Throughout Scripture we see a common pattern of God’s people enduring through afflictions, many trials, and suffering from the persecution of their enemies. Take for example the Apostle Paul, who endured multiple whippings from the Jews, was beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked three times, imprisoned, and frequently near death (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). All in the name of his faith. Joseph was betrayed, enslaved, falsely accused and imprisoned. Job suffered major loss and physical ailments. Steven was stoned to death, John the Baptist was beheaded, Daniel was thrown before lions, and many who have gone before us were martyred for the faith. Although each of these trials were significant, the Early Church taught that the greatest trial of all is the battle in our minds; the carnal mind is enmity (at war) against God (Romans 8:7). Whilst the hardships these men faced may have been different, what was common amongst all? Long-suffering. Through patient endurance, each person’s faith was tested, tried and proven. Why does God allow us to go through trials and tribulation? The Early Church taught that it is only through long-suffering in the battle, that we might obtain salvation.
Long-suffering is defined as having or showing patience in spite of troubles, especially those caused by other people (1). It is a fruit of the Spirit- a part of God’s character (Galatians 5:22) and is conducive to salvation, as Peter states “the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation” (2 Peter 3:15). Not only does long-suffering pertain to being patient during tribulation caused by others, but also patience towards ourselves, through the battle to overcome our flesh (carnal nature).
Clement of Alexandria, pinpointing what this carnal nature (and internal battle) is, said,
“There is a persecution that arises externally- from men assailing the faithful, either out of hatred, or envy, or avarice, or through diabolic agency. But the most painful is internal persecution, which proceeds from each man’s own soul being vexed by impious lusts, and diverse pleasures, and base hopes…” (2)
In his epistle to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul wrote:
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
To preserve Paul and ensure he would stay humble; God allowed a thorn in his flesh to remain. The Early Church taught that all scripture is spiritual, containing a deeper (allegorical) meaning. So, this thorn in Paul’s flesh was not merely a physical thorn, but really symbolized something in his life, a weakness or sin, that restrained him from obtaining the fullness of God’s glory. Why did God allow this? Because the time had not yet come for God’s glory to be revealed, it is for the time we are in now, the Millennial Kingdom- the 1,000-year rule and reign (Revelation 20:6). Paul knew this, hence why he said he was born out of due time (1 Corinthians 15:8), desiring to be a part of our time. He understood that the thorn was his preservation; it was what kept him from falling and motivated him to keep running the race of salvation (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
The Early Church, those who carried on the traditions (teachings) of the Apostles, had the same revelation as Paul. They recognized the necessity of the infirmities (vices/sin) in our flesh that we struggle with. Second century Church Father Irenaeus explains this below.
The Apostle Paul has, moreover, in the most lucid manner, pointed out that man has been delivered over to his own infirmity, lest, being uplifted, he might fall away from the truth. Thus he says in the second [Epistle] to the Corinthians: “And lest I should be lifted up by the sublimity of the revelations, there was given unto me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me. And upon this I besought the Lord three times, that it might depart from me. But he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee; for strength is made perfect in weakness. Gladly therefore shall I rather glory in infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2Co_12:7-9) What, therefore? (as some may exclaim:) did the Lord wish, in that case, that His apostles should thus undergo buffering, and that he should endure such infirmity? Even so it was; the word says it. For strength is made perfect in weakness, rendering him a better man who by means of his infirmity becomes acquainted with the power of God. For how could a man have learned that he is himself an infirm being, and mortal by nature, but that God is immortal and powerful, unless he had learned by experience what is in both? For there is nothing evil in learning one’s infirmities by endurance; yea, rather, it has even the beneficial effect of preventing him from forming an undue opinion of his own nature. (3)
Irenaeus explains that only through recognizing and understanding our own mortality and frailty, can we understand the magnitude of God’s immortality and power. Man’s mortal state is good, as it contrasts God’s immortal state, and shows us how in need we are of the divine Helper. Notice Irenaeus highlights the importance of experiencing God’s power, of which experience is gained when we have a need for it. Without his thorn, Paul would not have been able to experience the vastness of God’s power in his own life, because His strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). The Prophet Isaiah said God “gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength” (Isaiah 40:29) and “those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength’ they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). Waiting on the LORD requires an eager, patient, and hopeful expectation (4), trusting that the Lord will finish the good work He has started in us (Philippians 1:6).
