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A Thorn in the Flesh.

The nature of Paul's "thorn in the flesh" ( 2Corinthians 12/7) has tantalised  students and scholars alike from the time Paul first used the expression. Because there is no clear identification or description of this 'thorn', many people over the intervening years have been unable to resist the temptation to supply their own explanation of what Paul was referring to when he used that expression.

Those explanations have covered a range of possibilities; from having a ring of  truth that provokes a response of  "It could well be that you are right" to those that warrant nothing more than "Don't be so ridiculous!!"

I'm not so much interested in the exact nature of this 'thorn' but my interest is in some other questions that arise out of this passage (2 Cor 12:6-9)

 I have plenty to boast about and would be no fool in doing it, because I would be telling the truth. But I won't do it. I don't want anyone to think more highly of me than what they can actually see in my life and my message, even though I have received wonderful revelations from God. But to keep me from getting puffed up, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from getting proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, "My gracious favour is all you need. My power works best in your weakness." So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may work through me.

Here are my questions.
a. What was this 'thorn'? (Yes, I'd like to know that, too!)

b. Paul said it was given to him. Who gave it to him - God or Satan?

c. If we say it was given to him by God, how can Paul call it a "messenger from Satan"?
d. How can the purpose of this 'gift' be "to torment me and keep me from getting proud."?

More than answers to any of these questions, I want to know how Paul could make the shift from begging God on at least three occasions to take the 'thorn' away to boasting about his weaknesses.
Let me comment on each of these questions.

a. What was this thorn?
Many are convinced that this 'thorn' was a problem with his eyes that began when he was struck down by a blinding light from heaven on the Damascus Road (Acts 9).  Actually, this idea appeals to me. It wouldn't be the first time that an encounter with God left the person with a physical disability.
In Genesis 32/22-32 we read about Jacob encountering God in a strange way. Out of that struggle Jacob walked with a limp. Maybe that was Jacob's 'thorn in the flesh'??

In Galatians 6/12 Paul writes this cryptic comment
Notice what large letters I use as I write these closing words in my own handwriting.

I assume that comment made sense to the Galatian readers; it doesn't make sense to me. But if it is a reference to a sight problem, then that fits the ophthalmic theory!!

For my part, I'm glad that Paul's thorn was never described in the Scripture because it allows the application to be more of a general principle than a detailed practice. So I am not too fussed that we don't know the exact nature of the thorn.

b. Paul said it was given to him. Who gave it to him - God or Satan?
For some people, the suggestion - the very idea!! - that there was some kind of divine/demonic contract agreed upon by God and Satan is unthinkable to the point of being anathema. I'm not sure how such people deal with a number of Biblical incidents where that kind of contracting seems to occur.

Consider Job. If I was Job, I would consider the discussions that took place between heaven and hell to be little more than wheeling and dealing of a cosmic kind! Satan secures God's permission to get on Job's case...and the rest, as they say, is history.

Consider King Saul. Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him. (1 Sam 16:14 NIV). Wow!! Let that verse rattle your theology. Actually, there are a number of similarities between what happened to King Saul and what happened to the Apostle Paul.

Consider Peter. Just when you were about to point out that those two examples were from the Old Testament, we turn to the New Testament and read this:

"Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to have all of you, to sift you like wheat.  But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen and build up your brothers."  (Luke 22:31-32 NLT)
It sounds to me like this: Satan has asked permission to put the disciples through the mincing machine and permission has been granted. Here it is again! A deal between heaven and hell.

Consider Jesus.  "Then Jesus was led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted there by the Devil". (Matt 4:1 NLT). This statement is so clear as to be disturbing. There was cosmic interaction at work here and Jesus is right in the middle of whatever was going  on. This contest had the potential to disqualify Jesus from being the saviour of the world. Yet it seems to have been orchestrated between the Holy Spirit and the devil. Go figure!

 In the light of these instances, the only conclusion I can reach is that Paul's thorn in the flesh was given to him by God which, in turn, gave permission to the devil  to have a limited involvement and influence in the outworking

c. If we say it was given to him by God, how can Paul call it a "messenger from Satan"?
The same question might be asked about Job...about King Saul...about the sifting of the disciples...about Jesus' temptations. In fact, in King Saul's situation it is specifically stated that the evil spirit from the Lord "tormented him" - just so with the New Testament Saul.

I was raised on the theology that God never uses unclean vessels to do His work. In light of these examples to the contrary (and quite a few others), it would seem that my theology needs revision.
I can only say that the answer to this question lies somewhere in the reality that God is sovereign over all creation - including fallen creation - and He can (and does) use whatever pleases Him.

d. How can the purpose of this 'gift' be "to torment me and keep me from getting proud."? I can only assume (and that's what this is, an assumption) that Paul knew his propensity to become proud which, in turn, would become his downfall. I think the word "torment" in our language has connotations for us that go beyond what is meant here. This "messenger from Satan" (this thorn in the flesh) had just enough freedom to keep Paul a little off-balance and to remind him of his own weaknesses.
That being the case, Paul adopts a whole new posture towards his weaknesses. Before this revelation from God about His grace, Paul begged God to take it (this thorn) away. Now that he understands its purpose and how God can do much more in and through him because of this dynamic called grace, Paul boasts in his weakness rather than beg for it to be removed.

At the beginning of these observations, I set this as my main concern:
I want to know how Paul could make the shift from begging God on at least three occasions to take the 'thorn' away to boasting about his weaknesses and welcoming the presence of that thorn in the flesh.

The answer to my question seems to be one word, "GRACE". If I may offer my 'translation' of what I believe God was saying in response to Paul's begging for its removal.

My empowering presence is all that you need to let this thorn accomplish the purpose for which I have given it in your daily experience. My power and my glory are best seen in your weakness, not in your strength. Which would you prefer, human strength obscuring my power and glory or human weakness magnifying my power and glory?"

That might be a good note on which to conclude these reflections. I will be delighted if I have done nothing more than stir up some hunger within you to pursue this hunger




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