Great to see everybody! If you’re new, I’m Pastor Peter and I’m thrilled you’re here for our series on PRAYER.
We’ve been seeing God do some Big Things through this 30-Day Prayer Challenge our entire church is going through. Your God Box is probably starting to fill up with all kinds of Prayers & Requests. Q: How did it go this week? (Hopefully, it was a bit more balanced—Thanks, Wow, Sorry, Help!)
We’re just writing 1-2 prayers a day (1-2 sentences long)… putting them in our Box. Length doesn’t matter as long as they’re heartfelt. God values our sincerity & persistence—and most of all, honesty.
- The Problem With Prayer
But if we can be honest there is a problem with prayer, isn’t there? Prayer can sometimes feel more hurtful than it is helpful. There are some of you in this room who are currently holding God by the collar and saying, “YOU NEVER SHOWED UP!” It’s like what I did in 9th grade. I asked this girl out on a “date”, and then decided I had other plans. Poor Megan! Totally left her hanging. She had to go ice skating by herself. Let me tell you, that was not a cool move. As you can imagine it left her feeling hurt, rejected, and angry at me. After that stunt, there was not chance of asking her again!
Some of you feel like you’ve prayed up, and you’re like, God when are you gonna show up?
Ever wonder that? If we truly believe Prayer is a Pipeline to God’s Power. That God is willing & able to help his children when we ask in His name. Then why does he seem deaf sometimes?
“I’ve been praying for a job, but no one wants to hire a 50-year old middle manager.”
“I’ve been praying for to be healed from my chronic condition, and the pain just keeps coming back!”
I don’t know what you’ve been praying for, and what you are still waiting for…
I want you to know that I see the pain & confusion in the eyes of people waiting on God. What happens when we get real with God… and he doesn’t answer? When we ask/seek/knock & the door doesn’t open?
I don’t want to over simplify that or dodge your honest questions. In fact, my goal today is to do the very best that I can to help us navigate the times God feels silent.
Paul’s Thorn // 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Open your Bible to 2 Corinthians 12. This morning, as I do every morning, I want to share with you what God’s word has to say about this. 2 Corinthians is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth. Where Paul shares a very personal, Unanswered Prayer & how God led him through that.
A Little Background as you find the page. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul describes a supernatural, out of body experience he had—in which he was “caught up” into what he calls the third heaven. The Corinthian church loved Dreams & Visions—they were experientially-oriented—not much different than we are now. And Paul describes this Revelation of Heaven he had from the Lord! It was an incredible mountaintop experience for Paul, described in the first 6 verses.
But then he says, “I don’t wanna brag or boast about this Vision of Heaven I was given… bc it was followed by something EQUALLY as PAINFUL in my life here on earth.
Here’s what he writes in verse 7:
…Because of these surpassingly great revelations… in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.
8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.
This is a very powerful excerpt from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Even though he had faith in God—in fact, had just come off this jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring revelation of Heaven—he was struggling mightily with a THORN IN HIS FLESH. This is the APOSTLE PAUL we are talking about. The writer of over half of our N.T. is struggling with a THORN IN HIS FLESH. If you’ve ever felt like you’re struggling with God, or with something that won’t quit, than you are in good company.
I know we typically think of a THORN like this (Like a single pricker from a rose bush). Like a “pain in the neck.” No biggie, right?
But the THORN Paul describes here is more painful. It refers to a curved SPEAR or FISHOOK that had pierced his body & wouldn’t let go. A very painful, stubborn thorn that followed him around.
When I go fishing, I fish for keeps. Fishing to me is incredibly relaxing, but I’m also intent on bringing home a full cooler! The hooks I use have a barb on it just like this one. And the intention of the barb is to burrow in, to do more than just pierce the flesh of the fish, but to ensure that fish does not get off the hook.
This is Paul’s dilemma. He was in pain from a “thorn in his flesh” that felt like it was there for keeps. IOW:
1) Paul had a CHRONIC CONDITION.
If you’re taking notes, that’s the first thing we learn. Something had pierced Paul’s person & wouldn’t let go! Some say Paul had a physical condition like:
- Epilepsy or Malaria or maybe even Migraines.
We don’t know precisely what Paul had. But it doesn’t really matter. The point is PAUL WAS SUFFERING!
// Modern Examples
And some of you know exactly what this is like. This room is full of people carrying THORNS of their own. Today, you be suffering with your own “Thorn in the Flesh” like Paul:
- Maybe PHYSICAL // Arthritis in your joints (painful to bend). Or bad back that constantly goes out. I have Allergies—as I’ve gotten older, my allergies have gotten worse it seems, it makes it difficult to breathe, Geez thanks pollen! But I also have stomach issues that can sideline me
Q: What’s the thorn you’re carrying today? Maybe it’s something obvious; or something no one would ever guess. You may have lived with it a long time or maybe it’s happened to you more recently.
