Of Grace and Thorns

Scripture Focus: 2 Corinthians 12.7-9
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.”

Reflection: Of Grace and Thorns
By John Tillman

Paul’s thorn in the flesh is one of the great unknowns of scripture. 

There have been a phenomenal number of conjectures, suppositions, and claims about what it might have been. Suggestions vary greatly from the serious (demonic voices or severe scoliosis) to the silly (baldness) to the offensive (a nagging wife). 

Conjecture and biblical guessing games are entertaining for theology nerds and Bible geeks (like me) but they can be a distraction. 

If one holds a high view of the Bible, believing that it is the inspired Word of God, then one can trust that the lessons the Holy Spirit has for us won’t be contained in some neglected detail. If, however, one doubts the scriptures’ inerrancy, then one always thinks the answers are in the cracks. If Paul or (more importantly) the Holy Spirit wanted us to know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, it would be spelled out in the scriptures. 

What is important about Paul’s thorn is not what it is or how it afflicts him. What is important is the sufficient grace of God that sustains Paul. Paul’s thorn does seem to be connected to something that weakens him. Paul describes his thorn as a  “messenger from Satan.” All we need to take from this is that Satan had a purpose for the suffering Paul experienced. It was intended by Satan for harm and hindrance of Paul’s faith. But God especially delights in turning machinations of evil into miracles of grace.

We should hesitate to imply from this text that believers regularly have “thorns in the flesh.” If a believer is “caught up to the third Heaven” as Paul was, then perhaps, one might worry about it. But we do, with regularity, experience sufferings of this world that are intended by Satan to harm and hinder us. Our comfort in our “light and momentary troubles” is the same comfort that Paul experienced.

Grace sets us free from the sufferings that come to us in this world. Paul shows us how to lean into suffering, knowing that however we are weakened, Christ will be glorified and however, we are delivered Christ will be glorified.

Suffering is evil. Weakness is humbling. In Christ, they both are redeemed and their outcomes overturned. What is intended to harm, will be used for good and what is shameful will be used to bring glory to Christ.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you; I have said to the Lord, “You are my Lord, my good above all other.” — Psalm 16.1

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Samuel 18 (Listen – 7:31)
2 Corinthians 11 (Listen – 3:54)

Thank You!
Thank you to our donors who support our readers by making it possible to continue The Park Forum devotionals. This year, The Park Forum audiences opened 200,000 free, and ad-free, devotional content. Follow this link to join our donors with a one-time or a monthly gift.

Read more about Reflection: Honey and Grace
God extracts honey out of the rock—the sweetest springs and pleasures from the hardness of afflictions…whereas the world makes from the fountains of pleasure stones and rocks of torment.

Read more about Grace that Makes Us :: Worldwide Prayer
Through his grace our weakness is made strong.
Through his grace our weakness is made strong.
Through his grace our weakness is made strong.
Through his grace he leads us from doubt on to faith.
Through his grace we can share the gospel with others.

Dealing with Joab

Scripture Focus: 2 Samuel 18.14
Joab said, “I’m not going to wait like this for you.” So he took three javelins in his hand and plunged them into Absalom’s heart while Absalom was still alive in the oak tree.

Reflection: Dealing with Joab
By John Tillman

Wednesday we repeated a reflection from 2017 about Joab’s one act of mercy in his entire life.

Joab stuck out his neck for Absalom, but when the young man betrayed David, Joab, the man who showed mercy to Absalom, mercilessly slaughtered him as he hung helpless in the tree.

Joab then berated David as he wept, “O my son Absalom!…If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son!” Joab gets David up from his grief and out to do the necessary hand shaking to keep his army together. 

When I was a younger man, I admired Joab. I thought Joab saved David. I was wrong.

I saw Joab as a realist—a practical, get-stuff-done kind of guy. He was the one who would do the hard things that David “wimped out” on. I used to think that every moral leader needed a slightly-less-moral “helper” such as Joab. How wrong-headed this thinking is. Joab’s kind of loyalty is a twisted form of “honor” that cripples accountability, truth, and justice. 

It is only later in life, after seeing Joab-like men destroying the reputation of Christ on behalf of institutions and individuals, that I recognize him for the danger that he is. As I look more clearly at Joab I see that he didn’t reverence God. He reverenced David.

Behind many leaders are worshipful hatchet-men like Joab. Ministries have been ruined from behind the scenes because of the machinations of a “Joab.” Joab enforces loyalty. Joab deletes evidence. Joab fires troublemakers. Joab threatens witnesses.

One of David’s greatest failings as a leader might be failing to deal with Joab. If you are a leader, you may attract a Joab. Beware. 

Beware of Joab in the midst of your church, buddying up to your senior leadership and talking about “honor.” Be careful. Joab may seem loyal, but he is loyal only to earthly power structures which keep him in power. 

