NASHVILLE – In 1862 during the Civil War, Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison’s Landing in Virginia. The Confederate Army was on the other side of the narrow strip of land.
During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier who lay mortally wounded on the field. The captain risked his life to bring the stricken man back for medical attention.
Crawling on his stomach through the sporadic gunfire, Ellicombe pulled the soldier toward his encampment. By the time he reached his lines, the man, a Confederate, was dead.
The captain lit a lantern. He caught his breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light, he saw that the soldier was his son. The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, he enlisted in the Confederate Army.
The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial despite his enemy status. He asked if he could have a group of Army band members play a funeral dirge for the son at the funeral. That request was turned down since the soldier was a Confederate.
Out of respect for the father, they did allow him one musician. The captain chose a bugler. He asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of his dead son’s uniform.
This music was the haunting melody we now know as “Taps” that is used at all military funerals. Its words are little known: “Day is done, gone the sun, from the lakes, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest. God is nigh.”
Some of the hard questions we often ask are these:
- “What happens when God does not answer my prayers?”
- “What good can come from bad in my life?”
- “Should I pray for God to intervene and remove difficult things from my life?”
- “Is God truly nigh?”
The universality of tribulation
In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul referred to an adversity in his life, a deep problem with which he was afflicted – a “thorn in the flesh.” His yearning for God’s intervention led to a very meaningful discovery of God’s strength and the way to the throne room.
Was this thorn from God or from Satan? It is remarkable that Paul regarded his affliction as given by God and yet as “a messenger of Satan.”
There have been numerous interpretations as to the nature of this malady. Most assume it was a physical problem. Some think that the thorn refers to spiritual temptations. Some take it to mean the opposition and persecution Paul faced. One of the most interesting of all theories about this problem is that the “thorn” denoted the recurring agony of grief and remorse caused by Paul’s former hatred of Christ and his battle against Him and His people.
A.T. Robertson said, “It is a blessing to the rest of us that we do not know the particular affliction that so beset Paul. Each of us has some such splinter or thorn … perhaps several at once.”
The afflictions of life are real. Troubles come. Pain is here, even for the believer.
The natural reaction of the believer
The natural reaction of the believer is to pray. Jesus prayed three times that the suffering of the cross He had been called upon to endure as the sin-bearer of mankind might pass from Him (Matthew 26:36-46). Paul also prayed three times that this thorn might be taken away (2 Corinthians 12:8).
Spurgeon was right when he said, “Prayer pulls the rope down below and the great bell rings above in the ears of God. Some scarcely stir the bell, for they pray so languidly, others give only an occasional jerk at the rope. But he who communicates with heaven is the man who grasps the rope boldly and pulls continuously with all his might.”
It is in the act of prayer that God reveals Himself to us. As one said many years ago, “Who so draws nigh to God one step through doubtings dim, God will advance a mile in blazing light to him” (author unknown).
The beautiful provision of our Lord
In prayer, Paul received a beautiful message. It was not the answer he expected. He expected the removal of the affliction. He received renewal!
God often doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want. Paul prayed that His problem be removed. Instead of taking the problem away, God gave Paul strength to bear it. Sometimes it is not God’s plan to spare us, but to enable us to come through our problems victoriously.
In this answer, we catch a glimpse of God’s limitless love. Paul experienced the reality of God’s all-sufficient grace. This answer to his prayer remained with him as the most powerful inspiration of his life.
Paul learned that whenever he was humiliated by his many “buffetings,” though he was an unworthy object of God’s unceasing favor, God would nevertheless lavish him with “sufficient grace.” It is in the weakness of man that the grace of God is strongest. It is in our times of hurt or weakness that we most fully experience God’s sufficient, sustaining and abiding grace.
Human weakness, frailty and suffering open the way for more of Christ’s power and grace. The power of His grace continually increases as our weakness grows.
God is asking for us to realize His power. He is urging us to see that in the struggles of life, He wants to help and will give us the necessary strength. He calls us to die to self so that He can freely live through us. This is not a denial of our personhood or a request to let our strengths and abilities lie dormant; it is a request to realize our limitations so that He can make us more than conquerors.
J.W. MacGorman, namesake of the MacGorman Chapel and Performing Arts Center at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said it this way, “The way to the throne room is through the thorn room.”
The way to experience the power of God is by recognizing who He is and who we are. We are weak. We often fall down. We struggle and life beats us down. But we serve a God who is great, a God who, in our weakness, shows up and manifests Himself strong on our behalf.
Yes, life has its troubles. We pray about them. One answer is that the way to knowing God more fully is by trusting and experiencing that His grace is sufficient – even when our own thorns cause us grief.
The way to the throne room is through the thorn room. Even in the thorn areas of life, God is nigh!
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Frank Page is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.)