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Thorns and gifts

We've been reading in the New Testament as a family lately, and Paul has some great advice and counsel that's still applicable today.  In his letter to the church in Corinth, he talks about a thorn in the flesh.

2 Corinthians 12:7-9
7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

It's kind of a moot point to speculate what Paul's particular thorn might have been, but I've often wondered. More importantly: what is God's purpose in giving his children such difficult stuff to learn? Why does life have to be so hard? Why can't it be an easy ride? Why did Paul ask for relief multiple times, only to be told “no.” The “no” answer that Paul got wasn't uncaring, it wasn't unfeeling, it was simply something like this: "No, I'm sorry Paul, but you need to learn some really hard lessons and this thorn will be the teacher."

My own challenges over the years include fun stuff like insomnia, anxiety and depression, and specifically bipolar disorder. I have a mild version, and I like to joke that I'm super high functioning.  But ask my spouse if this ride has been easy. Not at all. Sometimes the roller coaster is pretty taxing. My purpose in writing today is not to talk about mental health issues, per se, but why. Why is a thorn in the flesh a necessary thing?

Many people have a thorn in the flesh: 
a handicap or physical disability
caring for a child with a disability 
an addiction 
a loved one with an addiction
cancer or disease
a difficult marriage
lack of marriage
grief after losing a parent or sibling, etc. 

With each thorn there are specific lessons, challenges, tests, and trials. And yet, if we have eyes to see beyond the suffering, if we look for grace and focus on gratitude, the thorn becomes less prominent and the flower comes into focus. A good therapist once told me about the telescope principle: if I make my hands into a mini telescope, hold it to my eyes and look at one point on the horizon, with a laser focus on one single thing, it looks like it takes up the whole picture. But when I zoom out, the landscape becomes clearer and the added perspective allows me to SEE more than one detail. In life, if I concentrate my entire focus on the thorn, it quickly fills up my vision and my world.  It would be easy to wallow, if I spent all day every day thinking only about the things that are wrong.
So let’s think about a rose. It’s awesome for multiple senses: sight, smell, touch. Yes, the thorns on the stem can prick a finger, but if I breathe in the scent and drink in the sight, if I learn to manage the thorns and work around them, maybe it’s worth having that rose in the garden.

One of the flowers in my life is music. As a young girl, I was drawn to music until I begged my parents to let me learn the violin or the flute. My mom asked around and was pointed towards the piano and it became my good friend. I can sight read pretty effortlessly. Because I’d learned a “foreign language” in being able to read music and play it on the piano, when I began to learn Spanish in high school, it wasn’t too hard. I later studied Mandarin in college, and guess what: there’s four tones in the language itself, which is pretty musical. It took a lot of work, but the foundation of learning music and language led to more success. Then later in Paraguay I started learning Guarani, which was challenging because it’s not a written language, but musical in its own right. 

But ask me to read a spreadsheet and I'll run the other way. The data analytics piece is still foreign to me! Ask me how to airdrop a file to a friend, and I'll likely give her the phone and let her do it herself.  The technology piece kills me. I'm a slow adapter. It's not my gift. In fact, it's incredibly painful to learn new stuff that doesn't fall under the music/language umbrella.

I'm pretty sure that God gave me the gift of music and a love for language, to compensate for the awful curse of mental illness. Maybe He knew that I'd need it to survive. Or maybe this talent has flourished BECAUSE of the illness itself.  The flowers in my life are the most beautiful expressions of language or music. But the thorns, dealing with insomnia and sleepless nights, have led me to a third flower: compassion for others who are suffering. I would not have empathy for others who are plagued with problems if not for my own flaws and brokenness. I would not comprehend another’s pain if not for being able to relate. 
My heart is compassionate today not in spite of my thorn, but because of it.

Some of the most brilliant writers and musicians, artists and singers in our history have been plagued with illness. Think of all the actors and actresses with serious issues. You don’t get insane amounts of talent without some amount of insanity.  

Every person has specific gifts and thorns. A merciful Father in Heaven did that on purpose. He knows what he's doing. His grace is sufficient. Paul realized his thorn was given to him to humble him. Whatever his thorn was, he chose to write letters which strengthened the church with his faith and experience. Wasn't Paul rotting away in prison for four years, with a shipwreck in the middle when he was being transferred to Rome? And yet, instead of ruminating about it, he took the opportunity to write letters to people he loved. Ultimately, he was a prisoner again until they later killed him. Sounds super fun, right? But his letters are filled with grace, not complaints. We remember him today because he bothered to find gratitude and write it down.

Gratitude is the best antidote for misery. Count your blessings.  There’s tons of research to prove that people are happier when they look for ways to be grateful. I've written about gratitude and thanksgiving previously. In a nutshell, it's more than just a good idea.  It's a life skill that leads to contentment. Keeping a "gratitude journal" is a way of helping to focus on the flowers.

This year my family has been following a church study program called Come Follow Me.  We’ve been studying the Savior throughout the New Testament. One of the most insightful questions in this week's study How have you experienced God's strengthening power? Music has strengthened me.  