Spotting Joab:
Joab is loyal to a king (usually to a man, a pastor, but sometimes an institution, like a ministry or church) rather than to God.
Joab is more concerned about protecting the king than about truth or justice. 
Joab is more concerned about the king’s (or the ministry’s) reputation than his (or its) righteousness.
Joab is concerned about vengeance on enemies rather than justice for victims.
Joab is marked by practical, not spiritual thinking.

It is important that we do not admire Joab.
It is important that we disarm and disavow him.
But it is more important that we do not become him.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out. — Psalm 65.3

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Samuel 16 (Listen – 4:03)
2 Corinthians 9 (Listen – 2:26)

This Weekend’s Readings
2 Samuel 17 (Listen – 5:00), 2 Corinthians 10 (Listen – 2:45)
2 Samuel 18 (Listen – 6:16), 2 Corinthians 11 (Listen – 4:46)

Thank You!
Thank you to our donors who support our readers by making it possible to continue The Park Forum devotionals. This year, The Park Forum audiences opened 200,000 free, and ad-free, devotional content. Follow this link to join our donors with a one-time or a monthly gift.

Read more about Bringing Back the Banished
Contrast David’s grudging approval for Absalom’s return with Paul’s joyful acceptance of those involved in a conflict within the Corinthian church.

Read more about The Undeserved Banquet of the Gospel
We, the undeserving, motley, scandalous louts that we are, find ourselves with our feet under Christ’s table. Christ invites all to the banquet.

How to Know When to Give

Scripture Focus: 2 Corinthians 8.12-15
For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”

Reflection: How to Know When to Give
By John Tillman

Many pastors have confessed that they are nervous whenever they talk about money or giving.* The prosperity gospel has so stained theological discourse with its twisted emphasis on money that pastors fear being lumped in with them when discussing the needs of their ministries.

*As an independent ministry supported by donations, we also feel this tension.

It is healthy for Christians to take care with any topic in which there have been abuses of power and manipulation. Charitable giving is one of those topics.

In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul urged the Corinthians to give not for their own church but for the support of believers in Jerusalem.

How much to give? More than what is “comfortable” but less than would make one “hard-pressed.”

Many modern Christians grouse about tithing as if it is an unreasonable standard. Some maintain that tithing is “Old Testament” and they are not bound by the law. This is true. Tithing is not required. Giving until you can’t give anymore is the New Testament standard. 

This is not “sacrificial” giving as some have defined it. Paul expressly advised against giving to the point of being “hard-pressed.” the word Paul uses, “θλίψις or thlipsis,” can mean burdened or troubled. If we are so comfortable giving that we barely notice, we probably aren’t giving enough, but giving should not cause you trouble or suffering. Where is that point? Well, it may be past the point of a simple ten percent, but only the Holy Spirit can help you find it.

To whom to give: Give without question or hesitation to whomever the Spirit directs you to give. Give to your church. To other Christian ministries. To any cause or organization doing good in the world. To anyone who has less than you or helps those who have less than you. 

You don’t have to agree with the totality of someone’s work or life to give to them. This doesn’t mean that it is okay to directly support corruption. It does mean that when giving to large causes and organizations, such as your local church and denomination, discovering that there are some bad leaders or bad decisions is not cause to end all giving. Jesus commended the widow’s gift to the Temple even though he condemned the Temple as a “den of robbers” and its leaders as “blind guides.” Be wise and discerning but also be realistic and grounded.

As the Corinthians’ generosity caused Paul to celebrate, may our generosity bring joy and refreshment to those doing good in the world.
As we give past the point of comfort, may we rejoice that we are comforting those less fortunate than us.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
Jesus taught us, saying: “Anyone who is trustworthy in little things is trustworthy in great. if then you are not trustworthy with money, that tainted thing, who will trust you with genuine riches? And if you are not trustworthy with what is not yours, who will give you what is your very own? — Luke 16.9-13

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Samuel 15 (Listen – 6:06)
2 Corinthians 8 (Listen – 3:25)

Thank You!
Thank you to our donors who support our readers by making it possible to continue The Park Forum devotionals. This year, The Park Forum audiences opened 200,000 free, and ad-free, devotional content. Follow this link to join our donors with a one-time or a monthly gift.

Read more about The Context of The Widow’s Mite
The widow’s story gives us someone to emulate in faith, but also points out someone we should serve with action.

Read more about Generosity that Outlives Tragedy
What happens when time inevitably passes and the images of destruction and devastation no longer dominate our screens? What is the limit of our generosity?

Bringing Back the Banished

Scripture Focus: 2 Samuel 14:14

Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But that is not what God desires; rather, he devises ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from him.Reflection:

Bringing Back the Banished
By John Tillman


Joab is not remembered in the scriptures as a merciful man. If anything, he is David’s button man—eliminating David’s enemies while maintaining plausible deniability. Joab is a ruthless tactician, delivering to David cities to conquer and the corpses of his enemies. Joab uses any means necessary behind the scenes and allows David’s hands, to everyone’s eyes but God’s, to remain clean.

