Did Paul Really Have a Thorn in His Flesh?
James R. Aist
Speculation abounds concerning what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:1-10) actually was. Could it have been a literal thorn in his physical body, or a kind of demon that followed him around, or a person who doggedly opposed his ministry, or, perhaps, some sort of physical handicap, or none of the above, or something else entirely? At the end of this article I will provide links to a couple of online articles that will go much further into this specific question than I care to, if you want to go there. What I want to focus on here is the specific points of solid information that Paul, himself, provides in his letter concerning his “thorn in the flesh” and then to emphasize and elaborate briefly on the points that Paul was actually making, in the context of this entire passage. It’s important that we do not get so carried away with speculation about what his “thorn in the flesh” was that we lose sight of why Paul shared this personal experience with us in the first place. But first, let’s consider the basic nature of the phrase itself, to get us off on a proper footing.
What Is the Nature of the Phrase “Thorn in the Flesh”
Let’s begin by considering what a ‘colloquialism” is: it is a word, phrase, or expression characteristic of ordinary or familiar conversation rather than formal speech or writing, such as “She’s out” meaning “She is not at home.” “Thorn in the flesh”, then, is a colloquialism used to describe a chronic infirmity, annoyance, or trouble in one’s life. We can get the impression that Paul’s use of the phrase was also colloquial by consulting several Old Testament passages that use a similar phrase to refer to people who were, or would be, an annoyance or hindrance to the Israelites (Numbers 33:55; Joshua 23:13; Ezekiel 2:6; and Ezekiel 28:24). These people were enemies alright, but they were not literal thorns and they were not in the literal flesh of the Israelites! Thus, Paul’s use of the phrase “thorn in the flesh” is not to be understood to refer to a literal thorn or splinter residing in Paul’s physical body. But it does refer to some sort of chronic annoyance or hindrance in Paul’s life.
What Paul Actually Said about His “Thorn in the Flesh”
Here is the passage presented in its entirety, so that we can refer more easily to the relevant points that Paul makes:
“I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say,or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, 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 made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Now, so that we can quickly move on to the really important messages that Paul has for us, I’m simply going to enumerate what Paul said about his “thorn in the flesh”:
- It was given to him to keep him from becoming conceited because of the surpassingly great revelations that he had received from God.
- It was a “messenger of Satan”.
- It tormented him.
- Paul repeatedly asked God to remove it, to no avail.
- Instead of removing it, God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
And that’s all we really know about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” per se. So, let’s leave it at that and move on.
Paul’s Message to Us
Again, allow me to simply enumerate what Paul has for us here, with brief commentaries, so as to let his message points speak clearly to us:
- It was OK for Paul to ask that this “thorn in the flesh” be taken from him, as God did not admonish Paul for asking. Therefore, we, too, will not be asking amiss if we do the same, if and when we find ourselves in a similar situation.
- God had a blessing for Paul located, if you will, in the midst of his torment. In the same way, God may embed a blessing for us in the midst of a troublesome or painful situation or experience that He allows us to endure. We would do well to look for the blessing.
- The “thorn in the flesh” kept Paul from becoming conceited. Likewise, God will probably not hesitate to humble us, if and when we need it. If that happens to us, just remember to trust that God has a good reason for doing it, and don’t get discouraged.
- When Paul realized that God had a good reason for answering his prayer with a resounding “No”, he learned to rejoice in his dependency on God’s provision of strength and power, rather than to overestimate his own abilities and risk coming up short when put to the test. We can, and should, learn the same lesson by simply meditating on Paul’s account of his “thorn in the flesh.” Just maybe we won’t need a messenger of Satan to torment us!
(For more articles on BIBLICAL TEACHINGS, click HERE)
What was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh? At, “Truth or Tradition?” (click HERE).
Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh. Andrew Wommack Ministries. (click HERE).