Notice Paul calls his ailment “a messenger of Satan…” And that’s important to note: God is not the author of disease or disability. The God of the Bible is the Author of life, health, and healing—but we still suffer the effects of living in a world impacted by suffering, sin, and death.
- We also have EMOTIONAL thorns. Some commentators say Paul struggled with Chronic Depression. (Some of you have family members who struggle with depression & you know what that’s like). Maybe he was bipolar.
I know too many people who struggle with Anxiety. And anxiety “attacks” every aspect of your world.
Paul said his affliction was meant “to torment me.” Which suggest frequent bouts, came back daily to torment him. Some scholars say Paul’s thorn was GUILT – for murdering all those Christians. They say Paul may have struggled with a nagging sense of guilt or remorse.
And then there are RELATIONAL thorns. Maybe today you suffer from:
- Chronic Conflict in your Marriage. You’ve prayed that God would change your spouse. There’s constant conflict in your home always laying just beneath the surface.
- Or perhaps you have a Child who is struggling. The thorn of a wayward child can deeply pierce a parent’s soul.
Like Paul, we all have Painful Problems… we desperately want God to change through prayer. And you know what?
2) Paul tried PERSISTENT PRAYER.
Observation #2. Verse 8 says:
8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.
He followed Jesus’ advice: Ask… Seek… Knock.
This wasn’t a casual prayer he tossed in there. The text says Paul “pleaded”—a word that suggests fervency!
Have you ever heard someone else praying for the thorn in their side? It can be primal. Filled with anguish, pain & tears, as they wrestle with the Lord.
Paul pleaded with the Lord to take his thorn away. He prayed for its removal… but God refused.
The Problem With Prayer
(FEEL THIS PETER) This is the cross roads that many people face… Q: Why does God sometimes say no? Unanswered prayer is one of the most exasperating challenges of the Christian faith. For any of you who have secretly struggled with this thought, I want you to know that you aren’t alone, and that you don’t need to feel shame and guilt about wondering…
I hope that this morning, we can shed some light on this area. The first possibility for unanswered prayer is, we ask with
- Wrong Requests
Some requests, no matter how well intentioned, are just plain inappropriate. Jesus’ disciples did this all the time. I think of James & John who came up to Jesus one day with a request:
“Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” (Mark 10:35-37)
They asked if they could have the TWO BEST SEATS IN THE HOUSE for themselves in Heaven. They didn’t just want a good view, they wanted to be Jesus’ Guests of Honor! Very humble.
James & John had a request—but it was a Wrong Request & Jesus said I’m not going to answer it because it’s self-seeking & short-sighted. They were looking for a shortcut to avoid pain & sacrifice.
And sometimes, let’s be honest. Our prayers can be just like the disciples—very vain, very fleshly.
We can pray things like: “Lord, I pray that you will provide a good husband for me. My current husband isn’t cutting it… I need more affection & security than he offers.”
#PrayerFail. It’s a Wrong Request. It’s not wrong to ask God to help your marriage—but God’s not in the business of trading in your spouse, ok?
In fact, that’s a good filter to weigh your prayers: You know it’s a wrong request when you beg God to change the OTHER person for your benefit. Wives pray this about husbands, husbands about wives, parents about kids, employees about bosses.
Whether we admit it or not, alotta prayers sound like this to God: “God, I don’t wanna face my own shortcomings. I don’t wanna work on this relationship. I don’t wanna change at all. Instead, how about you just change the other person so he or she will accommodate all my personal needs. Deal?”
James 4:3 says: When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
That’s the second reason Scripture cites for Unanswered Prayer:
- Mixed Motives
Can we admit: We all make plenty of selfish, materialistic requests that masquerade as pious prayers.
A Business owner may pray, “God, give me this new account”… and that’s fine. Nothing wrong with asking for God’s blessing on your business. But if your motivation is to get rich so you can live a lavish lifestyle. God sees through that stuff. What does James say:
When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
We must be honest & admit: we’re a MIXED BAG. You’ve never had a 100% PURE MOTIVE in your life. That’s part of our flawed humanity: By default, we typically choose the easiest, most convenient, comfortable way possible. EGO influences our prayers as well.
It would be easy for me to pray, “O Lord, help our church grow & reach more people!” Surely, God honors that prayer?!? But if what I really mean is “I want a big church with fancy programs so people will admire me”… the request is wrong. It’s a Bad Ask with selfish motives.
