Have you ever felt filled to overflowing with God’s truths, but at the same time miserable in spirit, vulnerable as though you’ve been turned inside out? That was me recently. Honestly, I wrestle within my spirit on a regular basis, and some weeks are just worse than others.
Wrestling from the inside out was also the case for the Apostle Paul, for the prophet Jeremiah, for David the palmist . . . , and for most believers through the ages. We’re human, we’ve sinned and been sinned against, and at times we’re vulnerable and feel inside out.
Recently, outside at a quiet beautiful bend in the river (for which I’m thankful), my husband and I had dinner with a beautiful couple (for which I’m thankful). They’ve been married nearly as long as we have and have weathered a bounty of life challenges and still do, like us. Even so, their spirits lifted ours as we commiserated and lamented together while also sharing the hope and faith we cling to in Jesus in the middle of our messes.
She and I chatted across the metal table, across the breeze and the blinding beams of the lowering sun, across our age differences, and across our fried fish dinners while our husbands shared their own conversation just two inches away. As she and I talked and listened to each other, the Lord whispered to me through her realness, her open spirit. Like the perfect Father, He encouraged me: “See, you’re not alone; you have true friends; there are people in your life who genuinely care about you. You are loved.”
Authentic love from others is one of those things I wrestle with on a regular basis. Feeling truly loved, and avoiding comparing myself to others, are head issues I have to remind myself to “take captive” as instructed by the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:5 (NIV):
“Take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
Later in the course of conversation, as the sun hung low behind the trees and cast shadows over our now-emptied plates, He whispered through my friend again. She was talking about God’s present direction for her life, and her certainty of what she was to focus on. Three weeks back, I had been certain about my direction. God had abruptly re-awakened me from a spiritual sleep and infused me with a renewed energy for the cause of Christ. But for all my regained enthusiasm and re-energized efforts, I was seeing no results and had begun to slip into doubt. I’d succumbed to the force of instant gratification and thought: Perhaps God really wants me to be doing something different than I’m doing . . . . God, what do You want really from me? I had begun to feel I was wasting my time and energy, forgetting that God doesn’t waste a second of our time and efforts, nor the adverse circumstances we encounter. The past week had been fraught with hurt and discouragement that I had pushed down with my tears as we approached the restaurant.
Through my friend’s sharing about her own life, and persistently purposed mind toward her focus, His answer was loud in me:
I left that dinner and those precious friends with a lighter heart. Yet, the next morning I was still a tad teary from the days of depression prior, still feeling somewhat “less than” as a woman called of God, and still in doubt about how I was spending my time and energy. But again, I pushed down the tears and pushed myself forward to attend a Beth Moore simulcast. Note: It’s not at all like me: 1) to want to drive forty-five minutes alone, 2) to a church I’ve never been to, 3) very early on a Saturday morning, 4) to watch a simulcast message, 5) with a group of women I’ve never met.
But I’d had a nudging within me to attend, so I went.
Beth’s spirited personality and biblical message carried my thoughts swiftly to focus on God’s frank truths and away from my depression. Even still, I asked God again, hungrily and honestly, “What do you really want from me in this season of my newly re-sparked vigilance for Christ?” The particularly painful past week had re-stirred in me all kinds of questions and uncertainties. There in the face of God’s facts, I had to acknowledge again a tough truth about myself: when life throws me curve balls, my heart is made more sensitive by the “thorn in my flesh”—borrowing the phrase from the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 12).
We don’t know from the Bible or other historic accounts what Paul’s “thorn” actually was, but we know from his letter to the church at Corinth that his thorn “tormented” him to the point that he “pleaded with God” three times to remove it. God didn’t remove Paul’s thorn but instead extended to him an abundance of grace and strength, and encouraged him with enormous power from the Holy Spirit. In answer to Paul’s pleading God said:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9 NIV).
Paul exercised that power and also practiced being “content,” even with his tormenting thorn. While sharing with his Christ-following brothers and sisters (thereby you and me) that he was living with a tormenting thorn, he also shared:
“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles” (Philippians 4:12-14 NIV).
I must consistently remind myself that despite my own thorn and whatever other circumstances I’m in, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (BSB)—and that it’s not only okay but “GOOD” to share my struggles with other believers. Paul shared his struggles not only in letters to various churches but in time to the entire world through the pages of the Bible, God’s Word, instructing us in Galatians 6:2 to “carry one another’s burdens” (BSB). And in numerous passages we’re instructed to encourage each other. My favorite verse is:
“Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:13 NIV).
Every day is called “today.”
As Paul exampled, and also my friend over dinner, it is indeed good for us to share in one another’s struggles for a number of reasons. Here are only four:
- We’re each plagued and tormented by the evil one—he thrives on stirring up darkness in our hearts—and thereby we need each other’s prayers. (Ephesians 6:18)
- To know the afflictions of our sisters is to avoid misunderstandings and false assumptions that work to prevent us from serving together effectively in love and unity. (Romans 5:1-8; John 13:34) Isn’t that one of the schemes of the evil one, to sow discord among believers? For example, I give the devil a foothold when I allow my hurt feelings and lack of understanding a circumstance to take center stage in me instead of choosing Christ-centered thoughts that create unity with other believers. So I must heed to Hebrews 12:15.
