God’s Exploitation of the Devil’s “Thorns”

God’s sovereignty should never be seen as unilaterally determining or decreeing the evil actions or intentions of free agents (human or demonic) before the foundation of the world. Rather God’s sovereignty is best understood as exploiting the evil actions and intentions of free agents. The following is a good example of how this can break down. In 2 Corinthians 12:7 we read: “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me– to keep me from exalting myself!” A couple of critical points emerge from this text. Paul said a “thorn in the flesh” was “given” to him to keep him from falling into pride and conceit. He qualifies it as a “messenger of Satan.” Now the question that presents itself is, did Satan not want Paul to be conceited? No. Satan would have loved to have seen Paul become conceited. But his hatred of Paul had blinded him in seeing how his evil desire and intention to hurt Paul through a “thorn in the flesh” was being used and exploited by God to actually love Paul and keep him from pride.

Scholars differ on what exactly the “thorn in the flesh” refers to, but we can be assured it wasn’t some moral issue–as if Paul kept sleeping with prostitutes and couldn’t stop. Most scholars believe it was a physical ailment or irritation of persecution from antagonists, but a specific identification is largely irrelevant to the point I want to make, which is that God’s sovereign allowance for affliction to come to Paul was not evidence that God hated Paul, but loved Paul and did not want him to become disqualified by pride–which is no doubt what the devil wanted. So God gives, through a sovereign allowance, a “thorn” that the devil intended to use to hurt Paul because he hated Paul. But God will exploit the devil’s hatred and usurp it for his own purposes. Sovereignty by exploitation is a critical facet of God’s providential power and grace. When we choose to trust God during affliction, like Paul, rather than become embittered against God, like Cain, we release ourselves into God’s sovereign wisdom in allowing us to go through disappointment and hard times.

In part it is one way God can “cause all things to work together for the good to those that love God” (Rom. 8:28). Moreover this little snippet of a window into Paul’s life reveals that sometimes in allowing affliction God may not be giving what we want, but what he knows is best. The scriptures do indeed teach us that God “gives good gifts” to his children (Mt. 7:11), but we also discover that what is “good” in God’s sight may not always be to our personal liking or preference. Sometimes God gives, through his sovereign permission, “thorns,” not because he hates us, but rather because he loves us and knows what is best.* This does not mean every affliction of life can be so categorized, for indeed many afflictions and agonies in life are self-afflicted and stem from our own rebellion against God. But it is worth considering that some troubles and disappointment in life may be God’s means to preserve us and protect us, rather than torment us and oppress us. So the next time an irritation or an affliction comes your way, instead of immediately entrenching oneself in faith-quenching bitterness and resentment, first go before the Lord and ask, “Lord what does this mean? What must I do?” *I am indebted to my pastor, Craig Mclaughlin, for this insight.

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About StriderMTB

Hi, I'm Matt. "Strider" from Lord of the Rings is my favorite literary character of all time and for various reasons I write under the pseudonym "StriderMTB. As my blog suggests I seek to live out both the excitement and tension of a Christian walk with Christ in the 3rd world context of Asia. I am unmarried yet blessed to oversee an orphanage of amazing children in South-East Asia. I hate lima beans and love to pour milk over my ice-cream. I try to stay active in both reading and writing and this blog is a smattering of my many thoughts. I see the Kingdom of God as Jesus preached it and lived to be the only hope for a broken world and an even more broken and apathetic church.
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3 Responses to God’s Exploitation of the Devil’s “Thorns”

  1. goodbit says:

    Hey Matt,

    I love your passion for God, and your dedication to the scripture on this blog. I have been reading and watching, and love your humility and passion. I wish I saw more of that in my own life!

    I want to push back a little on this post, not in terms of what you said, but simply in terms of your first statement of this post: “God’s sovereignty should never be seen as ordaining or decreeing the evil actions or intentions of free agents–including the devil. Rather God’s sovereignty is best understood as exploiting the evil actions and intentions of free agents.” Based on your tags I know you are taking a swipe at a more calvinistic perspect of suffering, though I wonder if functionally neither viewpoint is functionally far from each other in day to day, on the ground, in the mud trenches of the Christian life.

    Here is what I mean,

    If we affirm that God is omnipotent, and omniscient, then every evil (thorn or messenger of Satan) that occurs, God knows is going to happen and he has the power to stop it. Thus whether God decrees it, or whether he allows it, is really semantics.

    God could stop the kidnapping and death of Wilma Derksen’s daughter (https://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/books/how-i-rediscovered-faith) but he didn’t. He allowed it to happen. Him allowing this to happen I feel doesn’t get him off the hook, for God would then not be a good Samaritan. So functionally, on the ground, God allowing evil to happen doesn’t give me much comfort.

