Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

I remember speaking to a man in church once who was telling me about an illness he had suffered with for many years. He believed in healing, and had even experienced a miracle in the past. For this particular illness however, he told me that it was his “thorn in the flesh.” Meaning God would not remove it from him.

I want to explore this today, and think about the interpretation of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Many have cited it as evidence for God not always healing the sick, or rather not always wanting to.

Let’s explore the text together and see what we can find out.

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. 10 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 (ESV)

Why did Paul have a “thorn”?

Before we investigate what this thorn might have been, let us consider why Paul was given such a thorn in the first place. What did Paul say?

To keep me from becoming conceited because of the exceptional nature of these revelations…

2 Corinthians 12:7a (ISV)

So we see that Paul’s thorn came to him to keep him grounded. He had received such deep revelations of God, that he needed some kind of anchor to humility. Imagine having the kind of revelation needed to write the vast majority of the New Testament – to be the person who noted down the very Word of God for the church! Imagine if that was you… would you stay humble?

Earlier on in chapter 12 of 2 Corinthians, Paul discussed an individual who was caught up to heaven. A man who actually visited heaven – whether in the body or out of it, not even the man knew. It turned out that this “man” was in fact Paul himself. So not only was he receiving such incredible revelation of God’s will and purpose, he also visited heaven! Astonishing!

We really need to understand this before we claim a “thorn” of our own. Few, if any, of us can claim to have received the depth of revelation that Paul did. We ought to be very careful about claiming the same limitations that Paul faced, without the responsibility that went along with it.

Who’s messenger was it?

It is also important to understand the source of this thorn. The text clearly states that this was a “messenger of Satan.” This thorn, whatever it was, came from the enemy. The text itself does not say that God sent the thorn, although of course you can read such an implication from it. At least, many will say God allowed this “messenger of Satan” if He did not send it Himself.

I make this point because we must not read what we think the Bible say, but rather what it actually says. Many teach and accept that God gave Paul a physical thorn, and thus in some circumstances, God will not heal. But it is difficult to obtain such an understanding from these verses – in my view at least.

The text does not clearly say if God did or did not “send” or “allow” this thorn, but it does say definitively that it was a “messenger of Satan.” Nothing good comes from the enemy, and we must understand he is a very real adversary who can wreak havoc in our lives if we allow him.

That is not to say that God cannot use hardships or difficulties to bring about His will or purpose in our lives, of course, He can. I would argue that He would not choose to do so if He had an alternative. I can learn that punching the wall really hurts and that I should not do it, but I can also learn that by instruction.

So then, what exactly was this “thorn”?

In the flesh

Many say that as Paul’s thorn was “in the flesh” that it was clearly a physical ailment. There can be no question surely, that this was anything other than sickness of the body therefore. In fact, some go as far as to say that this “thorn” was Paul’s eye condition. I discussed Paul’s sight last week, and so don’t necessarily believe that Paul even had an eye condition, let alone one God refused to heal. It seems more likely to me that the damage to Paul’s eyes was as a result of his stoning at Antioch, rather than an illness.

But are there any alternative views?

Think of this example. If I said to you that “work is a real pain in the neck at the moment.” How would you interpret that? Would you think I was saying that I had injured my neck in an accident at work? No, of course not! You would understand that “pain in the neck” is just a turn of phrase meaning “annoyance” or “frustration”.

Let’s say I’d written this to you in a letter, and someone was reading it 2,000 years into the future. If the phrase “pain in the neck” was no longer in common use, then the reader might struggle to understand my meaning.

This, in my opinion at least, is what is happening with Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”.

How can I evidence that? Can the phrase be found elsewhere in the Bible, and how is it interpreted?

Here is a verse from Numbers 33:

But if you fail to drive out the inhabitants of the land before you, their survivors will become irritants in your eyes and thorns in your sides, to prick your sides and afflict you in the very land in which you’ll be living.

Numbers 33:55 (ISV)

This verse is clear, and the meaning apparent. If you don’t drive out the nations before you, then they will become an irritant and “thorns in your sides.” We all understand this is not literal – the enemy nations would not turn into physical thorns and stick in the sides of the Israeli people! Instead, we understand this is a turn of phrase, and one Paul would have been familiar with.

Similarly, in Joshua 23, we read:

know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you.

Joshua 23:13 (ISV)

Again we see here an example of the same sort of phrase. A “Thorn in the flesh”, be it eyes or sides, is clearly meant to indicate an irritation or vexation.

So the thorn was…?

As I say above, it was clearly an irritation or frustration of some kind. The text doesn’t give much more detail than that, although it is my personal opinion that this thorn was in fact persecution.

Persecution would fit the bill because it is clear Paul was persecuted pretty much everywhere he went. He was arrested, whipped and imprisoned multiple times and nou doubt, as faithful as he was, was something hard to endure over and over again.

Paul did ask God to remove the thorn from him – three times in fact, and yet God did not. Why? Firstly, every believer (Paul included) was promised that while they were in the world, that they would have trouble (John 16:33). We should take heart knowing that Jesus overcame the world and its troubles.

Secondly, which is an extension to the first, is that God did not promise to remove persecution from us. As much as we would like it, I see no case in the Bible to suggest that we can simply pray persecution away – even with Paul’s faith and experience.

What does this have to do with the subject of healing?

In short, very little in my view. If it is your belief that Paul’s thorn was a physical illness, then I hope what I have said here at least gives you an alternative to consider.

If what I have said is correct, then actually Paul’s thorn has nothing to do with the ministry of healing and nor should it be used as a reason for “God not healing someone.”

Whatever irritations or “thorns” you are facing this week, I pray that they would be removed. And if not, like Paul, then I believe God’s grace is sufficient. Spend time drawing on that grace and being with God in whatever circumstances you find yourselves.

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