The Thorn in My Flesh

Drew and I discovered Grey’s Anatomy a couple of years ago and have been slowly making our way through the seasons on Netflix (season 12 presently, phew). Last week, one of the episodes featured a patient who was about to receive the news of being cancer free, when Grey noticed that her port site was inflamed and infected. The patient had noticed the growing abnormality a few weeks beforehand but, hadn’t reported it to her team of clinicians. It ended up being too late to save this woman, and she died tragically (as they most always do in Shondaland) just hours before reconciling with her estranged son.

I had this metaphor moment! Port sites like this woman’s, ports that deliver medication for cancer patients, or that facilitate dialysis for patients with renal failure, brought to mind what the Apostle Paul describes as his battle with the Lord over the “thorn in his flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12. Port sites must be monitored very, very closely. It is not natural for us to have a foreign object just hanging out of our bodies, leaving us with a perpetually open wound. Port sites get infected notoriously and are often as much the cause of medical hardship for patients, as their original conditions. But, when they are monitored closely and proactively, they are the conduit by which life-saving measures may enter our bodies and do their work. So it works, both literally with a thorn or splinter, that must be removed immediately for risk of infection, and figuratively as the thorn in Paul’s flesh functions to remind him moment by moment of his weakness, of his need for the Lord’s salvation. When Paul is otherwise healthy, this thorn, this port, serves as his reminder to turn consistently back to the source of his life-saving grace. When ignored, the very thing that could bring us consistently to the well of living water, could be what destroys us.

First of all, I would just like to note (completely outside, well, mostly outside of the majority context of this post), that God can and literally does use A N Y and E V E R Y T H I N G to speak to us and speaks in a language that we can understand. There are few ways by which I have felt God’s specific love for me more than when something about the gospel and our life of faith clicks for me in the context of learning about the human body, or through some super tangential etymological adventure. Please just know that you are loved deeply by the God who created you, and that God quite literally moves mountains to meet you where you are, and in a context that makes sense to you. God created you, knows who you are more than you do, has planted within you the things that interest and excite you, and desires to speak through those things!

Annnd back from the rabbit trail.

About a year/year and a half after our girls were born I noticed that I was struggling a great deal with anxiety. I have always been, what I like to call, high strung, a bit obsessive, methodical, passionate. In many ways those tendencies had served me well, leading to many of the moments in my life that I might refer to as successes. But, this felt more extreme, more debilitating, more compulsive, and I was experiencing physiological symptoms for the first time that I could remember being directly associated with this particular state of mind. I had a panic attack. I felt my heart rise in my chest, my chest tightened…breathing became difficult, and tears began to pour. It was the first time ever in my life that I had felt utterly out of control. It lasted for what felt like forever, but it was probably 20-30 minutes before my breathing had settled down and the tears stopped flowing. But, the tightness in my chest remained through the night. I woke up the next morning to my deeply concerned husband, a migraine, and fatigue like I had never experienced (even after having made it through the first year with twins). I called out from work, citing a migraine (I had the paid time to cover it, and no particularly important meetings that day, so my supervisor thankfully asked for no more explanation). I spent that day trying to figure out what in the world was wrong with me, and what in the world I was going to do about it.

I finally decided that I needed to seek out a counselor (that process in and of itself felt overwhelming enough to make me want to just stay in bed forever…I hate that it’s this way). A friend offered a recommendation, and I figured that I would start there and hope for the best, and I am so thankful it worked out well.

There were so many things going on for me in that season… I was a new parent…to twins! There were so many ways in which I had felt like the Lord had freed me from my perfectionist ways in the years preceding parenthood, only to discover a whole new universe of ways to potentially screw up. I was paralyzed day after day with fear that every choice would have dire forever consequences, that every missed opportunity to discipline appropriately would lead to bratty children with no sense of accountability or personal responsibility, or that every too harsh word would lead to children who struggled with self-esteem and would develop an array of super unhealthy habits to meet those needs, or that every "good job" would lead to kids who were attention-seeking and eager to please in all the worst ways, and who would believe that my love was contingent upon their performance, and that every time I needed them to wait for my attention while I tended to something else would lead to kids who felt undervalued and unimportant, and the list goes on…and on. I think, though, that at least to some degree, this is normal.

I’ve shared in a previous post that I was simultaneously struggling to “find myself,” or to at least not lose myself in my relation to others, as someone’s wife, and someones' mother. I struggled with feeling like I was falling short of completely made up expectations.

We were in leadership in a ministry context that strained our marriage relationship a great deal, and as a result of our position in leadership, it was incredibly lonely, as I wasn't able to share much about those dynamics with the people I spent the most time with, including my immediate family who were members of the church. It was a context within which I felt unvalued as a woman, and felt crushed deep down to my soul as the only black woman in a white evangelical space. We arrived in this context not knowing that just a few short weeks afterwards Michael Brown would be gunned down on the streets of Ferguson, not knowing that the years that followed we would have to watch this scene (not new by the way) over and over and over again, and be in the position of explaining our humanity, and why death is not an appropriate consequence for jaywalking, or theft, or legally owning a gun and complying with officers’ orders, or asking for help when your car breaks down, or having a mental breakdown. Of having to endure endless, though at least mostly well-meaning questions about all things related to race and systems, of having to skirt white fragility and stand our ground and appeal to our common ground of Scripture as the only validation of our lived experiences. And then we got to live through the rise of Trump as the face of the Republican party and navigate relationships with friends who sincerely believed that they could divorce his platform from its pretty overt implications of his views of my inherent worth as an image bearer, and that of my husband and children, and family members and friends, and the people in our community, and who thought my strong feelings on the matter were overly dramatic, and too personal, and me just pushing a political agenda. And then there were the friends who were just indifferent, who basked in the privilege of being "apolitical" in such a moment as this one. And to do the work of loving folks, fighting to love genuinely, while feeling at best misunderstood, and at worst unloved, in return.

