A Thorny Topic

Much has been said and written about Paul's "thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7). We use the phrase like an idiom to describe every problem that annoys us, from in-laws to athlete's foot. But is that what Paul meant?

To determine whether or not our life issue is truly a thorn in the flesh, we have to look at the verse in context. Paul had just described an amazing time when he was "caught up into the third heaven and heard inexpressible words which a man is not permitted to speak." Jesus had revealed Himself to Paul, taught him spiritual truths, and given him an experience that would change him and the rest of history.

Then Paul writes, "Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me-- to keep me from exalting myself!

There are several crucial elements about his thorn in the flesh that don't apply to most of our issues. First of all, it was there for a specific reason. He had just encountered God in a way few had and lived to tell about it. Imagine the temptation to pride! Even if you don't want the pride, it will invade your private moments anyway. So God in His mercy granted Paul a weakness that would continually remind him that he was frail flesh, not the fourth person of the Trinity. It was given to him "because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations" and "to keep me from exalting myself."

Secondly, this "thorn" was a messenger from Satan. A messenger carries a message. God allowed Satan to deliver a continuous message to Paul through his own weakness. What message would keep him from exalting himself? His omission of the exact nature of the weakness is intentional. It may have been a physical abnormality, an overwhelming temptation, or inadequacy in a job God had given him. He may have had a speech impediment that made preaching arduous. Or poor eyesight may have made writing difficult. But we do know the message from Satan had to be something like this: "You are so weak. You are one step away from blowing it. No matter what God is doing through you, you know who you are. You are nothing. You struggle just like everybody else. Why would God choose you?"

And as difficult as that message must have been to hear, Paul knew he needed it to stay humble. We all need messages like that when God is doing great things through us. Our flesh longs to exalt itself. But if we truly desire God's best in our lives, we will embrace the "thorn" He gives us.

We are candidates for a "thorn in the flesh" when:
  • We have surrendered everything to God and desire to be used by Him for His plans.
  • We are filled with the Holy Spirit and choose every day to walk in His Spirit
  • God has revealed Himself to us in tangible, earth-shaking ways and we are changed by it
  • God has chosen us for a specific purpose to bring others into His kingdom
  • God has blessed our ministry and others notice it
  • We have a tendency toward pride
When those factors are present, God is merciful to us. He allows similar thorns in our flesh to keep us from exalting ourselves. The same Paul who wrote about his thorn also wrote, "...God chose the foolish things to confound the wise...that no flesh should glory in His presence." (1 Corinthians 1:29) His chief aim was the glory of God, even when struggling under the weight of personal weakness. The comfort God gave him has comforted thousands of others who struggle with thorns: "My grace is sufficient for you."



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