Sometimes the circumstances of life deny us the thing we so strongly desire—the ability to be in control! We want to control our health, finances, relationships, and even our destinies. We want to be able to say, “I can handle this.”
Issues related to control emerge repeatedly when I counsel others. They often stand in a close but unrecognized connection with fear. Unhealthy and sinful attachments to being in control are obstacles to flourishing relationships with both God and people. It should not surprise us to know that God is very much interested in addressing heart issues regarding our desire to be in control.
Pain from the past:
Years ago, I counseled a young man who was having difficulty letting his fiancée go on a short-term mission trip. The thought of her going brought on a surge of anxiety and resentment and he directed it toward his fiancée. In discussing his reaction, we connected it to a sad set of circumstances earlier in his life. He had a father who had walked in and out of his life and repeatedly disappointed him. So he found it instinctive to transfer the same feelings of fear and distrust to his fiance.
Recognizing this connection with his past helped him get perspective and change his behavior and emotions. He felt that by controlling those he loved he could protect himself from the deep hurts left by an absentee father. But his attachment to control became an idol of his heart. By trying to control others, he pushed them away. The security he desired had to be transferred to eternity, to the unchangeable God!
This young man knew the right thing to do but struggled greatly in doing it. A thorn from his past was hindering him. Sometimes we don’t realize the depth of the obstacles hindering us from doing what we know we should do. Often we need to look back so that we can move ahead. And although we cannot always change the event that caused our pain and fear, we can change the way we allow it to effect us in the future. But (and this is very important to know) power to change comes when we view the thorn as an instrument of the grace of God as described in the story below.
A lesson learned in the life of a great servant of God:
Facing something painfully beyond his control, the apostle Paul turned to God for help. But he didn’t receive God’s help in the way he prayed for it. After three seasons of intense prayer, God’s answer came in a totally unexpected way. (Perhaps by allowing prayer to require such extended intensity, God’s was intentionally addressing heart issues of dependency and control). But God’s solution to the apostle’s prayers was something far greater than anticipated. Follow his story as he told it:
“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:7-10)
Whatever this thorn of affliction was (and the uncertainty allows for broader application), it raised the issue of control. It generated intense feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability. He was uncertain about his ability to endure and persevere because of the thorn. He begged God to “take it away from me.” But God had a purpose for this thorn, this messenger of Satan. Paul’s weakness would keep his prideful independence in check and translate into the power of Christ resting on him.
Thorns of affliction produce:
- Decreased conceit, (cf. Romans 12:3; I Timothy 3:6).
- Increased dependence on God.
- Increased experience of God’s sustaining grace and power.
When the Lord answered Paul’s prayer, He said to him, “My grace is…” “My power is…” (present tense)– SUFFICIENT. Right now! Tap into what is available to you!
Think about this truth: Would a healing or removal of the thorn be a display of God’s power? Yes. But, here we learn that God’s power is perfected in ongoing weakness.
God’s power is experienced from a position of trust and dependence on the living God! (Deuteronomy 8:3-5; Psalm 62:8;Proverbs 3:5-6).
This is the way it is from the beginning of our encounter with God! Never forget that He put his treasure in jars of clay. Why? “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (II Corinthians 4:7). The jar doesn’t become gold or silver through Christian growth. Our continuous need will always be: Sufficient grace and perfecting power: (verse 9a)
Passive or Active:
Please understand that this is not about passive resignation to accept what must be. This is active acceptance of God’s plan for giving strength and power. Reflect on this important distinction when faced with difficulty. What difference of perspective, attitude and emotion results when we exchange a passive resignation mind-set for active acceptance? Discuss this with others!
Paul recognized the outcome: “so that Christ’s power may rest on me,” or “pitch its tent on me.” And, in verse 10, he notches it up and offers an expanded list of afflictions: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.”
What a change of perspective! Did his actual circumstances change? Apparently not. But the way he understood them changed and he received the answer he desired.
“How can I possibly continue with this thorn of affliction?” he wondered and prayed. Answer: “See it as a thorn of grace—increased grace and increased power from Christ!” Get this: How we construe things profoundly affects our perseverance. We grow weary when we lose perspective in our trials. Always remind yourself that God’s ways are not our ways but His ways are best. But we can only really know this through yielded hearts.
