“to keep me from becoming conceited”
Paul says the reason he was given the thorn in the flesh was “to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations.”
This tells us a couple of things:
a) Firstly, Paul wasn’t immune to becoming conceited. He’s admitting that, if it hadn’t been for this thorn in the flesh, he might well have become proud because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations that he’d received. I notice that the word is “revelations”, rather than, say, “discoveries”, i.e. these were things that God revealed to Paul, rather than things that he worked to discover for himself. Paul had no right to be proud of what God revealed to him, but it was still a danger. And I wonder if we face a similar danger? I mean, we’re Calvinists; we believe we’re saved because God chose to save us, to reveal himself to us, not because of anything we’ve done, but to show the immeasurable riches of his grace, but are we sometimes proud of the fact that we’re Calvinists? God chose to bless us by giving us the right books to read, and putting us in the right church so we’d hear reformed preaching, teaching us that we’ve learned to love God only because He first loved us, not that we’ve earned anything from him, and do we respond by looking down on other people who don’t have their theology quite right? I’m not saying that right theology’s not important, but we should be careful not to think we’re better than other people because God has revealed things to us that he hasn’t revealed to them.
b) Secondly, it wasn’t that Paul had already become conceited, and therefore God was punishing him with this thorn in the flesh; it was actually a blessing to prevent him from sinning in that way. I kind of already made this point in my introduction really; basically that our level of comfort or suffering is not based on how well we’ve done at obeying God.
I was reminded of Job. The very first verse of the book of Job tells us that he “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”
And yet God allowed Satan to torment him, too. In fact, it was specifically because Job was blameless that he was singled out for torment. Satan came from walking to and fro on the earth, and God starts the conversation with him, saying “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” And most of you reading this will know where the story goes from there; if you don’t, you could find out here.
So clearly, putting on a good spiritual performance doesn’t mean God will keep us comfortable. If we’re going to be good servants of Christ, we shouldn’t be surprised if our “reward” in this life is anxiety, beatings, imprisonment…
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