Thorns are rigid, hard extensions of leaves, roots, or buds with sharp stiff ends that offer a plant protection from herbivores. They are not pretty and they do not seem to have much use, except that they burn hot. Yet, God chose to write thorns into His redemption story. Thorns first appear in the Scriptures in Genesis 3 when God cursed the ground with them after Adam and Eve sinned. The thorns marred God's perfect creation, making it more difficult for man to grow and gather his food. From that time on, every field overgrown with thorns and thistles, every thorn covered bush we encounter on a hike, and every painful prick we receive when we trim our roses reminds us of both the pain we endure and the pain we cause through sin.
After Genesis, thorns were mentioned several times. They became an intricate part of the revelation of God's grace, starting with Moses. Jesus described the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses as a burning thorn bush in Luke 20:37. In his article, The Splendor of Thorns, Jud Davis says, "The One who appeared in the Garden and pronounced the curse of thorns now reappears in the midst of the thorns, promising deliverance."
God later instructed Israel to build the tabernacle out of Acacia wood, which is a small bushy tree covered with long thorns. He instructed Israel to cover it in gold. Maybe God chose to use an element that was a result from the Curse to build a dwelling place for His glorious fiery presence as a place He could meet with sinful men. Could it be that God was reminding mankind that He came to deliver us from the curse--the curse which included spiritual death?
In the New Testament thorns appeared when Jesus, who was the promised Prophet, Messiah, and Savior all rolled into one, was about to be crucified. First, He was stripped and beaten and then with back bleeding and raw He was clothed in a robe and crowned with a crown made of thorns. The soldiers may have meant the crown to be an insult because they were placing the curse of the fall upon His brow. However, He who had the power to speak the world into place, the power to calm angry seas with a word, the power to drive out demons that held men captive, and had the power to silence His enemies with a single word chose, instead, to bear the thorns for you and for me. Those thorns on His brow--they remind us that the curse came because of our sin and our rebellion and remind us that He, the sinless One, was willing and qualified to bear the curse on our behalf. They remind us of the abundance of God's grace--a grace big enough to cover all of our sin. As Davis so eloquently put it in his article, "Adam comes naked to a live tree and spiritually murders the entire race by a single act of disobedience. Jesus comes to a dead tree and allows Himself to be stripped naked. Then, in the ultimate act of obedience--His very death after a lifetime of full and total obedience to God--He makes alive all those who would ever by God's grace repent of their sins and trust in Him alone for salvation."
I find it interesting that God also used thorns as analogies. He used them to warn Israel as they entered the Promised Land that if they did not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those remaining would become like barbs in their eyes and thorns in their sides. Even after Jesus died, rose again, and descended into heaven, Paul used thorns as an analogy in 2 Corinthians 12:7, "So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited." I've heard a few sermons on this passage and most say that Paul did not specifically say what the thorn was so we could all relate to what it is. Some claim it was a physical ailment, some claim it was reminders of His past, and some say that it was perhaps a fleshly weakness he had to continuously battle in the process of sanctification. I don't think it matters, except to understand that the thorn served to birth humility in the Apostle Paul who was shown glorious visions no man had seen before.
I believe thorns can be all sorts of things. I also believe each thorn will serve a purpose driven by God's grace. Thorns can be addictions we battle daily that cause us to depend totally on God to grow in holiness. They can be besetting sins that trip us up--those sins that became ingrained before we knew Jesus that are sometimes still driven by overwhelming urges, especially when we are tired or stressed and long most to be who Christ created us to be. The grace of these kinds of thorns drive us to a moment by moment walk with the One who can give us victory over them. Thorns may also be illnesses that cause pain, leaving us depleted, aching, and a bit homesick for heaven, graciously allowing us to maintain a heavenly perspective others don't have. They may also be lies spoken to us by others or whispered into our minds by the Enemy that somehow became core beliefs ingrained and seared into our brains. These can be lies about God's goodness and His love. They can also be lies about us--lies that tell us we are unlovable, irredeemable, inadequate, and unclean. The grace in these thorns drive us to the truth of who we are as sinful children redeemed by grace and made clean by our God who has an unfathomable passion to save. The grace in these is that as lies are uncovered, the daily choice to choose God's truth breaks the power of the lies and changes the belief system one decision at a time.