    But if God actually had purpose in this event, speaking of Paul’s thorn, if God’s purpose always overrides the purposes of the Devil, so that everything works out for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose, isn’t that the comfort of both calvinists and arminians?

    I can’t get over the word “given” in the text. Satan’s torment, which he intends to hurt Paul, was intended by God in his plan to work toward’s Paul’s sanctification. So Job 42:2 and Isaiah 14:27 stands.

    I think most of your objections to many calvinist’s theodicy is simply the word “decree”. But I would say that any Bible believing Christian admits that God is in control, overriding the plans of the Devil, yet that at the same time, Judas and Pontias Pilate, and myself are all morally accountable for our actions, even though God’s plans are active in them.

    I am curious if you get some time, to put some posts up of your critique of a calvinistic-reformed soteriology. That is ultimately what convinced me of a reformed viewpoint, and I find way more practically relevant in its implications in day-to-day, on the ground Christianity than leaning just a bit to the left or the right on the words “decree” or “allow” in wrestling with the question of suffering.

    I am curious what perspectives you take on election, calling, predestination, foreknowledge. If you have already addressed it here, feel free to send me to some older posts! I have only been reading for the past year or so!

    God bless you and keep you as you serve the peoples of the world!

    – Richard

  2. StriderMTB says:

    Hi Richard, thanks for stopping by. I appreciate the comments. Your contention seems to boil down to this comment: “If we affirm that God is omnipotent, and omniscient, then every evil (thorn or messenger of Satan) that occurs, God knows is going to happen and he has the power to stop it. Thus whether God decrees it, or whether he allows it, is really semantics.”

    Only semantics Richard? Really? I have heard many Calvinists state similar things and I never understand how this argument holds any water. Certainly there is a difference between allowing someone to do X and making someone do X through an irresistible decree. Certainly you would not say allowing your son to disobey you is the same as determining or manipulating him to disobey you?

    You may very well anticipate that your son is about to disobey you, and it is obviously not your will that he disobey you, but you also understand that part of your son’s healthy development requires that he have the freedom to disobey your will. That doesn’t mean that he has the freedom to avoid your consequences afterwards, but it does mean that his development would be stunted and stifled if you placed electrodes on his brain to re-orient his behavior every time you anticipated his disobedience. Certainly you would also agree that allowing your son to disobey you and touch the hot stove to learn the painful consequences of disobedience is functionally different than grabbing his hand and forcing it upon the hot stove? And certainly I also hope you would concede that parental discipline is cruel, brutal and unjust if a father were to have the ability to determine every one of his children’s acts of disobedience so that he can punish them. Yet Calvinism posits such a cosmic Father. Within a Calvinist worldview God punishes people for doing the very evil things he unconditionally conceived for them and decreed for them to commit before they were born. God’s morality is rendered unintelligible and takes on the moral equivalence of the devil in such a theological paradigm.

    I readily admit God could have chosen to create a world where everything we think, desire, say and do flows out of God’s exhaustive decrees before we were born (including who is a Calvinist and who isn’t), just as Calvinism logically dictates. But God also knew that in such a world we would be reduced to nothing more than pre-programmed pets merely responding to divine stimuli and possessing the illusion of freedom. Thankfully God understood that if true worship and genuine love were to mean anything, it meant the choice to not worship and to not love must also be genuinely available. Assuming you are married, I am sure your wife will tell you your love for her is especially meaningful given that your choice of her was itself a conscious rejection of all other available women. If you had no other options, or were forced into the marriage, your choice to marry her would no doubt be far less meaningful to her. In granting mankind a genuine, indeterminate freedom God was in pursuit of a meaningful world not a controlled laboratory. Calvinism ultimately reduces love to nothing more than God loving himself in virtue of the fact that God decreed who will love him and who will not– and did so irresistibly.

    So yes God can allow evils to occur and yet not be the author of those evils as Calvinism logically implies (can you parse the difference between God conceiving of and decreeing moral evil and God authoring evil?). God can also prevent anything if he so wills. Arminians have always said the argument is never about “Can God?” but “Would God?” There is a vast difference between the two that gets muddled in the Calvinist view due to construing sovereignty only in terms of sheer power. This results in other sovereign considerations getting lost.

    Moreover when I speak of God’s permission and allowance it’s not as if impersonal evil comes knocking on God’s door and says, “Can I cause that husband to commit adultery?” or “Can I cause I cause child abuse in that family?” and God says, “Sure, go right ahead.” Rather in allowing evil and sin, God is actually allowing his own sovereign creational intention to be realized—which is a world permeated with beings morally capable of both good and evil. And God refuses to abort one sovereign intention to fulfill another. God will not override his own sovereign intention to create man free in order to prohibit man from misusing the very freedom He sovereignly chose to bestow upon him. God could only prevent all evil by countermanding his sovereign decision to create man free.

