Beware of Satan’s Thorns:
Seven Ways the Enemy Weakens Pastors
By Stephen Lim
Here are seven strategies Satan uses to distract, harass, weaken, and destroy pastors and how to avoid them.
Why do certain members of my church disagree with my position on this issue? After all, I am spiritually more advanced, I defensively thought. This led to an energy-sapping clash in the church. Looking back, I now realize I had allowed one of Satan’s thorns to jab me.
As Satan opposed Jesus’ work on earth, he and the “spiritual forces of evil” oppose our efforts for God (Ephesians 6:12). He especially targets pastors. For in weakening them, he weakens the Church.
Be Aware of Enemy Strategies
As spiritual warriors, Paul urges us to stand “against the devil’s schemes” or strategies (Ephesians 6:11). To do so, we must first become aware of them (2 Corinthians 2:11). From the Bible, we discern four primary strategies the enemy uses against God’s people: attack, demonic influence, deception, and thorns (2 Corinthians 12:7). By these strategies, he seeks to distract, harass, weaken, or destroy believers.
This article focuses on seven thorns Satan uses against pastors. The sidebar, “More Enemy Strategies Aimed at Pastors,” summarizes three other strategies.
Thorns Distract and Weaken
Biblical scholars offer a wide range of interpretation for the meaning of Paul’s “thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, sent to torment me” (2 Corinthians 12:7). These include: depression, religious opponents, hazards of ministry, or a physical affliction such as an eye problem or epilepsy. One scholar suggests that the Bible may have purposely left the meaning undefined, so Christians can apply the concept to their circumstances rather than limit it to Paul’s particular problem.
The Old Testament indicates that “thorns in the sides” caused “trouble” for Israel (Numbers 33:55) and describes thorns as “painful” (Ezekiel 28:24). From our experience, when a thorn jabs into our flesh, it diverts our attention away from what we are doing. It causes pain and may diminish functioning. Accordingly, we understand a thorn in a pastor’s flesh is something Satan causes that can do one or more of the following: distract the pastor from God’s calling, cause pain in his or her body, or weaken his or her ministry.
Here are seven thorns and how to avoid them.
In 2 Corinthians 10–12, the apostle Paul speaks of the danger of spiritual pride that can arise from spiritual pedigree, the amount of suffering for Christ, and the revelations we receive from God. Other sources for pride include: our spiritual gifts, our ministry status, the successes God provides, and even our character. Assemblies of God pastor Richard Dortch admitted to pride because he possessed superior integrity.1
The following symptoms warn us of this thorn of spiritual superiority:
- Looking down on others we perceive as less spiritual, successful, or competent.
- Having little time for “little people,” preferring to hang around “important people.” After all, we are one of them. In contrast, Jesus had time for children, the nobodies of first-century culture.
- Using our position to use people to satisfy our ambitions — sanctified, of course, by calling them God’s will.
- Refusing to tolerate healthy disagreement or collaboratively seek God’s will. “Since I am spiritually superior, my vision is the correct one. End of debate. Besides, who are they to oppose God’s anointed?”
Spiritual pride results in factions and fights when others resist our supposedly superior wisdom. Loss of morale and commitment also occur, as people no longer feel the leader cares about them. Neither do they feel ownership of the vision that has become “the pastor’s goal” rather than “our God-given dream.” A sense of superiority also blinds us to our weaknesses. We all know pastors who have fallen as a result.
Avoiding the thorn of spiritual superiority requires spiritual humility. First, we have nothing except what God has given us — whether abilities, spiritual gifts, opportunities, or spiritual harvest (1 Corinthians 4:7). Second, we must recognize we cannot function without others (1 Corinthians 12). Third, Paul instructs, “In humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Finally, the Son of God modeled humility for us in His incarnation, suffering, and death (verses 6–11).
Shortly after I became the academic dean at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, I led the annual Faculty Retreat prior to the start of the school year. There, in my first statement to the professors, I said, “I’ve been dean for 6 days now. In this time, have I suddenly become smarter than you?” I wanted them to know that I did not plan to act from a position of superiority, but as a servant leader.
In our culture, pastors may possess abundant resources. Rather than relying on God who provides them, we can easily rely on our own resources instead. We may depend on personal assets: education, personality, experience, intelligence, communication and relationship skills, and leadership. Furthermore, we may have available dedicated members, skilled staff, a strong organization, finances, and state-of-the-art facilities and other resources upon which to depend. These give us the appearance of success, but they produce little of eternal spiritual value. Only as we truly abide in Jesus, fully dependent on Him, can we “bear much fruit” (John 15:4,5).
With few resources, however, we must rely on God. We see the explosive growth of the church in many parts of the majority world. There, churches often have minimal assets but great faith and dependence on God. They show us why we must avoid the thorn of self-sufficiency.
Paul prayed three times for God to remove his thorn. Yet God allowed His servant to continue suffering from a thorn of Satan. Why? So Paul would continue to depend on God. He told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8,9). Self-sufficiency so limits the work of God in our lives that Christ may allow us to experience a thorn so that we can avoid something more harmful.
Let’s take a brief look at other thorns.
“As pastor, it’s up to me to meet all the needs of my church. Furthermore, I must do everything I can to reach as many lost people as possible. So I must keep pushing myself.” With these attitudes, for over a decade I arose at 4:50 a.m. each morning without adequate sleep, so I could have devotions at 5 a.m. and put in a few hours of work before breakfast. Often, however, I spent unproductive days due to drowsiness.
While emergencies may require grueling hours, we function more effectively and creatively with adequate rest. My problem? For spiritually unhealthy reasons, I had taken on myself the responsibility of God’s ministry. He calls us to cooperate with His mission, not to assume its ownership and burden.