Motives matter in God’s eyes. Whether it’s success in business, achievement in school or career, or with our kids: We can fool ourselves into thinking our motives are always pure, but if the disciples were capable of making self-serving, immature requests, so are we.
God most often says NO to those kinds of prayers. You know why?
A: Bc he loves us too much & knows a YES would spiritually destroy us. Take James & John: Luke tells of the time they were passing through a Samaritan village, and the people wouldn’t let them walk through:
54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”
Jesus: Really? Have you heard nothing I’ve said? Remember that whole “Love Your Enemies” thing? I was serious. Call fire down from heaven? Yeah, let’s do that.
55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Luke 9:54-55
#PrayerFail. Personal Revenge is a PrayerFail. Selfishness is a PrayerFail. It’s out of line with God’s character.
So here’s a challenge for you: This week, look over your prayers with an open heart & honest eye. Do they reflect a genuine desire to be conformed to Christ? His character? Do they show genuine care & concern for others?
Remember: the Lord’s Prayer begins by praising God’s name and praying “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” Essentially the polar opposite of the self-centered, shortsighted prayers we often pray.
God sometimes says NO when we make Wrong Requests, or pray with Mixed Motives. But there’s a third reason that touches the core for most of us. And that is the:
- Mystery of Suffering
About 10 years ago, my dad was diagnosed with Lewey Bodies Disease. It is a terrible disease, a cross between Alzheimers and Parkinsons.
And so for months, and years we prayed. I gathered anyone who would pray with me & asked God for a miracle. We were very specific—and utterly sincere in our motives, as far as we knew. But my dad continued to get worse and worse.
VIDEO- Standing on the Promises
And not long after my dad’s 58th birthday I said my final goodbye to my earthly dad. My mentor, my friend, my pastor, MY DAD! The man who had the single most influence in my life apart from Jesus.
It was devastating! I learned the hard way that sometimes—for reasons we don’t understand this side of Heaven—God, in His Sovereignty, may choose to deny healing someone.
- And guys, this happens every day-There is a mystery in suffering. Around the world godly people are stricken with diseases & despair!
- Parents struggle to provide clean water for their family, and enough food for them to eat.
- Finances—a third of the worlds population lives on less than $2 a day. Cycles of poverty & fear are lived out every day.
- Pain management doctors still have a job! Meaning, there are chronic, untreatable, illness’
In Matthew 5, Jesus said:
The Lord causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
And this is a hard truth to swallow. Q: Why would a caring, compassionate God deny the prayers of his faithful children?
This is where Good Theology counts. It’s critical we understand that through the Death & Resurrection of Jesus Christ– God ALREADY achieved TOTAL VICTORY over Satan, sin, and death.
Final Victory is certain. God has promised eternal life & salvation to those who trust him. But right now, we live in the time between the battle and the victory.
By dying on the Cross, He broke the power of sin. By raising from the dead, Christ conquered death! But make no mistake: Our Enemy is still active!
After he ascended to heaven, Christ promised to return a second time to establish His Kingdom forever. Q: Has Christ returned to earth yet? A: Not Yet!
We live between the “Already / Not Yet” of God’s Kingdom. And that means Satan is still active in our world. His days are numbered & his end is sure. But in the meantime he remains the “prince of this present world,” opposing God’s ways at every turn.
The Enemy often seems to have the upper hand.
But understand something: Our God will have the final say! And He will assert His Sovereignty & Judgment at Christ’s Second Coming. Bc of that Ultimate Victory—Christians have the assurance that all their Prayers that went unanswered in this life will receive SPECTACULAR VINDICATION in eternity! Then, Revelation 21 promises God:
4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
And that’s what we long for. New life! New bodies! God’s healing—everything whole & put back together! And yet we still go through life with a Thorn in the Flesh. That’s what our hearts cry forwhen we wrestle with our THORN. We say, “How long, O Lord! Till my joints are new. My limbs are healed. My cancer is cured!” How long must I wait?
We pray that God’s POWER in HEAVEN would invade & disrupt the natural course of events on this broken earth! Miracles by definition are super-natural. And when they happen, we rejoice!
One day, God will PULL EVERY THORN… And say, “It is finished! Come & enter my rest. Receive my healing. Well-done my good & faithful servant.”
- Do you know what this means? That whatever grief & heartache you experienced on earth—God will redeem in heaven. Those who are depressed will shout for joy. Those struggling with anxiety will have perfect peace. Those with disabilities— will dance down the streets. Cancer will be crushed.