Thorns can also be painful, dysfunctional relationships. We have all had a few of those. There were times in my youth I was thoughtless and difficult and a thorn in the sides of others. I hope to this day God healed people who were hurt by my choices, my words, my reactions, and my sin. I believe there are also times when we try our best to be loving and kind and are still a person who is a trigger or a thorn to someone. In those cases it may be our personality, our character, our faith, or our experiences that causes someone to experience emotional pain by simply knowing us. It is hard to be in those situations, but it helps to remember that ultimately the pain they experience is due to past trauma, broken relationships, or because it brings to the surface negative beliefs and insecurities.
I know I personally was an unwilling thorn in some of my relationships to people I cared deeply about. It was as if just my presence could hurt them. In one relationship, it was my faith that drove the person away. In another, it was the fact that I had five children and the other couldn't conceive. It hurt my heart that the prick of the thorn was felt every time she saw me with my children and she was left to continue reconciling God's sovereignty and her desire to have children. Another friend who had lost three babies actually shared with me that seeing me with my last baby was like a thorn in her side. I hated that her just seeing me with my baby hurt her, but thankfully she recognized the thorn as a sign she needed to continue processing her grief, allowing us to remain friends until she passed away. For another, it was my spiritual gifts that drove a wedge in a relationship by triggering insecurities in a very gifted person. Ironically, when I chose to enter recovery for an eating disorder, it was my healing that at first became a thorn in my sweet husband's side. As I got healthier, our relationship was thrown off balance and my husband had to reconnect with a wife who now used her voice, a wife who could think for herself, and a wife who expressed opinions of her own, which challenged his distorted view of the oneness to which God called us.
At times I hated the feeling of unintentionally being a thorn in others' sides. At one point, I wrestled long and hard with God over that concept, grieving the discomfort and brokenness experienced. I didn't want to be the source of pain and just wanted God to surround me with people who would love me for me and let us all enjoy warm fuzzy feelings of relationships as I imagined them to be. Over time I accepted that being an unintentional thorn in another's side is a part of the iron sharpening iron sanctification process that God uses to grow His character in us. Maybe He intentionally brings certain people together who sharpen each other--and yes sharpening and pricking are painful, but they are both directed and carried out by a God whose love knows no end.
In the middle of processing these things called thorns with friends, I realized God used those relationships, over which I wrestled, to plop me in the middle of a ministry in which I, and those who serve with me, have to be willing to be thorns in the sides of women, many of whom are struggling and/or who have been victimized. As much as they want to get healthy when pain is triggered or fear rises, we find ourselves having to firmly resist their persistent attempts to draw us into the unhealthy, ungodly, and self-defeating systems of denial and dysfunction formed in response to past trauma and pain. But, it is necessary for us to be willing to be thorns that will prick them to help them move out of denial and self-protection so God can heal their pain and they can fulfill the calling of God on their lives to love both God and others well.
I also realized our ministry itself is a bit of a thorn in our church's side. Every year when we advertise groups, at least a third of our women are reminded of pain they are stuffing and the stories they are denying. Some are reminded of the shame they hide that was inflicted on them through abuse or shame that was self-induced by hiding sinful or self-deprecating behaviors they use to numb. We are a thorn in the sides of people who sit in church satisfied with surface relationships and mask wearing, because we get real and women walk out never willing to wear masks again, refusing to deny their stories, or be content with fake relationships. We are a thorn to those who have mistreated, abused, or contributed to the abuse of victims because we remind them they inflicted pain on others. We are probably even a thorn to our leadership who are reminded that at least one third of our women in our church have been victimized and that how they act, speak, and react to wounded women, whom they most likely will not even be able to identify, will either cause secondary wounding or promote healing.
I’m so thankful my church is willing to let us enter messy lives of women in ways that facilitate healing for them and their families. There have been a few hard conversations along the way, but they were conversations that bore fruit. I’m thankful one of the pastors even called to discuss a sermon he was going to preach and wanted to be sensitive to the women we serve and build them up.
As I am writing this it has occurred to me that just as the physical thorns were woven into the redemption story, the thorns of analogy have been intricately woven into the process of sanctification. While the grace of the physical reminded us of both the curse and the Saviors' willingness to bear it for us, the grace of the analogy is that it reminds us of the need of a moment by moment walk with Jesus that results in sanctification. When God calls us to be thorns, we must remember His grace and be willing to do what He asks whether it be speaking the truth in love, exhorting, comforting, encouraging, or simply forgiving. Though there may be times God calls us to walk away from painful relationships, there will be more times He wants us to stay so sin is exposed and confessed, lies are surfaced and replaced with truth, and pride is dissolved into humility that allows His glory to be reflected through us. That is the grace that is in the thorns.