A Thorn In My Flesh

“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.” 

                                                                                                                                                                              — 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

These verses are some of the most perplexing in the Bible.  They are both specific and vague, and Bible scholars have disagreed on their meaning for centuries.

In my own life, they haunted me for decades.  (More on that later).

Thorns In The Bible

Thorns are mentioned several times in the Bible.  The first time they are referred to is in Genesis 3:17-18, where thorns are part of the curse given to Adam after the Fall in the garden of Eden.  Here thorns are associated with the results of sin. 

Jesus also mentioned thorns in the Parable of the Sower, where thorns grew up and choked the good seed.  Here the thorns are associated with the cares and anxieties of this world and the deceitful enticements of wealth.  The thorns end up making the seed unfruitful.

Then, of course, there is the crown of thorns which the cruel Roman soldiers wove for Jesus before He was crucified.  Some Bible scholars believe the thorns here represent mental and emotional suffering.  Isaiah’s prophecy that “by His stripes we are healed” then refers both to physical disease and mental illness.

What did Paul mean by “a thorn in my flesh”?  Some say it is a reference to a physical ailment or condition.  Others think it refers to a person or people who opposed Paul and his ministry.  The website www.gotanswers.org comments, “Many explanations have been put forward, but whether Paul is referring to a physical, spiritual, or emotional affliction– or something else entirely– has never been answered with satisfaction.”

It goes on to add, “The exact nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is uncertain.  There is probably a good reason that we don’t know.  God likely wanted Paul’s difficulty to be described in general enough terms to apply to any difficulty we may face now.  Whether the “thorn” we struggle with today is physical, emotional, or spiritual, we can know that God has a purpose and that His grace is all-sufficient.”  I think this is a good explanation.

I found some additional fascinating insights in an article by author and Bible scholar Rick Renner entitled “What Was Paul’s Thorn In The Flesh?”

Renner writes, “The word thorn is the Greek word skolops, a word used to describe a dangerously sharp, spiked instrument or tool.  However, this word was also used to describe the stake on which an enemy’s head was stuck after being decapitated.  The word skolops gives the impression that this thorn was excruciatingly painful.”

Let that sink in for a moment.  When Paul referred to “a thorn in my flesh,” he wasn’t addressing a minor irritation.  This was life-dominating pain, a major issue that hampered him and his ministry.  God had a plan and a purpose for Paul, and Satan was seeking to stop that through this “thorn”. 

The word translated as torment in the NIV is translated buffet in KJV.  Renner comments, “The word buffet is the Greek word kolaphidzo, a Greek word that comes from the word kolaphos, a word that describes the fist or knuckles.  When it becomes the word kolaphidzo, as Paul uses it in 2 Corinthians 12:7, it refers to beatings with the fist.  The Greek tense describes unending, unrelenting, continuous, repetitious beatings.  This means Paul is not telling us of a single event, but of a series of many events.”  In other words, the pain of this thorn in the flesh was ongoing.

A Thorn In My Flesh

I can relate to Renner’s description, because all my life I’ve had a thorn in my flesh.  I didn’t understand it for a long time, and the confusion I felt created tremendous emotional distress.

I’ve written in previous posts about how I came from a background of bullying and abuse.  As a result, I grew up with a very poor self-image.  It got so bad that early in my high school years I removed the mirror in my bedroom and hid it in the basement, because I couldn’t stand seeing my reflection.  I’d keep my head down whenever I washed my hands, and avoided looking in mirrors as much as possible.  My self esteem was so low, you’d need a shovel to scrape it off the floor.  It’s not surprising that this developed into deep depression.

Thankfully I got saved at age 18 during the Jesus People movement (what Time magazine called the “Jesus Revolution”).  God began working on the mess that was me, but it was a very slow process.  (I once asked a counselor why it was taking so long, and he replied, “If God fixed everything that was wrong with you instantly, you’d probably die from the shock.”)

Some things began to change.  The recurring nightmares that had plagued me throughout adolescence stopped, and the depression decreased.  But I still had this thorn in the flesh, and I did not feel secure in my salvation.  The pastor I had at the time would frequently talk about backsliding in his sermons, and this left me with fear and uncertainty.  I believed this thorn in the flesh was something God hated, and that I needed to get rid of it.  But all my efforts were fruitless.  It seemed to be a part of me that only God could remove.

I always puzzled over Paul saying, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.”  Only three times?  That sure didn’t make sense to me.  

In my research for this article, I came across an interesting statement by Dane C. Ortlund in the ESV Expository Commentary:  “Three times likely means Paul pleaded with the Lord to exhaustion.  He did not make the request more than twice but fewer than four times.  Rather, it was a complete, comprehensive, full request.  He did not ask timidly or passingly.  The very verb he uses, “I pleaded” (parakaleo), not simply “I asked,” already makes this clear.”

That makes more sense.  I know I asked God A LOT MORE than three times!  You may find this hard to believe, but I spent decades– yes, you read that right, decades– asking God to take my thorn in the flesh away.   I begged, I cried, I did everything I knew to do.  I threw myself into the work of the ministry in an effort to show Him how serious I was.

I couldn’t understand why God would say NO to this.  Didn’t the thorn put my salvation in jeopardy?  Couldn’t He see how it tormented me?  Why did He answer other prayers but not this one?

Eventually I stopped asking.  For a while I fought my anger towards God.  It was hard to admit I felt He had failed me.

The Truth About Thorns

But God hadn’t stopped working.  Gradually I began to see that my thinking was all wrong.  I began to understand that this thorn was not really a part of me.  It wasn’t who I was.  What I was experiencing was a battle with temptation.

When I began looking at it that way, God’s answer finally made sense.  Nowhere in the Bible does God say He will remove temptation from us.  Rather, 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind.  And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”

God was not expecting me to get rid of the thorn; rather, He would provide grace to live with it, and the power to say no to temptation.  That put my struggle in a whole new light.  When He says “My grace is sufficient for you,” what God means is “I am sufficient for you.”

Dane C. Ortlund wrote, “Paul saw two ways forward.  The Lord could (1) remove the thorn, and Paul could get on with life and ministry, or (2) leave the thorn, and Paul would be forever crippled and slowed in life and ministry.  The Lord responded with yet a third option:  (3) leave the thorn, but give Paul grace.”

Seeing my thorn in a new way also brought about a change in my beliefs regarding salvation.  My fear about losing my salvation because of this thorn was unfounded.  The reality is that I received a new identity when I was born again.  I am a child of God, and I am His forever.  This is why Paul could write, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

I suffered for much of my life because I was confused about who I was.  I did not understand my identity in Christ.  I see many people around me, including many Christians, who struggle with all sorts of problems because they have the same confusion.  I still have that thorn in the flesh, but I am no longer dominated by it.  I recognize it for what it is, and I recognize myself for who I am.  My heavenly Father will never reject me, as so many others did.  He is there for me always, giving me strength and stability and security.

You may have noticed that I did not identify my thorn.  That’s intentional; I’ve decided to follow Paul’s example.  It really doesn’t matter– a thorn in the flesh can be anything, any struggle or addiction.  Perhaps you also have a thorn in the flesh.  Please know that it does not have to  keep you from God’s forgiveness.  There is freedom when you discover who you are, and whose you are.  I am now living the transformed life.  You can, too.

 

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2 thoughts on “A Thorn In My Flesh”

  1. Another great revelation and post Tim. Thank you.

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