I was given a thorn in my flesh—a messenger of Satan to beat me—to keep me from exalting myself. Three times I begged God that it might leave me. And God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I would rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. So I am content with weakness, with mistreatment, with distress, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ; when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7b-10)
One way to understand this passage is to infer that the “thorn” Paul had to come to terms with was a sin. It’s certainly possible to take this from the fact that Paul describes it as a “messenger of Satan.” Another way to understand this passage, taken from the same description, is that the thorn is a physical ailment. Indeed, one tradition has it that Paul had eye problems, another epilepsy. But neither of these interpretations are sufficiently supported by the evidence of that description. This is clear if only from the fact that both are plausible, given that hermeneutic.
The ambiguity surrounding Paul’s thorn allows for deep spiritual possibilities. Since we have no idea what this thorn was, we are not clouded by overzealous literalist interpretations that might hinder us from gleaning the truth of God’s nature. We are not thereby hindered from meditating on this divine exchange and gleaning from it how God works in our own lives.
And glean I shall.
I see my orientation as a thorn. But as neither sin nor ailment. How do I reconcile this with this passage? How can I say my orientation is a “weakness” or a “messenger of Satan”? Well, actually, I don’t. Not any more. It’s more complicated than that (but then again, what of life isn’t more complicated than our pat answers suggest?).
Here’s my quickie personalized translation:
I was stigmatized—given a status that I must endure like a personal demon—to keep me humble. Many times I’ve begged God to take it away, but God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for you are made strong by being weak.” So I am learning to be glad about all this: I’d rather brag about whatever disadvantages I have that the power of Christ might have the chance to work through me. So I begin to be content with weaknesses, with abuse, with distress, with persecution and other difficulties, not because I’m all that, but for the sake of Christ, because when I am unable to do anything on my own because of these, then I am strong in Christ.
I believe that it isn’t the orientation that is the beating messenger, but the fact that this orientation is stigmatized. It is the stigma that is the messenger of Satan. Of course, the problem is, when I first began to experience the stigma, I begged God to make me straight. That’s certainly one way to remove the thorn of stigma. No more socially-unacceptable quality, no more stigma affiliated with that quality. But then, back then, I thought the stigma was correctly placed, and it was the orientation that was the messenger of Satan (in the sense of being a real-life demon or some sort of sinful desire).
I didn’t come to this view in a vacuum: I was raised in the most literalist of fundamentalist homes. To this day, my mother believes that each nation has an actual angel covering it, and that these angels are gendered, as demonstrated by the culture of the nation in question. And as recently as two days ago, when I told mom about an injury I have sustained to my toe, her advice included rebuking arthritis, which is, it seems, a demon.
It was a matter of course to rebuke things we don’t like as demons, and then to “live by faith” as if everything was all better and the problem in question was solved. Any indication that this was not in fact the case was carefully handled as “not yet” or that whatever the indications were, they were either tests of faith (of how single-mindedly we believed in the solution’s actuality) or they were temptations (to faithlessly infer from this evidence that the believed in solution had not come). In this way, in her desperation to cling to a hope that has been construed as having already obtained, a person learns to disbelieve the obvious, to disregard true ailments or very real problems.
But this thinking also loses out on so much of God’s grace. In order to tap into the strength of Christ that is manifested in our own very real weaknesses, one has to acknowledge the existence of the weaknesses. One has to personalize them, in a sense, to own them. Only when we do this, I believe, do we open ourselves to experience the strength of Christ as the strength of Christ, not as something from ourselves. Paul indicates this in his deduction: “most gladly, therefore, I would rather boast about my weaknesses…”. Because “power is perfected in weakness”, it is better to boast about weakness, i.e., to acknowledge, embrace, and own it, so that we don’t stand in the way of the perfecting process, which it seems clear we do when in denial, no matter how spiritually cloaked and theologically endorsed such may be.
So how does this cash out for me regarding this particular thorn?
Being gay is a weakness, when considered in the context of social powers. Except in a very few places, we can’t legally marry, hold ecclesiastical positions, or even comfortably hold hands with our beloved in public. Our very existence gives some people reason for violence—against us. In my own life, it is not at all untrue to say with Paul that I have suffered mistreatment, distress, persecution, and difficulties.
My initial response, to reject the existence of my orientation by living in the “ex gay” denial drove me away from the grace of God, from the strength of Christ, because I was denying the very thorn I was given by God to keep me humble.
Humility, by the way, is not some down-faced, downtrodden sort of characteristic. Humility is the ability, indeed, the strength, to acknowledge the truth. Imagine a courtroom where one takes the oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—so help you God. And God’s help we need. Humility is the ability to recognize and accept the truth. The whole truth. And nothing but the truth. To accept the truth of one’s strengths and weaknesses—all of them. And to restrain from glossing things over. A humble person has no need to make herself up as better off than she is, nor will she find the need to make herself up as worse off than she is. Either of these positions indicates she is yet concerned about what others think about her, hence more concerned about her social standing than her standing in Christ, in the truth.
God has given me a thorn I cannot trade in. I’m gay. And that brings with it a lot of baggage that weakens me. I don’t get to be like most other people. I’m set apart. And interestingly, the more I accept the truth of my thorn, the more I embrace it, the more stigmatized I become, the more dependent on God’s grace I become.
I think this interpretation is close to the heart of Jesus. He did say, after all, that no servant is greater than her master, that if Jesus himself was hated, we couldn’t expect ourselves not to be. And the only ones recorded who hated Jesus were the religious leaders. It follows then, that we shouldn’t exactly be surprised that it’s the religious leaders who hate on us. But his strength is perfected in weakness. I read that as a process: not as a single event of ta-da! Perfect!, but as a daily step-by-step being perfected, as a daily bit-by-bit process of completion. One piece at a time is added to the work of Christ in my life, each day a little more complete, each day a little more perfect. But then, each day I deny the thorn, each day I either pretend there’s no problem or try to find some way I can deal with it is a day that the process is hindered, and the strength of Christ is forced to lie dormant.
The paradox is the internal struggle to go beyond the mind that I’ve been given, to daily repent of my need to overcome on my own terms. It’s when I am powerless that I am strong. It’s when I am humble that I am empowered by Christ. It’s when I accept the thorn I’ve been given that I can experience the grace that is sufficient.