those moments, we are mercifully brought to our knees before God as the only One who can bring us through the briars. Thorns are never pleasant and they always leave their mark, but it is only through the thorns that we are able to grow and move forward in our spiritual journey. In that most beautiful hymn, “Be Still My Soul”, we read,
“Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.”
As in all things, we would be wise to look at the example given to us by our Lord and Savior, Jesus, for even He experienced the thorns in a very real way. Upon his “coronation” at the cross, Jesus received the wicked crown of thorns which tore cruelly into his righteous head. In that terrible moment when He died upon the cross, He issued forth the words, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46), placing all into the Father’s hands. Jesus, in the midst of the most severe physical and emotional pain, was “still” before the Father, trusting in Him to do what seemed good to Him, knowing that God would see Him through. Jesus knew what lay beyond the thorns and He stayed the course set before Him by the Father. In doing this, He has given us an example of what it means to be faithful and to trust in God to lead us through the trials of life and to come out the other side in victory.
Thorns might come in very obvious forms such as persecution, physical illness, or loss. One only needs to flip through the annals of history, or even to simply live on this earth for any amount of time to see the truth in this. But thorns can also come in more subtle forms which make their way insidiously into our very cores, rotting us out from the inside. Even those of us in full-time ministry are often left wondering, “Why do I feel so dead inside? Why do I feel so stuck?” Stress, anxiety, depression, pride, the quest for possesions, and sheer busyness tend to mark our lives. Less and less are we able to simply “be still”. The thorns come and we begin to feel choked and barren. We fight and fight until their is no fight left in us.
Thorns are inevitable on the path of faith. There is no way around them, only through them. But they are also a very neccessary component to true and lasting growth. However the thorns manifest in your life and wherever you happen upon them in your journey, the question is this: “How will you meet them?”