The beneficial purpose behind the thorn of affliction is not only that it brings the power of Christ, but that it purges the very dangerous and corrupting power of conceit. The apostle says that knowing this truth helps him to be content and even delight in the affliction that makes him feel so vulnerable.
Through the hardships and afflictions of life, we come to know by experience the perfecting of His power and the sufficiency of His grace–His sustaining grace. The thorns of affliction become thorns of grace.
A messenger of Satan?
Although Paul placed this experience in the context of God’s sovereign control, he also acknowledged with equal clarity that this thorn—this personal, painful disability– was a messenger of Satan.
Dr. J. I. Packer explores what this means:
“In what sense was Paul’s thorn a messenger of Satan? It sparked thoughts of resentment at God, pity for himself, and despair about the future of his ministry—the sort of thoughts that Satan specializes in stirring up within us all. Anything that prompts such thinking thereby becomes a messenger of Satan to our souls.”
“Why did Paul pray specifically to the Lord Jesus about his thorn? Because Jesus was the healer, who had wrought many miraculous cures in the days of his flesh and some through Paul during Paul’s years of missionary ministry (see Acts 14:3, 8-10, 19:11). Now Paul needed Christ’s healing power for himself, so in three solemn seasons of prayer he sought it.”
“Why was healing withheld? Not for lack of pure-hearted prayer on Paul’s part, nor for lack of sovereign power on Christ’s part, but because the Savior had something better in view for his servant. God always reserves the right to answer our requests in a better way than we make them.”
What better thing did the Savior have in view? (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
- Resentment at God, pity for yourself, despair about the future (Satan’s instruments of defeat)
- A sufficient grace from your Savior to perfect His power in your weakness
What will it be? Satan’s goal? Or, God’s goal?
Sometimes life can be hard and painful. Sometimes God allows us to face what seems to us an insurmountable obstacle to moving forward in our walk with Him.
But when we face such things, we must remind ourselves again of the truth that: “Man’s extremities furnish the most suitable opportunities for God to display His power.” Jesus said it: “My power is made perfect in weakness.”
Sometimes we are like the man named Jehoshaphat. He cried out to God when the vast armies of the Moabites and Ammonites were coming against him. He prayed, “O our God, will You not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.” (2 Chronicles 20:12)
- We have no power.
- We do not know what to do.
- Our eyes are on You.
A good place to start:
Are you facing some insurmountable obstacle? It could be physical, emotional, relational, or personal—but it feels like it’s more than you can handle—it wants to defeat you! When facing these obstacles, in many ways, we need to start where the twelve steps of AA start:
- We admitted that we were powerless over (alcohol, lust, food, a past hurt the affects us, our parents’ divorce, our child’s waywardness) and that our lives had become unmanageable. “O wretched man that I am!” What a mess!
- We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us. (only the true and living God can supply this power)
- We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
A man I know who became attached to alcohol said that he lived to seek the four A’s: approval, appreciation, acceptance, and applause. He allowed intense commitment to these things to propel him in the wrong direction. Alcohol fueled his hunger but underneath all of it was a sinful attachment to control because of deep insecurities from his upbringing. God will not let these matters remain unaddressed because He is the only one worthy of being in control of our lives. In Him (our faithful Creator), we find the security our hearts long for and desperately need (Philippians 4:6-7).
Repeatedly in this life, we find ourselves turning to God to confess:
- We have no power,
- We don’t know what to do,
- But our eyes are on You.
Like the apostle Paul, with bold affirmation, we need to acknowledge:
- I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest on me.
- For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Don’t let Satan succeed it turning you toward resentment, self-pity and despair.
A great conclusion:
“The good news here is that through the means of grace—Scripture, fellowship, prayer, and church worship—all Christians may be so empowered. Through the Spirit, whose power we come to know as we discipline ourselves to use these means, we may “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (Romans 8:13), grow in the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26), and find strength for the specifics of living to God (1 Corinthians 16:13; Ephesians 6:10; Philippians 4:13; Colossians 1:11; 1 Timothy 1:12; 2 Timothy 2:1, 4:17). Diligence in using the means of grace is the prime secret of deepening holiness and ongoing usefulness” (J. I. Packer).
Each day, pray for increased grace to face the challenges of life (Hebrews 4:16; 13:9- “It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace”).
Use the resources God has given you: Galatians 5:16-17. (Engage the spiritual disciplines).