I’ve written in the past about my experience of enduring years of chronic migraines and cluster headaches and how thankfully, following surgery, they are now no longer part of my experience. I am conscious that for many people chronic pain is still part of their experience – physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual pain is incredibly debilitating.

In the darkest days before the operation there were times when I felt like I was clinging on by my fingertips – clinging to my desire to carry on and clinging to my faith as a follower of Jesus. In those moments there was a verse in the Bible that was immensely helpful:

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (from 2 Corinthians 12:9)

open handsAnd I can honestly say that was my experience. God’s grace – his generously-given, unearned, sustaining presence – kept me going. I was able to live, serve and bless others from a place of weakness because God filled in the blanks for me. When I lacked words he provided them. When I couldn’t think he provided the thoughts. When I couldn’t see beyond the pain he lifted my eyes up towards hope. When I was battling through in my own strength he provided people to carry me and to tell me to stop and rest.

The context for those words in 2 Corinthians is filled with mystery:

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 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. 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.

What, or who, was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Chronic migraine and cluster headaches certainly feel like a thorn and are tormentors. We don’t know, and Paul doesn’t tell us because it’s not important.

I can certainly empathise with prayers pleading for God to take away the pain. And not just three times! So, why didn’t God answer his heartfelt pleading to take away this thorn? Why did God allow me to suffer for so many years before finally the surgery resolved the problem? Or, to widen out the question: why doesn’t God always seem to answer our prayers in the way that we want?

The answer Paul received was not a theodicy (answers to the question of how a loving God can allow evil, pain and suffering to persist). It was a promise. The promise was of a loving, gracious sustenance that was sufficient for the problem. Not a flourishing, dancing-in-the-aisles, swinging-from-the-chandeliers victorious healing. Just enough to enable Paul to cope. Sufficient.

Sometimes we receive more than we need. But we will receive sufficient.

And God will make up for what we lack. It may not be inner strength and fortitude. It may not be miraculous supernatural ability to rise above what is going on. It could be that it is other people coming alongside us. It could be that it is the ability to let go of some of the stress and allow others to help. It could be that it is the opportunity to receive love, support, encouragement and strength from others who can give you what you lack. It could be that it is the courage to stop and realise that we are not indispensable and that we don’t have to go it alone. And in that liminal space the paradox of weakness being strength, of grace sufficient for pain, of power perfected in impotence becomes reality.

The difficulty for us is that in order for this to happen we have to trust God and stop trying to do it all in our own strength. We have to trust that he will keep his promise. When you’re in the depths of despair it’s perhaps not so difficult to do that because you’ve already exhausted all of your own resources. My testimony is that this is true. Today I read Simon Thomas’s blog of his own heart-rending experience. He is finding the same to be true.

But if you aren’t in a wretched place the same promise is true – God’s grace is sufficient for you. You may need to let go of more of your security blankets and self-reliance to experience it, but I believe that he will prove himself trustworthy.

I pray that you and he will continue to know that God’s grace is sufficient for you. And that his power is made perfect in your weakness.

Be blessed, be a blessing

memories are made for these

Remember 1At this season of remembrance I pondered why it is that God made us with memory. Why did he create us with the ability to remember things, people, events, PIN codes and passwords (sometimes)?

As I pondered I realised that memory is an astonishing gift:

  • Good things that have happened in the past continue to bless us and cause us to smile as we remember them. The moment of happiness is extended in time and the joy is magnified.
  • Important people remain with us in our memories, even after we have lost contact with them or if they have died. The impact that people have had on us, the love we have experienced and shared, the life we have shared with them continues.
  • We don’t need to repeat our mistakes. If we didn’t remember we might find ourselves constantly doing the same things wrong or injuring ourselves. Memories of failure can haunt us and guilt can shackle us, but we can also use them to guide us so we have more chance of avoiding doing them again.
  • We have hope for the present and the future. The Bible is full of encouragements for God’s people to remember – remember God’s goodness, graciousness, faithfulness and love in the past. When the times are tough and we find it more difficult to sense God’s presence or aren’t sure what he’s up to we can remember how he was there for us in the past and be reassured that he’s with us now and will be no matter what. That is one reason why it is wonderful to have Bibles – we can read of God’s faithfulness to others and be encouraged about his faithfulness to us.
  • It draws us closer to God. Jesus told his friends to eat bread and drink wine ‘in remembrance of me’. I find that the occasions when I share bread and wine with other believers are special. They don’t just draw us together but they draw us closer to Jesus as we remember the depths of his love for us.

There’s a lot more to be said about memory, but let me leave you with this thought (and a cheesy joke warning beyond the blessing which you may want to avoid if you are being led into a special place with God right now). Whatever emotions are evoked by your memories, God is there with you. He is in the happiness and the sadness. He is in the laughter and tears. He is in the celebration and regret. He gave us memory and inhabits the memories.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

A loving couple were celebrating their Wedding Anniversary with friends. The husband was talking with his friends, and one of them asked him how long they had been married. The husband thought for a while and then leant over to his closest friend.

“What’s that sort of flower that has prickles on the stem, comes in different colours and you give red ones on Valentine’s Day?” he whispered.

“A rose?” suggested his friend.

“That’s right!” the husband beamed. He called out, “Rose, how long have we been married now?”