And people have strengthened me. 
A Handsome sturdy husband (who builds handsome sturdy walls, bonus points if you know that Disney song!), 
Good parents, 
Sweet sisters, 
Amazing friends.  
Even my brothers in their busy lives have paused sometimes to help strengthen me. I have been blessed with dozens of dear friends over the years. I couldn't do this without them.

So once again, I'm writing a note that I can't tie up in a nice, neat bow. It's pretty messy. But Paul eventually was able to write, "Most gladly will I glory in my infirmities." I'm not quite there yet. I really don't like some of the challenges I've been dealt. But I can echo what he said, "That the power of Christ may rest upon me." Maybe I needed all this crap to deal with, so I would turn to the Savior and beg for help. Ultimately, one of the greatest gifts is when weakness or infirmity turns to an asset.  How does this happen? This happens one hour, one step, one day at a time.  It happens as the small and simple efforts, repeated over and over again, eventually lead to something great.  It’s the same as when a beginner piano student learns one bar, one measure, one line at a time. 

For me specifically, dealing with sleepless nights and the exhaustion that follows, is a precarious thing. I have to make myself slow down, I have to ask for help, I have to carefully weigh each of the commitments that I'm carrying. Over the years I've studied the brain and how it works, and learned about specific brain illnesses. I have to go talk to a therapist sometimes, and eat carefully and exercise every single day. It's really annoying, but the stability that comes from consistency is probably my best prescription. Oh yeah, and there's medicine from the pharmacy too.  It's the combination of all of these things: education, therapy, nutrition, exercise, medicine, gratitude, music. Writing is therapeutic for me too.  Hence this blog.  All of these things help me find balance.

A Native American prophet named Ether asked some of the same questions I've asked today.  Why does God allow us to struggle through difficult things? Ether's writing is found in The Book of Mormon. His challenge was this: he had great verbal skills but was a super bad writer. He struggled with writing the language itself, because the characters were awkward. He had a pretty frank conversation with God and asked why. When he asked for help, this was the response:

“...The Lord spake unto me, saying: Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness; 

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” Ether 12:27

My whole point today is that God's grace is sufficient to help us see the flowers and not just the thorns, to turn weakness into strength, and to ultimately make us similar to Him. But we have to choose to become like Him, to choose faith, hour after hour, day after day. It's not a big jump, it's just all the little stuff. Ultimately, when I depend on my own strength I'm pretty ineffective.  But when I turn this burden over to the Lord, He helps to carry me and see me through. He helps me to see more clearly, to look at the bigger picture and not freak out about the thorns.  He helps me to realize that the garden of flowers in my life is significantly larger than the painful thorns.

PS don't judge my rosebush.  I don't know the first thing about growing stuff in Texas. It's a miracle it survived the summer.


  1. I’m going to rehash your note in my own words because it’s therapeutic and a spiritual experience for me. I’m expressing my understanding with different words, and I’m posing some theoretical extensions. I hope we can be edified together and grow closer through our shared understanding.

    My rose bushes died this summer. I’m so sad... the thorns are gone and so is the potential to flower and now there is nothing... no pleasure, no pain. Without light there is no darkness, and without sorrow, joy cannot exist.

    Adam and Eve in the garden learned nothing, felt nothing. Existence is meaningless without the contrasts that allow us to understand. The deeper and longer the darkness, the more we appreciate the elusive shimmer of eternity. I am more and more convinced that Heaven is here, in this life, if we acclimate ourselves to it. When we’ve learned both to appreciate our flowers and to accept and live with (and perhaps even appreciate, as you have,) our thorns, God gives us peace that passes all understanding. We live like Him. And with Him. Every day. The characteristics of eternity become pervasive; our daily intent - our work and our glory - becomes the same as God’s.

    If we’re planning to end up that way ‘someday,’ why not get there sooner, here, and enjoy that state of being in this life too? We have to reach the point of being humble intrinsically, without being compelled. When we’ve accepted our thorns as eternal companions, we’ve reached a different plane of existence. I think it might be accurately called heaven on earth.

    1. Thank you for making me think again. First, I'm sad for your rosebush. When I saw your comment yesterday, I started thinking of ways to help you in your garden. I wanted to go buy a bag of bulbs and invite myself over to plant daffodils, so that when spring comes you have those bright yellow bits of sunshine in your yard.

      Even more than a bag of bulbs, I think what you're seeking is understanding. I don't know what it's like to lose that rosebush completely. But you're right: without the contrast, there's nothing. Somebody said something in conference about how sorrow prepares you for joy, or clears room for it. I'll have to dig for that reference later.

      In talking about darkness, you said it well: the deeper and longer it lasts, the more we appreciate the elusive shimmer of eternity. Today it's pretty cloudy outside, so of course I'm restless and looking for ways to turn on every light inside the house. Maybe I can learn to accept it, and then rejoice when it's sunny again.

      As to heaven being here with us now, I would tend to agree. The most joyful people I know are choosing to see the good, and choosing to focus on what's beautiful. My most miserable friends are the ones who consistently complain and see the thorns, who focus on what's wrong with their garden, or what's wrong with the world, or with the government or whatever. So if heaven is here, then hell is too. It's choosing which part gets to claim my heart.


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