A 2021 Look at Paul's "Thorn in the Side"

worried woman sits against a wall, her arms wrapped around her legs

A 2021 Look at Paul's "Thorn in the Side"

But what weight do titles hold when you can’t identify your own soul? When framed accomplishments leave you squirmy, reminding you that labels—even the good kind—get you to only finite, fleeting places.

Tired. Lonely. Aching. Hungry. Frustrated. Empty.

Real empty.

That was me—the Bible verse queen, the valedictorian of her high school class, the sorority sweetheart whose endearing fame came from being the only virgin in the group. Nonetheless, the good girl, better known in middle school as “Miss Holier Than Thou”, didn’t have it all together. In fact, she had nothing together.

Acing tests, checking boxes, smiling on cue, following all the Christian school kid rules left me feeling hollow. Funny, isn’t it? How such a well-intentioned, manmade menu of regulations meant to provide peace and purpose for the soul somehow set a table of shame and lifelessness in my try-harder presence.

What now? This can’t be right. No way this is all there is, I thought to myself at 25.

I’d reached the pinnacle of most Millennials’ dreams. I’d gotten the grades, gotten the degree, made moves and watched them work. I knew exactly what to say and when to say it to please each group of people I bounced between. Granted, I was no influencer, but I was more than accustomed to being well-liked. Even better, I’d just married this blue-eyed boy I met after a mutual friend set us up on a blind date to a wedding. The awards, the certificates, the dazzling, twinkling wedding pictures were all mine.

But what weight do titles hold when you can’t identify your own soul? When framed accomplishments leave you squirmy, reminding you that labels—even the good kind—get you to only finite, fleeting places.

For me, such a pivotal, vital answer showed up in a quiet, vulnerable space, on a soft couch across from a chair where a therapist with light blonde hair and kind blue eyes listened to my dilemmas, scribbled some notes, and offered a meek smile, gently confirming: “Yeah, you definitely have OCD.”

Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a misunderstood monster. That’s not to say this is a gentle giant or a feeble mongrel, but rather, the stereotypes defuse its brutal blows.

It’s more than Monk’s quirky tv personality, more than color-coordinated closets and needing a clean space. Rather, it’s a complete chemical meltdown in your brain. When your frontal cortex misfires signals to the rest of your mind, your impulses and the ability to process emotions and responses all fly out the window. Your body is slave to a brain that twists your worst fears into present-day realities, promising that you mean your worst thoughts, daring you to show up for others only to remind you of the possibility of dropping the ball and causing a catastrophe.

It’s wild and irrational. Always running, never still. It’s dark and empty—all the light, hope, and fantasy snatched away, no resolve or ending from a near moor-ish, gothic-novel tragedy.

Worst part about this OCD monster? It promises you the cure comes from performance, from showing up without flaws, from outpacing and outperforming your own thoughts. It beckons with an impossible cure, but it’s a feat most are desperate enough to pursue.

Yet, in that therapist’s office, spilling my soul and sipping green tea, I found freedom in my vulnerability. I breathed better than I’d breathed in years, recognizing that I had a mental disorder. Sounds ironic, almost uneasy, right? You’d think this would devastate the poster child for Dream Daughter-in-law. But I was head over heels for this diagnosis because it freed me from chasing after gold stars, and instead, it presented an unavoidable stain to my name that would create grace in the face of mess-ups, teaching me that this is how you access the God of the galaxies.

You might not have OCD like me. Maybe you battle your own mental/physical health problems; maybe it’s a daily fight with perfectionism, egg-shell relationships, insulin, chemotherapy, or wondering why nothing in your life works.

I get it. And the only way I got through it, in my own story, was by not only realizing, but embracing my thorn in the side. Like Paul, I think we all have something that weighs us down, something that dares us not to leave the bed in the morning and waits for us to lie back down at night, threatening to choke any joy in our grasps.

Like Paul, I think most of us beg God to take the thorn away. Day and night, that’s our soul’s quietest, humblest prayer: God, just make it stop. 

Maybe we’ve tried the emotional, teary-eyed route to no avail. Perhaps we’ve bargained with God, coaxing Him to believe if He’ll just remove this one thing we’ll prioritize Bible reading over social media scrolling.

We. Just. Want. The. Thing. To. Go. Away.

Far. Far. Away.

No. Matter. What.

But, despite the human heart’s genuine drive to see the thorn removed, I also believe God, the Father of the future and all good things, knows the thorn in your side can be pruned. In fact, the thorn doesn’t have the final say in how you feel, how you see the world, the very state of your soul. It doesn’t necessarily have to poke and prod and shove its weight into every corner of your being.

Instead, if you’re willing to embrace grace despite that one thing that keeps showing up, the thorn that keeps messing you up and slowing you down, a bud can burst through. Growth can take the reins. Petals can blossom into unimaginable colors. Beauty, hope, light, life can exist.

So maybe there’s a necessary shift in perspective, or definition. Perhaps the thorn doesn’t go away, but rather, the pain and trauma and heartache it’s rooted to finally break loose. What if new roots form, the kind that don’t choke, but ground you to something steady, sure, golden, and good?

Not to taint this beautiful, near-mystic landscape, but such deep change will take lots of work, day in and day out. It won’t require begging or bargaining, though a childlike, innocent piece of me believes God finds laughter amidst our feeble attempts to bribe Him.  

Instead, you’ll have to cut away the things that need to go—even if they make you comfortable, even if living in their memories brings you a short escape from present-day terrors. You’ll have to refine the pieces of you that need to stay, even if they require some digging, weed-pulling, and months of watering.

This process, this new, hands-on look at Paul’s "thorn in the side", won’t always be a 1960s dreamboat. But on the flip side, once your thorn has transformed and bloomed, you’ll have an eternal reminder of what God allowed you to survive, of who you’ve become as a result of a raw, real mixture of failures and grace. And, meanwhile, others will see your journey, witness your growth, take in the reality that you not only survived, but found peace, and then they, too, can believe in a good God who’s yet to require performance and perfection as access to a beautiful, God-fearing life.

These days, that’s me—the girl who takes 100 milligrams of Zoloft each morning, who talks with several therapists, and still holds to the chaotic, but alluring truth that God works best in my OCD mess.

May we all bloom—not despite our thorns, but because of them.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/tommaso79

Peyton Garland is an author and coffee shop hopper who loves connecting people to a grace much bigger than expected. Her debut book, Not So by Myself, was promoted by Former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino and Endorsed by TED Talk speaker and creator of the More Love Letters Movement, Hannah Brencher. She lives in Colorado with her husband, Josh, and their two gremlin dogs, Alfie and Daisy.