The Point of Paul’s “Thorn in the Flesh”

thorns_thumb[1]I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon or reading a commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 in which the speaker or writer did not pause to speculate on what Paul’s thorn could have been. Somehow, the nature of this thorn seems important to us than it was to Paul, who chose not to reveal it. It is easy to get lost in a wild goose chase after theories and exegetical gymnastics that will help us uncover this thorn. But today, as I read through yet another reflection on that thorny passage, a thought crossed my mind: Our obsession with Paul’s thorn is a telling indicator of what we fear most about our own sanctification.

Consider these three famous speculations about the nature of Paul’s thorn:

1. Chronic Illness

Some scholars are persuaded that Paul’s thorn was a chronic illness. One of the indicative passages often used to support this is Galatians 4:13-14 where Paul says, “But you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself.” Now, think about this for a moment. If Paul’s thorn is his illness, then it means that his thorn is not a besetting sin. Those who hold to this “chronic illness” view of Paul’s thorn will inevitably be more frustrated by any besetting sins in their lives. They are persuaded that, of all the “messengers” that God would send to torment them, a besetting habitual sin would not be one of them. Such people find it difficult, if not impossible, to see God’s grace in the midst of their sinful struggles.

2. Poor Eyesight

Secondly, many who hold to the “chronic illness” view above also include Paul’s poor eye-sight as part of the thorn. But some only consider the eye-sight. Either way, both are health problems. The poor eye-sight view is supported by the very next verse in the aforementioned passage, Galatians 4:15, in which Paul continues, “where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me.” Paul is obviously alluding to his eye problem. This is supported by Galatians 6:11 where Paul brings to attention the effects of his poor eyesight, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” Either way, poor eye-sight, like chronic illness, is a thorn that is “happening to Paul.” It is not Paul’s fault. It is not because of any sin on his part.

3. Besetting Sin

However, those who hold the “besetting sin” view of Paul’s thorn tend to strike up more controversy. This is because, adhering to such a view may cause or encourage people to be comfortable in their habitual sins and strive less to fight such sins. “I just can’t stop masturbating, I guess that’s just my thorn,” or “I am sorry, but I just can’t stop doing drugs, I am addicted to them, that’s just my thorn. But God’s grace is sufficient.” This view of Paul’s thorn is usually supported by Paul’s self-examination in Romans 7:14-15, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” If Paul’s thorn was a struggle with sin, then that means that our thorn can be that too. The danger in holding this view of the thorn is evident. Habitual sins gradually get normalized and eventually stop being points of repentance.

The Point of the Thorn is Grace

All of these diverse views and speculations about Paul’s thorn have one common danger; they may easily distract us from the point of Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, GOD’S GRACE. The ultimate, take-home lesson in this passage is that God’s Grace is sufficient in our weakness. This is probably the reason why Paul did not see the need to specify which thorn he was talking about; he did not want us to be fixated on the thorn, but on the Grace of God. So, whether Paul’s thorn was a sickness, an infirmity or a besetting sin, the bottom line is that God’s Grace is sufficient. It is sufficient to help us live through the sickness and infirmity, and it is sufficient to keep us fighting that besetting sin. Whether in sickness or in sin, the point of grace is not to lead us to give up the fight, but to keep us fighting, with the hope and assurance of total victory. For this reason, I am persuaded that, in addition to the three times mentioned, Paul still continued to ask God to take away this thorn a fourth, fifth and sixth time.

“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”

[Ephesians 6:13]

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