In the Bible, the apostle Paul writes about suffering from a thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7) that caused him great distress. But what exactly was his thorn – and what meaning can we learn from it as Christians?
What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?
“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”2 Corinthians 12:7
A metaphorical expression, the precise nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is not specifically detailed in the Bible. This has resulted in much debate and speculation among scholars as to what or who was causing Paul such affliction.
However, here are two common explanations that people have proposed:
- Physical problems: Some scholars believe that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a physical ailment or disability, such as an eye problem, malaria, or speech impediment, among other guesses. Biblworld highlights how Galatians 4:12-16 may allude to Paul’s ‘thorny’ physical illness. Practical Faith also explores further possibilities.
- Spiritual persecution: More convincingly, other scholars believe that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a spiritual attack from Satan. This attack was likely carried out via a persecuting person or group of people who were hostile to his sharing of the Gospel.
These scholars point to the fact that Paul directly described his thorn as coming from a “messenger of Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7) – a Satanic angelos (ἄγγελος) sent to harass Paul.
Again, in light of the different views, we may never know for certain the precise nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh.
Why didn’t God remove Paul’s thorn in the flesh?
No one can say for sure what or who Paul’s thorn in the flesh was.
However, the bigger questions we can ask here are: why didn’t God, who is all-powerful, help to remove Paul’s thorn? Why did Paul have to endure Satan’s attack?
In the Bible, Paul wrote that he pleaded with God three times to take the thorn in his flesh away (2 Corinthians 12:8).
However, God answered: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
In response, Paul didn’t give in to his pain. Instead, he boldly declared: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
What did he mean by this?
Simply put, Paul chose to fully accept his weakness, caused by the thorn in his flesh. In so doing, he said it was hard for him to become self-conceited, since he was openly and unapologetically reliant on God’s superior strength, not his own (2 Corinthians 12:6-7).
In this regard, the very same thorn in the flesh intended by Satan to make Paul weak actually saved the apostle from the sin of becoming prideful about the “surpassingly great revelations” (2 Corinthians 12:7) God had shown him.
Thus, God allowed Paul’s thorn in the flesh to remain – not because He wanted to punish or shame the apostle – but as a perfect means of nurturing Paul’s humility and strengthening his perseverance “in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, and in difficulties” (2 Corinthians 12:10; see Romans 5:3-4), all for the sake of Christ and spreading the wonderful news of salvation to others.
What can we learn from Paul?
Like Paul, each of us has – or will eventually have – a troublesome thorn in our flesh, whatever its physical or spiritual form.
However, as Christians, here are a few things we can all learn from Paul’s chosen reaction:
1. Letting our weaknesses show God’s greater glory
Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a constant source of pain and suffering for him. Yet, despite this, he remained steady in his faith and continued to proclaim the Good News of Jesus.
His example teaches us that we too can persist in sharing God’s message, even amid challenges posed by thorns.
In short, we need not stand ashamed of or hide from our thorn-induced struggles. Instead, like Paul, we can flip the script by embracing our weaknesses as a means of showing others how God’s power alone is more than sufficient in sustaining our lives and spirits.
What is the “pride of life” (1 John 2:16)? Find out here.
2. Staying humble
God tasked Paul to do incredible things on earth, including writing much of the New Testament.
However, despite his big calling, Paul stayed humble and completely reliant on God. He didn’t wish to fall prey to idolizing his own strength, skills, or effort (2 Corinthians 12:7).
In the same way, we must learn that God at times allows us to live with thorns in our flesh. While we may not realise it at first, He does this for the sake of keeping us humble. This is an act of love and grace that ultimately keeps us from pride, saving us from walking down a path to self-destruction (Proverbs 16:18).
How many times was Jesus lashed by the Romans? Here’s the answer!
3. Submitting to God’s greater will
Paul begged God three times to remove his thorn. Yet, the Lord chose for it to remain in order to unfold His greater plans for both His kingdom and the apostle’s life (2 Corinthians 12:8).
Rather than mope about it, Paul accepted God’s decision, even going so far as to celebrate it.
This teaches us all a humbling lesson.
Sometimes, God allows certain thorns to enter our lives that just don’t seem to go away, despite our prayers.
This then presents us with a choice: either we start to feel sorry for ourselves, spiralling into self-pity… or we can learn to trust that, whatever the hard circumstance, God has a good and perfect reason for our suffering that transcends our immediate understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6). Jesus suffered, and so will we – and it is all for a greater heavenly purpose.
God will also give us the grace to endure our thorny trials, using them to strengthen our faith in Christ (James 1:2). Satan will not prevail.
4. Focusing on eternal things
Instead of caving in to persecution, Paul chose to delight in it.
Why? Because he knew that all of his suffering, caused by his thorn, served a far higher purpose beyond himself. Paul kept his eyes on the eternal glory of God, and the everlasting salvation of others.
Similarly, there will be times when our thorns truly test our patience and dampen our moods.
However, as Christians, we can rest in this greatest Truth: our earthly life is but a temporary affliction before our far greater reward of being with God in heaven, forever.
Thus, in all that we do, we must seek to stay focused on Christ and walk in His ways. Yes, we will surely face challenges that may cause us to stumble. But it is important for us to always get back up, keeping our hearts fixed on God’s eternal plan, of which none other can compare.