So it is somewhat surprising that the merciful, theatrical errand of reconciliation detailed in 2 Samuel fourteen is orchestrated by Joab to bring back David’s banished son, Absalom. It is unusual that the ruthless black-ops commander who assassinated Abner against David’s wishes would pursue this mission. It is a mission whose outcome is doomed.

Before long, it is clear that Absalom has not come home for reconciliation, but rebellion. Eventually, it is Joab who, against David’s specific orders, murders Absalom, the hapless rebel, as he hangs in a tree, defenseless.

It is helpful for us to contrast David’s grudging approval for Absalom’s return with Paul’s joyful and full acceptance of those involved in a conflict within the Corinthian church.

David says of Absalom, “He must not see my face.” He allows Absalom’s return to the city, but not to the family.  Yet Paul, speaks tenderly of relationships not only fully restored, but strengthened. “And his [Titus’s] affection for you is all the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him with fear and trembling. I am glad I can have complete confidence in you.”

We are banished, sinful sons and daughters. But God, our king, was not theatrically cajoled into bringing us back. It was always his plan. Our king didn’t grant us partial forgiveness, keeping us from coming to his palace or being in his presence. He left his throne, his palace, and his privilege behind to come to us. By rights, we should die rebels, as Absalom did. But our king died in our place, hung on the tree we were doomed for. Our king does not merely return the banished but redeems them.

The message of the gospel is not that we are grudgingly allowed back home while denied the privileges of family. Christ is not our parole officer, but our brother. Through him, we become fully restored sons and daughters of his kingdom.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Let my cry come before you, O Lord; give me understanding, according to your word.
Let my supplication come before you; deliver me, according to your promise. — Psalm 119.169-170

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Samuel 14 (Listen – 5:57)
2 Corinthians 7 (Listen – 2:58)

Thank You!
Thank you to our donors who support our readers by making it possible to continue The Park Forum devotionals. This year, The Park Forum audiences opened 200,000 free, and ad-free, devotional content. Follow this link to join our donors with a one-time or a monthly gift.

Read more about Liquid Wrath and Liquid Forgiveness :: Readers’ Choice
The cup of God’s wrath is taken for us by Christ. He begs not to drink it, and yet he does. Leaving us not a drop to taste after him.

Read more about Steeped in Sin :: Readers’ ChoiceWe need Jesus because only his righteousness is the antidote to the radiation poisoning of rebellion.


Be Yoked to Christ, Not Politics

Scripture Focus: 2 Corinthians 6.14-16
What do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.

Reflection: Be Yoked to Christ, Not Politics
By John Tillman

As American culture becomes less Christian, both of our political parties have become less Christian. It is increasingly difficult to defend being yoked to either the Republican or Democratic party while also being yoked with Christ. What fellowship can light have with darkness? 

Christians don’t have to bemoan feeling politically exiled and homeless. Caesar’s representatives say to us, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Christians must recognize that this is a deception and our kingdom is from another place. 

Voting in elections is only one form of political expression. As Christians, an important element of our political expression is how we care for the “polis,” the people. We vote with Christ’s hands and feet as we serve and care for image-bearers of God. What does this look like?

It would be a strikingly Christ-like thing if the powerful, no matter their political affiliation, came to know Christians as people who always seem to be standing in their way, defending the powerless. 

When governments try to starve people out, Christians move in to feed them. 
When “health care” experts champion abortion as a “solution” to having disabled children, Christians seek to adopt and care for these children. 
When governments put children in cages and separate them from their parents, Christians work to reunite them and to provide for their needs.
When disasters strike, natural or otherwise, Christians are the first ones in to help and the last to leave.
When others respond with fear and hatred towards immigrants and strangers, Christians welcome and serve them.

These actions (which are real and occurring today) are true acts of worship and enact the gospel in front of a watching world. 

Christians who care about the whole Bible must care about the whole of humanity. Every image-bearer of God, not just the white ones and not just the brown ones, and not just the unborn ones, and not just the immigrant ones should find in Christ’s church a compassionate helper. If we neglect or threaten one of these groups, then we are neglecting and abandoning part of the Bible’s teaching.

May no party or human leader be permitted to yoke us or Christ’s church to their cause.
May the only yoke we take on, be the yoke of Christ, in service to others.
May politicians know us by the people we help, not by the people we hate.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Morning Psalm
Sing to God, sing praises to his Name; exalt him who rides upon the heavens; Yahweh is his Name, rejoice before him!
Father of orphans, defender of widows, God in his holy habitation! — Psalm 68.4-5

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Samuel 13 (Listen – 6:39)
2 Corinthians 6 (Listen – 2:31)

Thank You!
Thank you to our donors who support our readers by making it possible to continue The Park Forum devotionals. This year, The Park Forum audiences opened 200,000 free, and ad-free, devotional content. Follow this link to join our donors with a one-time or a monthly gift.

Read more about Resisting Herods
Herods offer influence with Rome. These men are masters at “influence.” But neither Jesus nor Paul exploited it.

Read more about Balaams and Balaks :: Readers’ Choice
Modern Balaams do their best to put words in God’s mouth that are pleasing to the powerful.

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