A thorn in the flesh (part two)

[7] 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. [8] Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. [9] 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

In my last blog we looked at two of the interpretations of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. The first being a sexual weakness and the second being a psychological weakness or depression. There are other interpretations which we are going to consider this time.

So, some say that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was simply a reference to people who opposed him and his gospel. This is based on scriptures like,

[16] But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, [17] and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, [18] who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.

2 Timothy 2:16-18

Again in 2 Corinthians 11 where Paul’s opponents are spoken of as the servants of Satan (strong words),

[14] And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. [15] So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.

2 Corinthians 11:14-15

If this interpretation is correct then the thorn in his flesh is figurative or a metaphor and not referring to Paul’s physical body. However there is a much used phrase relating to a person who becomes a “thorn in the flesh.” I believe that Paul knew his opponents and would not have spoken so obscurely about them. Also he had already said that persecution for the Christian in ministry at that time was normal (2 Corinthians 4:7-15). We also know that the thorn in his flesh was received fourteen years previously, some eight years after his salvation. He had received opposition almost from the point of his conversion (Acts 9:23-30), it had always been there.

Again another interpretation is around the idea that God would afflict any of his children (but certainly not an obedient and faithful apostle like Paul) with a disease and then decline to answer their prayer for healing. This is mainly because we struggle with the idea that a disease or a lingering and painful physical illness of any sort can have a redemptive or sanctifying purpose or bring any good (Romans 8:28). In the end the simplicity of the text helps me, it was a physical pain in his body.

The interpretations continue! Another is that Paul had a speech impediment or a stutter. Paul does regularly say he was not the most eloquent speaker.

Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.

2 Corinthians 11:6

If he had a speech impediment, then we can assume it was there as a child, yet he clearly says in the text that the thorn came in response to his heavenly experience only fourteen years earlier.

For ease, let me list some of the other options you can find; epilepsy, malaria, gallstones, kidney stones, gout, deafness, tooth ache, rheumatism, earaches, headaches, sciatica, arthritis, conjunctivitis, and leprosy (he had the lot then!). Would you like to add your ideas?

So, I am going to have put my weight behind something. Maybe the idea that Paul’s thorn in the flesh has been interpreted and interpreted and interpreted over the years will bring us to the simple conclusion that there was great pastoral wisdom in Paul’s decision not to identify his thorn in the flesh. If he had been any more specific as to its nature, those who themselves had never suffered from the same affliction could easily conclude that the passage had no bearing on their lives. Also there could be an aspiring to have a thorn in flesh, a sort of get a thorn and get a ministry type of thing, the thorn giving authenticity!

But in leaving the door open, so to speak, concerning the nature of the thorn, each of us is able to identify with Paul’s struggle and to learn and grow from the way in which he surrendered to the sovereignty and sufficiency of the grace of God. The point being it was never the thorn that was the issue but this, 2 Corinthians 12:9 “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

It’s never the thorn, it’s always the Grace!