- To share our “thorns” with other believers is to then be able to “love one another” (John 13:34) deeper, more completely, as Christ loves us. Sharing with each other our thorns gains us a greater understanding of each other, which invites genuine compassion, empathy or sympathy toward another’s struggles and thereby a stronger sisterhood of authentic, growing love and unity: authentic friendships.
- To share our thorns and challenges with other sisters is to remind and assure them that they are truly—for real—not alone in their struggles.
For these reasons and more, the Apostle Paul was all about sharing his own struggles and weaknesses with his fellow believers: “I do not understand my own actions . . . . I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing . . . ” (Romans 7:15-20 ESV).
I’ve often pleaded in prayer that my own thorn be removed; others have often pleaded in prayer on my behalf; but still my thorn torments me. It continually produces two contrasting elements to balance: a greater sensitivity toward others, but also a greater tendency to feel hurt and feel weighted down by adverse situations.
My thorn is not an uncommon one; it plagues many—perhaps you. And perhaps by my willingness to share, you’ll gain some scriptural encouragement and tactics to battle against it and live a more abundant life in Christ. My thorn is depression. Not the kind of passing depression that’s the result of a temporary experience, but a consuming depression that’s been my companion for . . . , well, honestly, a lifetime. The kind of depression you hear about from those evoking TV commercials for Cymbalta. The kind of depression “that affects loved ones.” The kind of depression professionals call “clinical.” The kind of depression that can’t be understood by those who haven’t experienced that degree of longevity and encasement in what can easily become debilitating darkness and despair.
“But,” you might exclaim, “you’re a believer! So, how can you be that depressed, knowing and believing in all the promises of God, your assurance of eternity, and the inheritance you have in Christ Jesus that—by the way—you teach and talk about?”
My response would simply be: so was the Apostle Paul, quite the fierce believer and great evangelist, but also one who lamented a “thorn” he carried in daily life. The truth that we’re fierce believers doesn’t change the fact that we have thorns. I dare say there are few people who do not bear a thorn of some kind and to some degree, at least at times in their lives if not chronically. We don’t choose our thorns and neither can we dismiss their realities, pretending they don’t exist. Our attempts to cover up our thorns only add more weighted layers that press the painful thorn deeper.
Or we can claim aloud our thorns, as did Paul and other great men of the Bible, for the reasons listed above. Did you know there’s actually an entire book of the Bible devoted to “lamentations?” Thorns and other life challenges, from the beginning of time when Adam and Eve chose to sin, are a very real part of each of our lives. In Lamentations 3:19-26 (ESV) the prophet of the Lord (no less), Jeremiah, cried out to God in pain:
Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness.
Surely my soul remembers
And is bowed down within me. [inside out!]
This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I have hope in Him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for Him,
To the person who seeks Him.
We can own our thorns and share the load with our sisters, but are we to steadfast wallow and be stuck in our pain and trials? No. We are to be like Paul and Jeremiah and David: EMBRACE GRACE and move forward in the empowering of the Holy Spirit within us to:
“Let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24 BSB).
Like Paul, and like many of you, grace—God’s favor, undeserving—has also been my steadfast companion. Grace has often held me tightly from stepping off the cliff and entering eternity before God’s appointed time. As a matter of fact, I’ve so often seen tangible evidence of God’s grace within the clutches of my thorn that my biblical numerology number (if I were to be assigned one) would emphatically be the number five, signifying grace.¹ Even the date of my cancer surgery was grace-significant to me:
5-15. I can stretch this more by sharing that I’m five feet tall and wear a size five shoe. (Ha!) GRACE ABOUNDS!
God is good and kind and gracious . . . even in our human pain.
Despite severe, on-going depression, I’ve realized over time that I’m not simply a product of the real monsters of my past and the nightmares that continue, which the enemy works to refuel depression; more greatly, I’m a product of God’s grace and His continuing work in me to transform me from the inside out, even with my thorn.
Back to my prayer: God, what do you really want from me? As I sat under Beth’s Holy-Spirit-empowered message, I pleaded with the Lord again. This time, He didn’t whisper His answer; He shouted to me as though heralding the answer through a glorious symphony, and He added further instruction, and correction. His delivery to my spirit was beautiful and inspiring but didn’t pull any punches:
- Be patient; wait for My timing, My work, My way. (Romans 12:2; Isaiah 40:31)
- In the meantime, continue to gain greater knowledge of Me from My Word. (Proverbs 19:2; Matthew 6:33)
- Continue to be steadfast in what I’ve already shown you and run with endurance that course I’ve set before you! (Hebrews 12:1; Galatians 6:9)
- Don’t deviate from the course—even though you presently see no results from your labor, “He who has become a good work in you will perfect and complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6). (Isaiah 30:21)
- And STOP trying to ‘be‘ someone else! (Ephesians 4:11; Ephesians 2:10; Palms 139:14-15; Jeremiah 1:4-5)
Whoa. STOP trying to ‘be’ someone else . . . . While this correction may not read so symphonic, I can tell you that His voice to my spirit was indeed like a beautiful symphony, exuding kindness, gentleness, love, and GRACE. I’m so very grateful that GOD IS KIND AND GENTLE with me! He knows I’m sensitive—He knows my innermost thoughts from the inside out; He even knows the number of hairs on my head (Luke 12:7). Staggering. And it wasn’t lost on me that He gave me FIVE points of instruction: Grace.