I had never thought of myself as an idealist. I've always actually had quite a good perception of what's not quite as it should be. But, you can't know what's wrong unless you have an idea of what's right. Ironically, the gospel, and this picture of new creation and all that is possible, contributed daily to my battle against depression, as I stared at so many things that were less than what they could be. My unhealth meant that that holy discontent, that fire that could be harnessed for Kingdom change, ate away at me instead, and drove me deeper into despair. I could understand why Jesus was referred to as a man of sorrows. I could not understand how he was described as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.

And so, I don’t know what thing it was in particular. It was probably just all of the things. But, I was broken. And on top of being broken, I was hanging on to a faith that, in practice was disappointing me left and right, and that I also believed told me that depression and anxiety are sin, and that if I were a better Christian, I’d be doing ok. After all, Scripture does tell us to be anxious for nothing, right? On top of all of the miserable feelings of failure and sadness and frustration, I heaped on the shame and blame mercilessly.

A super dear friend from our time in Bethlehem who knew about my struggles recommended a specific podcast episode on depression and anxiety to me from the God Centered Mom podcast. The women spoke about anxiety, in particular, presenting often in one of two ways: situational anxiety or chronic anxiety. The one woman used this phrase about thoughts “nesting” rather than coming and going, but rather making their home, invited or otherwise, and birthing new thoughts, as this cyclical process that can consume us (hence the name of my blog 😉). It was the first time that I had ever thought back over my childhood with this lens and I began to see young me, consistently consumed by, obsessed with, one thing or another. I remember going on a cursing spree in 5th grade because my friends had started cursing, and I wanted to be cool like them. I remember the school year ending and summer coming, and being home by myself all day, making myself sick as I had to muster up the courage to “confess” my crimes to my parents because the guilt had wrecked me for weeks. I was convinced that I could not even look at them without this being resolved (parents who were certainly disappointed but, met me with a great deal of grace). It is amazing to me how these ways of thinking about the people in our lives, particularly our parents, and how they will respond to and receive us, and how we project these things onto God. As I listened to this podcast, I realized that I have always been anxious, and that anxiety has often fueled a depression of sorts, as the spiral has consumed me, that this is not new, it’s just different. And I realized that that means that I might always struggle with being anxious, that I might always be fighting to a degree against being consumed by depression and despair, that it may be hard-wired in me. One might think that realization would be in itself quite discouraging, but it was so F R E E I N G!

One of my consistent sources of disappointment over this season was waiting for this moment of “healing,” for this beautiful testimony I could tell people about how God had rescued me from this. And that moment kept not coming. In this moment I realized that this would be a journey, that it has been a journey. That this is likely (though the Lord could still miraculously heal me completely should the Lord choose) (one of) the thorn(s) in my flesh. That this is something that I carry with me, as a consistent opportunity to turn to the God who created and knows and loves me, and desires to be known by me in a particular way. If I am not diligent, it has the power to infect and destroy me, but by God’s grace, with proper care, it has the potential to be a conduit of living water.

For the most part, it has been the latter, though I still experience stretches of sickness. One of the ways that God has cared for me has been through people he has sent me to love me and be kinder to me than I tend to be to myself. My daughters who give me a hug and a kiss, and tell me “it’s ok mommy, I still love you,” after I’ve chewed them out and had to ask their forgiveness. My husband who, when I went home and shared with him the lightbulb I experienced after listening to the podcast episode, shared with me that in the midst of his frustration with not knowing how to help or be there for me that the Lord gave him this picture of the folks who lowered their sick friend through the roof to the feet of Jesus when they could not get in through the door (Luke 5, Mark 2). It says that Jesus saw their faith, the faith of this man’s friends on behalf of this man, and in response Jesus healed the man. Drew said that the Lord said to him very clearly, "you be those friends, you have faith when she cannot." So, Drew did what he knew how to do, and prayed for me consistently. And there are friends like the one who sent me the podcast, the one who referred me to her therapist, the ones who let me know that medication was not a shameful choice during the season in which it was really necessary, the ones who listened, the ones who were gracious when I could not see past my own nose, my parents who just loved me and did their best to help with the girls when I needed space.

I don’t have a tidy ending to this one. Fitting, I suppose. So, I’ll leave you with this:

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. 

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

 Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10

Check on your strong friend <3


Written by Genay Jackson
Genay has been stumbling after Jesus since about 8-years-old. She is married to her best friend and favorite person, Drew, a pastor, and together with their *soon-to-be* 4-year-old twin girls, Zora and Suhaila, and dog, Baxter, they are ministering in New York City. Genay graduated from Princeton University with a degree in English, and then earned a Master of Public Health from the University of Southern California. Genay has worked in the field of public health over the last several years and is deeply passionate about figuring out her place vocationally in the world of infant and maternal health, but this recent transition to New York City has also provided a lot of time for growth, reflection, regrouping, asking questions, wrestling...and writing again!