In the same vein as Irenaeus, third century Church Father Cyprian wrote:
Righteous men have ever possessed this endurance. The apostles maintained this discipline from the law of the Lord, not to murmur in adversity, but to accept bravely and patiently whatever things happen in the world; since the people of the Jews in this matter always offended, that they constantly murmured against God, as the Lord God bears witness in the book of Numbers, saying, “Let their murmuring cease from me, and they shall not die.” (Num_17:10) We must not murmur in adversity, beloved brethren, but we must bear with patience and courage whatever happens, since it is written, “The sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a contrite and humbled heart God does not despise;” (Psa_51:17)
Further on Cyprian continues,
When, therefore, weakness and inefficiency and any destruction seize us, then our strength is made perfect; then our faith, if when tried it shall stand fast, is crowned; as it is written, “The furnace trieth the vessels of the potter, and the trial of tribulation just men.” (Sirach 27:5) This, in short, is the difference between us and others who know not God, that in misfortune they complain and murmur, while adversity does not call us away from the truth of virtue and faith, but strengthens us by its suffering. (5)
Rather than seeing their redemption at hand after being brought out of slavery in Egypt, the Jews murmured and complained, so the Lord left them in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2). Cyprian uses this as an example, encouraging us not to make the same mistake the Jews did, but to bear our adversity with patience. The potter’s furnace is hot, uncomfortable, and at times there is resistance, however the outcome results in a beautiful vessel of honor, useful to the Master (2 Timothy 2:21). Note Cyprian states the difference between those who do and those who do not know God, is in the way they view and respond to adversity. A true believer understands that virtue is obtained after the long-suffering through vice (weakness/sin) and does not murmur or complain in the process.
Early Church Father Origen said,
“If, therefore, the senses of the flesh are put to death, the senses of the spirit increase, and while the vices in you are dying daily, the number of virtues is being increased.” (6)
Origen understood that by putting to death our vices, the virtues of God (His character and attributes) would resurrect in us. As aforementioned, Clement outlines some of these vices in a broader sense (see ref. 2 above). Paul also tells us what some vices are, writing to the Galatians:
Now the works (vices) of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outburst of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies (false teachings), envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
We all have thorns in our flesh, whether it be anger, frustration, pride, insecurity, unforgiveness, etc. However, the way we view these vices plays a vital role in our ability to overcome them. Early Church Father Lactantius (who was between the third and fourth centuries) wrote the following “Why, then, did God make man frail and mortal? . . . He did so in order that He might set before man virtue—that is, the endurance of evils and labors by which man might be able to gain the reward of immortality.” (7) Lactantius understood that God allows man to face trials, in order that he may overcome and be rewarded with immortality. How can we be the overcomers we are called to be, if we do not have anything to overcome? James tells us that “the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:3) and to “let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:4). The Lord desires for our perfection, therefore He allows a thorn in flesh to remain, to preserve our souls, because “he who endures to the end shall be saved.” (Matthew 24:13).
Without a battle, there is no victory. What we might deem bad, the Lord sees as good, because without vices to overcome we can never be made perfect, and obtain immortality. Salvation is not a sprint, it is an endurance race, requiring long-suffering and discipline through the process (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Just as an athlete disciplines his body, pushes his limits, and perseveres through obstacles, so too should we be with our salvation. The Early Church understood that the Lord allows vices to remain in our flesh, in order that we remain on course to pursue the Lord, and fight for our salvation. Ultimately it is for the preservation of our soul, that we may not fall like Adam did, but rather understand our frailty and hold fast to the Lord. I pray, Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord…. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand (James 5:7-8).
1. Oxford Dictionary: “longsuffering”
2. Clement of Alexandria- Who is the Rich Man that shall be saved? Ch. XXV
3. Irenaeus – Against Heresies, Book V. Chap III.
4. Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew definitions: “wait” (H6960)
5. Cyprian- Treaties VII On the Mortality
6. Origen- Exodus Homily 1
7. Lactantius- The Divine Institutes, Book VII, Ch. V
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010.