“Stop trying to ‘be’ someone else.” God reminded me that He created me to be simply me. He had not created me to ‘be’ the friend through whom He’d spoken to me over loaves and fishes in the setting sun, although I should strive to emulate the qualities of Christ that she exudes:
- her roll-with-the-punches attitude,
- her finely-tuned ear to God,
- her patient spirit,
- her listening heart for His voice, and for others like me,
- her open sharing,
- her authentic friendship,
- her steadfastness to remain focused on what she knows.
The qualities that shine through her spirit reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s. But God doesn’t want my friend nor me to strive to ‘be’ the Apostle Paul or anyone else. He wants us each to become more and more like Christ but within our own God-created uniqueness.
You see, my thorn pierces me deeper when I choose to live under the weight of the lie that I’m not enough ‘this’ or ‘that’ to be effectively used by God, or to amount to anything worthwhile. And thereby, with that kind of self-dismissive thinking, I start back down that familiar wretched road—comparing myself to others—that leads me into deeper depression. When I compare myself to those I admire (which are many people), I always come up in the red, a deficit, in my own eyes. But that’s not TRUTH from God’s divine, all-knowing, GRACIOUS perspective of me as His righteous daughter. Righteousness, like salvation, are FREE GIFTS OF HIS GRACE that we cannot earn, no matter how hard we may work. Free gifts.
To combat my tendency toward darkness and self-defeat, I must daily, hourly, consciously follow Paul’s prescription (cited previously), for freedom of heart and mind in Christ Jesus:
“Take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV).
To have peace and abundant inner life, I must live in God’s truths about me rather than under the enemy’s weighted black lies. God’s truths (which are many) are solid rocks that built a STRONG TOWER (Proverbs 8:10) for you and me on this one fundamental rock of truth that is also your truth; so read it as though you’re reminding yourself:
JESUS LOVES ME.
JESUS LOVES ME just as I am.
JESUS LOVES ME when I believe others don’t.
JESUS LOVES ME when I think I’m not enough.
JESUS LOVES ME when I’m in the real-life depths of depression and despair.
JESUS LOVES ME when I’m stuck and when I’m re-sparked.
JESUS LOVES ME when I’ve sinned.
JESUS LOVES ME when I feel oh-so lonely.
JESUS LOVES ME when I don’t understand what’s happening in my life, in my little corner of the universe or in the world at large.
JESUS LOVES ME when I’m hurt by others, hurt by my own doing, hurt by my misconceptions . . . .
JESUS LOVES ME just as I am, and how I was when He knitted me from the inside out within my mother’s womb, before the real-life monsters were actually in my bedroom rather than fictitiously hidden in my closet or under my bed.
The unchanging truth in all my circumstances is that JESUS LOVES ME simply because I’m the ‘me’ of His design.
How do I know this?
“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Let’s take a moment to worship God through this timeless simple song, in gratitude for His gift of grace and love.
As much as I admire and want to be like my friend, I’m not her. As much as I admire my sister, Aundi, whom I view as a woman full of grace, wisdom, knowledge, and possessing a masterful, quiet gift of creativity that I marvel over, I’m not her. I’m simply me and JESUS LOVES ME for who He created me to be, just like He loves my friend and my sister for who He uniquely created them to be. Just like He loves you for the YOU He created you to be.
Why is this principle truth so hard for me to hold on to? Is it just me? Do you also struggle with the truth that JESUS LOVES YOU for who He uniquely created you to be—even with your own thorns, your monsters, and your messes. Grace.
God has promised to one day fully restore us each, but it will be in His way, through His work, and in His time. Perhaps like Paul, my thorn will remain with me until God has ushered me into His presence at the gateway to eternity. Oh, how I long for that day. If that be so—a lifetime thorn—I must daily, hourly continue to also mirror the Apostle Paul in this choice:
“I have learned to be content in whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11 NIV).
While I didn’t choose the thorn that tears and torments me, nor life’s storms that hit, nor those who bruise my sensitivities, I can consciously choose to dwell in God’s glorious grace, His compassionate and passionate symphony of directives, and His LOVE that steadfastly covers and envelopes me from the inside out. And I can choose to become more and more like Christ Jesus—even with my thorn.
Paul had actually been the Hitler of Christians, persecuting, imprisoning, and killing believers, and he could have chosen to carry that great weight of guilt. Instead, he purposed in himself to the cause of Christ:
“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14 NIV).
Pressing forward, loved, and free to be me,
¹The Number Five, Bible numerology, http://www.biblestudy.org/bibleref/meaning-of-numbers-in-bible/5.html
Bible verses were taken from the versions noted.
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