That is where God, your Loving Father & King is taking your story. Those of you carrying thorns today: You will be embraced by the One who wore a crown of thorns for you. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:
17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
Imagine these words written by Paul—a guy who had a “thorn in his flesh”… a messenger of Satan sent to torment him. Paul knew suffering: 3 times he was beaten… Five times he was lashed by his enemies. Three times shipwrecked… once he was stoned & left for dead. Yet somehow he managed to write:
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
Even when things are crumbling on the outside—I’ve got something deeper in here. On the inside: Christ, the hope of glory!
And that’s the secret, Paul says. My Pain invites God’s Power! See Paul wasn’t done. That wasn’t the end of his story. The Thorn in His Flesh did not win, nor did it have the last word.
3) Our PAIN invites Christ’s POWER.
Paul prayed 3 times for God remove his thorn. But God gave him a different answer.
9 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.
This is the secret of God’s Kingdom. When you have a thorn that won’t let go, it’s an OPPORTUNITY to INVITE Christ’s power into your life!
When we begin owning our weaknesses, God can turn them into strengths through Christ.
That’s the hidden benefit of thorns: Weaknesses keep us dependent on Christ & allow him to shine through us in ways God couldn’t if we were bullet-proof.
According to Paul, disabilities don’t disqualify us. In fact, it is just the opposite: Our weaknesses are a chance for God to show his STRENGTH!
I mean: It’s natural to praise God when you see someone miraculously healed! But have you ever seen someone GIVE GOD GLORY in the middle of their disease? Or disability? That’s truly amazing!
Paul said Christ’s POWER is made perfect in WEAKNESS!
Q: What weakness do you have that needs God’s strength? Instead of removing Paul’s thorn, God said:
9 But he said to me, “My GRACE is sufficient for you, for my POWER is made perfect in WEAKNESS.”
Grace refers to all God’s resources—his strength, joy, and peace. Sometimes instead of removing our thorn, God gives us strength to endure. To persevere. And gives our pain a purpose. People look at our imperfect lives—and bc we limp—they see the Holy Spirit’s power flowing through us!
10 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.
Whenever God’s children embrace their weakness, they invite God’s power to flow through them in a mighty way.
Q: How many of you are here today & would say, “Peter, I’m carrying a THORN right now in my life? That I need Christ’s strength in a big way?”
- Conclusion // Your Will Be Done
In 2 Corinthians, we’re never told specifically what Paul’s thorn was. He prayed three times for it to be taken away.
Did you ever wonder why Paul prayed THREE TIMES before God gave him this insight?
A: Bc Paul was following the model of His Savior Jesus Christ.
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples to pray. He knew the pain waiting for him—a betrayal, a beating, a literal crown of THORNS. Jesus knew he would be flogged, stripped, beaten, pierced and nailed to a wooden Cross.
And Matthew 26 says:
Jesus fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” –Matt 26:39
IOW: He asked His Father to spare him the pain of the Cross if possible.
He received no answer. Matthew says:
He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” –Matt 26:42
Again, he received no answer.
Jesus prayed the third time, saying the same thing. –Matt 26:44
And this time God said NO. Jesus prayed 3 times for the Father to take away the suffering that lay ahead… To spare him the thorns. And finally, God the Father said, “No. That’s not my plan for you.”
I have something better in mind—I will use your pain to pour out my Power & Love to a broken world in need of salvation! And bc Christ accepted his cup, you & I are promised salvation. Eternal life with the Father in heaven.
If you’re struggling today with a thorn, take heart in this: Jesus Christ knows the heartache of UnAnswered Prayer. He was familiar with pain & suffering—and in spite of it… he prayed the Only Prayer God is guaranteed to answer. MAY YOUR WILL BE DONE!
It’s a prayer of surrender. A prayer of Trust & Acceptance. Acknowledging our Father sometimes has plans we can’t comprehend—and permits pain to accomplish a greater good!
Sometimes we ask for the cup to pass or this thorn to be removed, and he says “No or Not Yet.” After praying 3 times, Paul accepted his thorn as God’s sovereign will for his life. Just like his Savior, he submitted:
Not my will, BUT YOUR WILL BE DONE!
This morning, there is no greater act that we could do, than to end our series on prayer in a time of communion. Remembering the pain that Jesus went through so that you and I could be made whole with God again. So that one day our thorns will be transformed, our tears will be turned to laughter. Our despair turned to joy. On the cross, Jesus shattered the barrier of sin that keeps us from coming to our Father with our pain.
Will you allow your pain to invite Christ’s Power today? You can receive His strength; He will give you power to endure, to bear, and overcome any limitation!