A Thorn in the Flesh
Thorns are prickly, sharp, pointy objects that inflict pain on those who brush up against them. They look menacing and make you think twice about picking a berry or plucking a rose. Can you imagine getting one lodged deep into your foot or hand? It would be extremely painful!
Figuratively, Paul had a thorn in the flesh. It caused him constant pain, but he never complained. In fact, this is the only place in the entire Bible that we read about it. Outside of II Corinthians, Paul never mentions it. But why didn’t Paul tell others about it more often? Why did he only share this bit of information with the Corinthian church? Let’s find out!
“I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. … On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses—though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 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.”
~II Corinthians 12:1, 5-7
Throughout the book of II Corinthians, Paul has been defending his ministry, defending his calling, and defending his God-given authority. We’ve seen many different lists of accomplishments and qualifications of Paul’s apostleship or as he called them “boasts.” But now as we near the end of the book, Paul writes the Corinthians this poignant message. He continues to boast not about successful ministry ventures or trials survived, but rather about his weakness and the daily struggle he faces with a thorn in the flesh.
Many Bible scholars and commentators speculate about Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and while they give reasonable suggestions, at the end of the day, we don’t really know. Paul didn’t tell us, and we really don’t need to know. The purpose of this revelation was to reveal God’s power and that He was the one who is working through Paul. It wasn’t that Paul was so great or successful in and of himself but that God was working through Him.
Note the reason for Paul’s thorn: to keep him from becoming conceited. Paul was a sinful human being just like you and just like me. He was prone to pride and self-importance because of all God was doing through him. So to keep him from becoming overly puffed up, God allowed Satan to plant a thorn in his flesh. Now notice, this thorn was not from God. Paul writes that it was “a messenger of Satan to harass me,” but God did allow Paul to experience it. We’ll learn more about why God allowed this next time. But in the meantime, let’s take a closer look at this “thorn in the flesh” Paul needed to deal with each day.
The Greek word for flesh used in this passage literally means, “flesh (as stripped of the skin), i.e. meat.” While this may sound kind of gory and gross, the point I’m trying to make is that this was no superfluous, sliver-type issue. This thorn figuratively dug deep, under the skin, and into the muscle. It was extremely painful, chronic in nature, and not easily assuaged or relieved. Yet, Paul continued to traverse the known world sharing the gospel with anyone who would listen. He didn’t quit the ministry or abandon the calling God gave him. He was faithful to the end and did not share this daily burden with the public except for this one place in Scripture. And then when he does reveal his thorn, he shares it as a boast. What an example!
So what about you and me? Do you have a thorn in the flesh—difficult people, situations, physical ailments, chronic problems, a painful relationship? If so, what is your response to it? Are you complaining to everyone you know about the thorn or thorns in your life, or are you allowing God to use them in your life to build character? When you do share the issues or struggles God has allowed into your life, do you do so with bitterness or with thankfulness?
As we faithfully walk the Christian life and pursue the work God has set before us, we will experience thorns. Some may be temporary while others may last a lifetime. But through them all, we should remember Paul and the thorn he dealt with daily and his humble response to what God had allowed into his life. We may never understand the why behind life situations and circumstances, but we can trust God through them all.
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