I have a “thorn in the flesh.” I don’t like it. I often wish I didn’t have it. At times I am exasperated by it. It makes almost everything harder, daily dogging me as I carry out my family, vocation, and ministry responsibilities — nearly everything I do. It weakens me. I often feel that I would be more effective and fruitful without it. I have pleaded with God, sometimes in tears, for it to be removed or for more power to overcome it. But it remains.
No, I’m not going to explain what it is. The details aren’t germane to the point I want to make, and I think they would actually make this article less helpful. Because you have your own thorn in the flesh, or if you live long enough you’ll be given one (or more). Yours will be different from mine, but its purpose will be similar. For we are given thorns that significantly weaken us in order to make us stronger.
The Most Famous Thorn
We get the term “thorn in the flesh” from the apostle Paul:
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. (2 Corinthians 12:7)
“The most redemptive gift of pain in history was given to us through the most evil means.”
Paul’s thorn is among the most famous afflictions in history, and we don’t even know what it was. There’s been a lot of speculation over the years. Paul’s thorn could have been a physical affliction. This is plausible given all the physical violence and deprivation he endured (2 Corinthians 11:23–27), and some think he may have suffered from an eye disease (Galatians 4:15).
Or since he referred to his thorn as a harassing “messenger of Satan,” he could have been vulnerable to significant spiritual-psychological struggles. This is plausible given the cumulative trauma of violently persecuting Christians, then suffering violent persecution, living in constant danger as a Christian, and then living with daily “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28).
Or given the context of 2 Corinthians 11–12, his thorn could plausibly have been the “super-apostles” and false brothers constantly dogging him and wreaking havoc in the churches he planted (2 Corinthians 11:5, 26). Or it might have been something else altogether.
The fact that we really don’t know what Paul’s thorn was turns out to be both merciful and instructive to us. It’s merciful because, given the various possibilities, we all can identify with Paul to some degree in our afflictions. It’s instructive because what Paul’s thorn was isn’t the point. The point is what God’s purpose was for the thorn.
Sent from God’s Hand
Paul makes two amazing, and somewhat initially disturbing, statements about his painful thorn — in the same sentence:
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. (2 Corinthians 12:7)
The first amazing claim Paul makes is that God gave him his thorn. It’s clear from the context that Paul identified God as his thorn-giver, not Satan. And he understood that God’s purpose was to keep Paul humble and dependent on Christ’s power (2 Corinthians 12:9).
“God disciplines his children with affliction in order to protect them from having their joy destroyed by pride.”
Now, most of us can’t identify with the sorts of revelations Paul was given, and when we read the kinds of suffering Paul experienced (2 Corinthians 11:23–27), it’s probably safe to assume our thorns don’t pierce as deeply as his did. But God’s purpose in our thorns is similar.
Pride, in all its manifestations, is our most pervasive sin and the most dangerous to us spiritually. Anything God gives us to keep us humble and prayerfully dependent on him is a great gift — even when that gift causes us pain. And here we see clearly that God disciplines his children with affliction in order to protect them from having their joy destroyed by the sin of pride. Ponder that: pain can protect us from pain; redemptive pain can protect us from destructive pain.
But the second amazing claim Paul makes is more shocking: the redemptive pain God gave Paul to protect him from the destructive pain of his pride was delivered to him by “a messenger of Satan.” Suddenly, we find ourselves in an even deeper part of the theological pool. And given the ease with which Paul says this, he clearly expects Christians to be able to swim here.
Satan pierces us with a thorn from God? Yes. Does this trouble us? Does it trouble us that it didn’t trouble Paul? Paul feels no need to qualify or explain how God can give his child a redemptive gift of pain through an evil means. Why? Because this phenomenon occurs throughout the Bible. Paul knows his Old Testament like the back of his hand, and it has truths like this woven throughout it: “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). And he knows that the most redemptive gift of pain in history, the death of Christ the Lord, was given to us through the evilest means.
Our redemptive thorns also may be delivered by a satanic messenger. But we can know this: it will only be one more way that God “disarms the rulers and authorities and puts them to open shame” (Colossians 2:15). Our God is so powerful and so wise that he can work all things — including our satanically delivered thorns — for our good (Romans 8:28). Trust in this kind of sovereignty is what fuels our joyful, confident contentedness while experiencing the weakness and weariness of our affliction.
Pierced for a Purpose
Just like Paul’s, our thorns weaken us. Sometimes they are visible to others, but often they are hidden from public view, known only to those who know us best. And they are never romantic, never heroic. Rather, they almost always humble us in embarrassing rather than noble ways. They not only seem to impede our effectiveness and fruitfulness, but they also are more likely to detract from rather than enhance our reputations. Which is why we, like Paul, plead with God to remove them (2 Corinthians 12:8).
“Our agonizing thorns end up producing greater joy in us and ultimately make us more effective and fruitful.”
But this is the way our thorns have to be. Because if they were noble and heroic, if they enhanced our reputations, they would be of no help at all in guarding us from our pervasive pride. Which is why, as with Paul, God often answers our pleas for deliverance with a “no.” Because without the thorn, we would never experience that “[God’s] grace is sufficient for [us],” that his “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
This is the reason we have our thorns. They are weakeners that strengthen us. Without them, we would choose a weaker strength and miss experiencing the glory of God’s powerful grace and realize lesser joys as a result. It’s just one more wonderful kingdom paradox: our agonizing thorns end up producing greater joy in us and ultimately make us more effective and fruitful. The more we press into this paradox, the more we will say with Paul,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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 12:9–10)