    You write, “But if God actually had purpose in this event, speaking of Paul’s thorn, if God’s purpose always overrides the purposes of the Devil, so that everything works out for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose, isn’t that the comfort of both calvinists and arminians?”

    Again there is a great difference. I find most Calvinists are actually Arminians in mind and heart on the basis that they refuse to think through the true ramifications and implications of Calvinist theology. When evil or some affliction does occur, the comfort the Arminian has is that while God may not have willed or decreed that the evil of X come our way, God has the power to usurp that evil and overrule it’s intended affects (stemming from the devil or others) and bring good out of it. For example let’s say you commit adultery against your wife and she then divorces you and marries another man. You might find yourself a couple years later repentant and broken over your sin, but sadly it is too late to be restored in marriage to your wife. She has gone on to marry another man. Does that mean your life is over? Should you hang yourself? No—as a repentant Christian you can find comfort in knowing that while God might not have determinatively willed that you commit the sin of adultery, God can still use it to bring good into your life. Perhaps you will find yourself in a ministry that helps other men recover from divorce, or perhaps you will find contentment and joy in singleness by serving the “least of these” in ways that were never afforded to you before as a married person. There are countless ways God can overrule the affects of our own sin for good, but of course it requires our humility and repentance.

    In Calvinism all this is nullified once you understand God CHOSE and PREDETERMINED that you should commit adultery against your wife. Therefore your sin was nothing more than his will of decree simply being carried out! I honestly know at least one Calvinist who has absolved himself of all guilt and conviction over his adultery on the basis that he reckons it as God’s decretive will in action! He ultimately had no choice! Of course while the majority of Calvinist pastors might try to comfort a father who just lost his job as being “God’s hidden (decreed) will” they never try to comfort a father who just committed adultery as being “God’s hidden will.” But why not Richard??? Given their theology it is all the same!

    All that to say the Arminian can find comfort in knowing there is a functional difference between saying God can bring a good purpose out of evil and saying God determined that evil for that good purpose.

    Lastly in the post about Paul’s “thorn” I tried to highlight how God’s sovereignty is not best seen in decreeing everything the devil does, but rather in usurping and exploiting the devil’s schemes for his own purposes. That is not to say God does this all the time. That is why the Bible says there is a condition for God to bring good out of evil, “…to those that love God…” That is to say it requires that we have a right response ourselves. If we become embittered and hateful towards God in the face of affliction, we are not “those that love God” and therefore we rob ourselves of his sovereign power to “cause all things to work for good.” I went back and added a few more lines to try to make that more clear. I would additionally add that the affliction or “thorn” Paul is dealing with is not a matter of moral evil. That is critical to note. It is not that God gave Paul some sort of besetting sin that he could not shake. Most scholars think it was an eye disease. The text says it was given to protect him from conceit. It would indeed be quite humbling to heal others but not heal himself—especially in virtue of the fact that eye diseases back then were horribly grotesque and debilitating. It could have also been annoying, irritating people (such as from the Judaizers) constantly following him where ever he went and being a “pain in the neck” for him. The O.T. speaks of the Israelites having to deal with subversive, irritating remnants of defeated foes as “thorns in their sides.”

    Concerning your example of God allowing someone to be kidnapped and killed, I deal with a similar example in my critique of James White’s ridiculous and unfounded charge that unless God conceived and decreed every act of rape against every raped girl, such acts are rendered purposeless and God is rendered powerless. See: https://atheologyintension.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/2174/ And lastly I deal with the often repeated claim by Calvinists that Christ’s crucifixion is evidence that God decreed all sin and evil in my debate over compatibilism with a good guy named Derek. That section can be found here: https://atheologyintension.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/debate-on-calvinistic-compatibilism-part-25-matt-replies-part-2/

    Sorry for the long rant! 🙂 But I felt your comments deserved more than a short sound-bite reply. Shalom.

  3. StriderMTB says:

    P.S. I forgot you asked about my position on soteriology. I believe the corporate view of election is by far the most consistent, sound theology on election and soteriology to date. A great articulator of it is Brian Abasciano. You can find it explained in the following links:
    http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/49/49-2/JETS_49-2_351-371_Abasciano.pdf http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ashland_theological_journal/41-1_059.pdfhttp://evangelicalarminians.org/glynn.Dr.Brian-Abasciano-Responds-To-Dr.Dan-Wallace-On-The-Issue-Of-Corporate-Election/

    Another great treatment of corporate election is by William W. Klein
    http://www.leaderu.com/theology/corp_election.html

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