I was just reading 2 Corinthians where Paul talks about being afflicted with a thorn in the flesh. Do you remember that part? As a Jehovah’s Witness, I was taught that he was likely referring to his bad eyesight. I never liked that interpretation. It just seemed too pat. After all, his bad eyesight was no secret, so why not just come out and say so?
Why the secrecy? There is always a purpose to everything written in Scripture.
It seems to me that if we try to figure out what the “thorn in the flesh” was, we are missing the point of the passage and robbing Paul’s message of much of its power.
One can easily imagine the irritation of having a thorn in one’s flesh, especially if you can’t pluck it out. By using this metaphor and keeping his own thorn in the flesh a secret, Paul allows us to empathize with him. Like Paul, we are all striving in our own way to live up to the calling of being children of God, and like Paul, we all have obstacles that hinder us. Why does our Lord allow such hinderances?
“…I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me. That is why, for the sake of Christ, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10 BSB)
The word “weakness” here is from the Greek word astheneia; meaning literally, “without strength”; and it carries a particular connotation, specifically that of an aliment which deprives you of enjoying or accomplishing whatever it is that you like to do.
We’ve all been so sick that the mere thought of doing something, even something we really like to do, is just too overwhelming. That is the weakness of which Paul speaks.
Let us not worry about what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. Let us not defeat the intention and power of this counsel. Better we don’t know. That way we can apply it to our own lives when something afflicts us repeatedly like a thorn in our flesh.
For example, do you suffer from some chronic temptation, like an alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in years, but every day must fight the desire to give in and have “just one drink”. There is an addictive nature to sin. The Bible says that it “entices us”.
Or is it depression, or other mental or physical health issue?
What about suffering under persecution, like slanderous gossip, insults and hate speech. Many who leave the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses feel beaten down by the shunning they get just for speaking out about injustice within the organization or because they dare to speak the truth to once-trusted friends. Often the shunning is accompanied by hateful words and outright lies.
Whatever your thorn in the flesh may be, it can appear as if an “angel of Satan”—literally, a messenger from the resister—is plaguing you.
Can you now see the value of not knowing Paul’s specific problem?
If a man of Paul’s faith and stature can be brought down to a weak state by some thorn in the flesh, then so can you and I.
If some angel of Satan is robbing you of your joy of life; if you are asking the Lord to cut out the thorn; then you can take comfort in the fact that what he said to Paul, he is also saying to you:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.”
This will not make sense to a non-Christian. In fact, even many Christians won’t get it because they are taught that if they are good, they go to heaven, or in the case of some religions, like Witnesses, they will live on earth. I mean, if the hope is just to live forever in heaven or on earth, frolicking around in an idyllic paradise, then why do we need to suffer? What is gained? Why do we need to be brought so low that only the strength of the Lord can sustain us? Is this some sort of weird power trip of the Lord? Is Jesus saying, “I just want you to realize how much you need me, okay? I don’t like to be taken for granted.”
I don’t think so.
You see, if we are simply being granted the gift of life, there should be no need for such trials and tests. We don’t earn the right to life. It is a gift. If you give someone a gift, you don’t make them pass some test before you hand it over. However, if you’re preparing someone for a special task; if you’re trying to train them so they can qualify for some position of authority, then such testing makes sense.
This requires us to understand what it truly means to be a child of God within the Christian context. Only then can we grasp the real and wonderful scope of Jesus’ words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness”, only then can we get an inkling of what it means.
Paul next says:
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me. That is why, for the sake of Christ, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
How to explain this…?
Moses was ordained to lead the entire nation of Israel to the promised land. At the age of 40, he had the education and position to do so. At least he thought so. And yet God did not support him. He wasn’t ready. He still lacked the most important characteristic for the job. He couldn’t have realized it then, but eventually, he was to given godlike status, performing some of the most awe-inspiring miracles recorded in the Bible and ruling over millions of individuals.
If Yahweh or Yehovah was to invest such power in a single man, he had to be sure such power would not corrupt him. Moses needed to be brought down a peg, to use the modern saying. His attempt at revolution failed before it even got off the ground, and he was sent packing, tail between his legs, running for the desert to save his skin. There, he dwelt for 40 years, no longer a prince of Egypt but just a humble shepherd.
Then, when he was 80 years old, he was so humble that when he was finally commissioned to take the role of Savior of the nation, he refused, feeling he was not up to the task. He had to be pressured to take the role. It has been said that the best ruler is one who must be dragged kicking and screaming into the office of authority.
The hope held out to Christians today is not to frolic around in heaven nor on earth. Yes, the earth will eventually be filled with sinless humans who are again all part of the family of God, but that is not the hope which is being held out to Christians at present.
Our hope was beautifully expressed by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians. Reading from William Barclay’s translation of the New Testament:
“If then you have been raised to life with Christ, your heart must be set on the great realities of that heavenly sphere, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Your constant concern must be with the heavenly realities, not with earthly trivialities. For you died to this world, and now you have entered with Christ into the secret life of God. When Christ, who is your life, comes again for all the world to see, then all the world will see that you too share his glory.” (Colossians 3:1-4)
Like Moses who was chosen to lead God’s people to the promised land, we have the hope of sharing in Christ’s glory as he leads humanity back into the family of God. And like Moses, great power will be entrusted to us to accomplish that task.
Jesus tells us:
“To the victor in the battle of life, and to the man who to the end lives the kind of life I have commanded him to live, I will give authority over the nations. He will shatter them with a rod of iron; they will be smashed like broken pieces of pottery. His authority will be like the authority I received from my Father. And I will give him the morning star.” (Revelation 2:26-28 The New Testament by William Barclay)
Now we can see why Jesus needs us to learn reliance on him and to understand that our strength does not come from within, from a human source, but comes from above. We need to be tested and refined as Moses was, for the task before us is like nothing anyone has ever experienced before.
We need not worry about whether we will be up to the task. Any ability, knowledge, or discernment needed will be given to us at that time. What cannot be given to us is what we bring to the table of our own free will: The learned quality of humility; the tested attribute of reliance on the Father; the will to exercise love for truth and for our fellow human even in the most difficult of circumstances.
These are things we must choose to bring to the Lord’s service ourselves, and we must make these choices day in and day out, often under persecution, while enduring insults and slander. There will be thorns in the flesh from Satan that will weaken us, but it is then, in that weakened state, that Christ’s power works to make us strong.
So, if you have a thorn in the flesh, rejoice in it.
Say, as Paul said, “for the sake of the Christ, I delight in weaknesses, in insults and hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.