How God Keeps Pride in Check
‘There is no danger,’ writes Albert Barnes, ‘that more constantly besets Christians, and even eminent Christians, than pride. There is no sin that is more subtle, insinuating, deceptive; none that lurks more constantly around the heart and that finds a more ready entrance than pride.’ In a remarkable section in one of his letters, one very eminent Christian, the Apostle Paul, writes about the danger he faced in this regard and about the painful way in which God kept his pride in check.
He calls it his thorn in the flesh and the suggestions as to its identity have been legion. An eye problem, earache, headache, deafness, epilepsy, sexual temptation, an impediment in his speech, and the activity of his enemies have all been mooted. ‘I generally find,’ says CH Spurgeon dryly, ‘that each expositor has selected that particular thorn which has pierced his own bosom.’
Paul, for his part, is silent on the matter. He simply tells us that his thorn in the flesh was satanic in its origin, hard to live with, and there to stay. Three times he pleaded with the Lord to take it away from him and was assured in response of the Lord’s sufficient grace. The thorn itself, however, had to remain.
Paul’s choice of words is interesting. His thorn in the flesh was given to him. It’s a pointer to its ultimate source. The hand of God was in this painful affliction – as we clearly see from its purpose: ‘Lest I should be exalted above measure’ (2 Cor. 12:7). There was certainly no wish on Satan’s part to keep Paul’s pride in check. But that was exactly God’s design in giving him leave to torment Paul. On account of the ‘abundance of the revelations’ with which he had been favoured when caught up to the third heaven, Paul was in danger of becoming spiritually proud. His thorn in the flesh was God’s painful preventive.
The parallels with ourselves are not difficult to trace and follow each other logically and inevitably. Paul’s heart is our heart – a heart that is still sinful. Therefore Paul’s danger is our danger – the danger of pride because of the ways in which God has specially blessed us. Therefore Paul’s need is our need – the need for God to take steps to keep our pride in check. Therefore Paul’s experience is our experience. Thorns in the flesh are given to us.
Their identity varies from Christian to Christian. With one the thorn is visible, with another invisible. It maybe a physical thing or a psychological thing, continuous or intermittent, always the same or frequently changing, something outside of us or something that we carry around with us. The examples and permutations are endless. And none is exempt. We all know something – some know much – of this painful discipline that God employs to keep our pride in check.
What will help us to bear it? Here are four good things to say to ourselves:
This painful discipline is intended for my good. God has blessed us in the generous ways that he has so that we might be useful in his kingdom and serve our Saviour well. And it is in order to prevent pride from ruining that usefulness that he gives us the thorns that he does.
This painful discipline must be necessary. Otherwise it wouldn’t be ours. It is an area in which we may have to walk by faith and not by sight, simply trusting the wisdom of God. We may not perceive the danger. How blind we can be to our vulnerability, to how ruinous pride can be, and to how strong the measures needed to keep it in check! But God knows.
This painful discipline is only a temporary thing. In heaven God will bless us as it will never be safe for him to do on earth. We will see, hear, learn, feel, and experience things of which now we cannot even dream. But there will be no danger of pride. Our hearts will then be free from sin. So too, therefore, our flesh from thorns.
In the meantime there is grace. The Lord gave Paul an assurance that his grace was sufficient for him. That grace is just as sufficient for us. It supplies us with everything we need to press on in Christian life and service notwithstanding painful thorns. And it is promised to us. Hebrews instructs us to approach the throne of grace with confidence. There, it says, we will find mercy. And ‘grace to help us in our time of need’ (Heb. 4:16).
David Campbell is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
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