ARThe Thorn in the FleshWhat was Paul’s thorn, and why didn’t the Lord take it away despite Paul’s many requests? What are the lessons we can learn from it today?Just as the Lord did not take away Paul’s thorn, sometimes God may not solve the problems we face even after we have offered many fervent prayers. In these times, we should not lose heart but remember the purpose of our “thorns”--to make us even more humble and reliant on God. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.
—2 Cor 12:7-10
And lest I should
be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in
the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be
exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord
three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, "My
grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in
weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my
infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take
pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in
distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Many Christians are
familiar with this passage and you probably have your own interpretation of
these verses. Let’s examine this well-known passage again and study,
according to Scripture, what these verses mean and how they apply to our
What exactly was Paul’s
"thorn"? Many Christians interpret the thorn in Paul’s side as
some kind of physical illness that caused him suffering and hindered his
work for the Lord. Let’s evaluate this popular interpretation in light of
Paul’s character and his work for the Lord.
Paul had a deep
understanding of Christ’s love (Rom 8:35-39), suffered numerous beatings
for the gospel (2 Cor 11:25), and was even willing to die for the Lord (Acts
21:13). Once Paul was even stoned to the brink of death (Acts 14:19), and
yet he still continued to preach the gospel. Would such a faithful servant
truly ask the Lord to take away his physical illness? What kind of physical
illness caused him more suffering than what he had already experienced?
To understand the
meaning of the "thorn," we need to study the word in other parts
of Scripture. In 2 Samuel 23:6, David uses thorns to describe his
adversaries: "But the sons of rebellion shall all be as thorns thrust
away, because they cannot be taken with hands." A psalmist also uses
thorns to describe his adversaries: "All nations surrounded me, but in
the name of the LORD I will destroy them? They surrounded me like bees;
they were quenched like a fire of thorns..." (Ps 118:10-13)
Paul’s thorn was not
a physical illness but most likely his adversaries. What kind of adversaries
did Paul have? In Paul’s second epistle to the Corinth church, he refers
to these adversaries:
For such are false
apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of
Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an
angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also
transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be
according to their works. (2 Cor 11:13-15)
In the Corinth church,
there were false teachers who stirred up the people against Paul, attacking
his character (2 Cor 10:10) and claiming that he was unqualified as an
apostle of Christ (2 Cor 11:16-23). These deceitful workers obstructed Paul’s
ministry and caused him much spiritual suffering. These were the messengers
of Satan, the thorn in Paul’s flesh.
Paul pleaded with the
Lord to take away his thorn, not one but three times, because of the
obstruction to the Lord’s work. The Lord did not do so but instead said to
him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect
in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9).
What is this
"weakness"? Popular interpretation equates "weakness"
with sinful desire or the work of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21). If this is true,
then does this mean we must remain in sin in order to achieve perfection?
Should this be how we interpret "For when I am weak, then I am
strong" (2 Cor 12:10)? Of course not. Paul tells us, "What shall
we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not!
How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Rom 6:1-2).
In order to understand
the meaning of "weakness" in this passage, we again need to study
the word in other areas of Scripture. In 2 Corinthians 13:4, Paul writes,
"For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of
God?" This passage states that Christ was crucified in
"weakness," but this "weakness" surely does not refer to
sin, because Jesus was without sin.
To understand the
meaning of "weakness" in this passage, let’s refer to another
passage referring to Jesus' crucifixion. Paul writes in Philippians 2:8-9:
And being found in
appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point
of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly
exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name.
This passage states
that Jesus "humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of
death." God exalted Jesus because of His humility.
Putting these two
passages together, we see that Jesus "humbled Himself" to the
point of death and was "crucified in weakness." The
"weakness" of Christ therefore refers to the humility of Christ.
Using the same interpretation, then, the weakness in 2 Corinthians 12:9 is
not the work of the flesh, but humility.
A Spiritual Battle
Paul is describing a
spiritual battle in this passage. Satan used the false apostles of the
Corinth church to attack Paul because Paul remained humble despite the
abundance of revelations he received from God (2 Cor 12:7).
Paul recognized Satan’s
attack and asked the Lord to intervene and remove the thorn. However,
instead of taking away the thorn, God answered him, "My grace is
sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Paul
then began to understand God’s purpose for the thorn: it helped Paul
achieve perfection, making him even more humble and reliant on the Lord.
Satan wanted to make Paul fall, but God turned this adversity into a
blessing (Deut 23:5).
Many servants of God
also experienced similar "thorns" in their flesh in the midst of
spiritual battle. Jesus suffered a "thorn" in the form of Judas
Iscariot, His own disciple that would betray Him (Jn 13:21-26). Jeremiah’s
thorn was his fellow countryman, who mocked his prophecies and desired him
to fall (Jer 20:7-10). Job’s thorn was his three friends, whom he called
"worthless physicians" and "miserable comforters" for
persecuting instead of comforting him in his greatest hour of need (Job
Like Paul, we too may
encounter adversity and "thorns" in our flesh when we work for the
Lord. Sometimes our adversaries are those outside of the body of Christ, but
sometimes they are our own brethren, our friends, or even our family
It is often the most
difficult to bear when we face opposition from those close to us. We should
remember, though, that we are engaged in spiritual battle and our real enemy
is not those who oppose us, but Satan himself. Paul tells us, "For we
do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against
powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual
hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12). However, if we
do find brethren in sin, we should follow the Lord’s teaching and
encourage them to repent (Mt 18:15-20; Jas 5:19-20). This was also the main
purpose that Paul wrote the second epistle to the Corinth church (2 Cor
Within the body of
Christ, we should seek unity and peace. Paul encourages us, "…walk
worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and
gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love,
endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph 4:1-3).
According to the
passage above, important ingredients to keeping unity and peace within the
body of Christ are "lowliness and gentleness," or in other words,
humility. Paul encourages us not to do anything out of selfish ambition or
conceit, but "in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than
himself" (Phil 2:1-4).
Problems often start
when we start looking at others?faults and expect them to have the same
gifts as we do. This causes contentions, jealousy, outbursts of wrath, etc.
(2 Cor 12:20). We should recognize that everyone has different spiritual
gifts, and each one of these gifts is for the edification of whole church (1 Cor 12:7).
opposition we face may not depart from us even after we have offered many
fervent prayers, just as the Lord did not take away Paul’s thorn. But we
should not lose heart, and remember the purpose of the thorn: to make us
even more humble and reliant on God. God’s strength is made perfect in our
weakness. Therefore, we should take pleasure in reproaches, in needs, in
persecutions, in distress for His sake (2 Cor 12:9-10), and the power of
Christ will rest upon us (1 Pet 4:12-14).