I finally heard God say, “Lighten up. You don’t have to save the world. Only My Son can do that. You are not the Savior; you are not even Superman. So take off your cape.”
I suffered from the thorn I now call the Superman Syndrome. Symptoms include fatigue and irritability, which grows into resentment — and eventually burnout. This results in our simply going through the motions in ministry or quitting entirely. Meanwhile we alienate our families by neglecting their needs along with our own.
During His ministry, Jesus never appeared stressed or anxious. He accepted the limits of the human part of His nature and appreciated the need for rest and restoration. He slept in a boat during a severe storm. Often He secluded himself for extended times of prayer. He also spent time with His friends: Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.
If Jesus realized His human limitations, how much more should we realize ours? To avoid the Superman Syndrome, we must remind ourselves of our humanness. Also we must remember that God calls us to cooperate with Him in His mission, not to take it over.
In his third try to tempt Jesus, Satan offered Him all the power, wealth, and glory of the world. All Jesus had to do was bow down and worship him (Matthew 4:8–10). The world also seeks to seduce us with its values and riches. The enemy tempts us to compromise. Sometimes we even have good motives. After all, we reckon, it will help God’s work if we have a greater position or reputation or building. In some cases this may be God’s will. However, are we allowing society’s values of higher, bigger, and more to seduce us out of God’s will for our ministries?
Curse of Comparison
The thorn of comparison is the opposite of spiritual superiority and even more common among pastors. Frequently it leads to discouragement and loss of enthusiasm and energy for ministry. We pour our hearts and efforts into the mission to which God has called us. Inevitably, we see others who have accomplished so much more. “He has a congregation of thousands. My church has only 200 members. Her facility has 30,000 square feet of space, 10 times the size of mine.” Comparison breeds or aggravates a sense of inferiority and leads to discouragement.
God tells Philip the evangelist to journey for days on a desert road leading to Gaza. Putting ourselves in his sandals, imagine what we might have thought upon arriving, Hmm, I don’t see any stadium in which to hold an evangelistic crusade. Where are the crowds? There’s nothing here but wilderness. I left a thriving spiritual harvest in Samaria to come here? What a waste of my time!
Finally, Philip comes upon an Ethiopian on the road and leads him to Christ. He may have wondered why he traded hundreds of conversions for just one person.
The Ethiopian returned to his country. He shared the gospel with his family and friends. Gradually they, too, came to faith. In turn they shared the gospel with others. This occurred through months and years, then generations and centuries. As a result, millions of Ethiopians are now followers of Christ. Philip had no access to the Internet, television, or even daily newspapers. Most likely he never realized the results of his obedience.
Philip’s story tells us that God calls us to faithfulness, not to compare ourselves with others. Some He calls to gospel-resistant places for years of hard plowing and limited fruit. Others He calls to fields ripe for harvest with little effort on their part. On judgment day who will receive the greater commendation?
In Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14–30), the servant who invested the two talents entrusted to him by the owner and gained two more received the commendation, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (verse 23). Note that the servant who received five and gained another five earned the same praise (verse 21). No doubt, if the one who received one talent had invested it to gain another talent, he would have received the same commendation and reward as the others.
We need to reject the curse of comparison. This thorn demoralizes and weakens us. Let us faithfully obey God’s calling and leave the results to Him.
A basket of plastic fruit decorates my kitchen table. It looks like the real thing, but please do not try to eat it. Pastors often settle for what looks like real spiritual fruit but isn’t. The church at Sardis had “a reputation of being alive,” but they were spiritually dead (Revelation 3:1). Lasting conversions and believers growing as mature disciples are the important fruit of ministry (Matthew 28:19). Falling short of this, leaders often substitute the easier goals of adding attendees, programs, buildings, and increasing giving. These give us a reputation of fruitfulness, but they may not produce the eternal fruit God desires.
Pastor Walt Kallestad led his church to over 12,000 in attendance at weekend services. Finally, he admitted that they had success in “competing for market-share,” but failed in their mission because they “weren’t creating empowered disciples.”3 He determined to change his focus toward God’s missional call.
Settling for fake fruit enhances our reputation, but it leaves us empty-handed on judgment day. To avoid this thorn, we must focus on fulfilling the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.
If pastors are not careful, the greater the success they enjoy — the larger their congregation, and the louder the applause — the more they begin to think the rules do not apply to them. King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then covered it up by having her husband killed. Three of our past nine presidents had serious moral failures. Every few months the media publicizes the moral failings of another prominent pastor. Each of these individuals had apparently granted themselves an executive exception from God’s law.
To avoid the thorn of executive exception, pastors must first commit themselves to honor God’s law and act with integrity in every area of their lives. They will need the help of trusted others to discover the temptations to which they are most vulnerable. Also, they need to open their lives to these individuals and become accountable to them.
Beware Satan’s Thorns
The thorns I have discussed do not exhaust all the possibilities. Rather, I have exposed common ones that can distract pastors from God’s calling and wound their ministries. I confess I have allowed each of them to weaken my pastoral ministry. Thankfully, God’s Spirit has matured me through the years, and I have learned to beware of Satan’s thorns. With God’s enabling, we can resist every thorn of the enemy.
1. Richard Dortch, Integrity: How I Lost It, and My Journey Back (Green Forest, Arkansas: New Leaf Press, 1992), 312.
2. Adapted from Stephen Lim, “Overcoming the Superman Syndrome,” Ministry International Journal for Pastors, May 2002.
3. Walter Kallestad, “Redefining Success,” Fuller Theology, News, & Notes, Fall 2006, 6. Originally published in Leadership Journal.