A Thorn in the Flesh

Have you ever decided to walk in obedience, perhaps volunteering to lead a ministry, or deciding to give financially as the Lord is leading, or even stepping out in faith to obey a calling that takes you way outside of your comfort zone? Have you ever noticed that often a call to obey is immediately followed by opposition or immense challenges? For example, imagine you and your spouse agree to lead a marriage class for your church’s small groups ministry. Up to that point, everything was going along well in your marriage; you are on the same page with regard to your family budget, you are getting along well and enjoying life together, etc. Immediately upon agreeing to lead this class on strengthening your marriage, however, you find yourselves arguing and disagreeing enough to make a marriage counselor blush. Isn’t it strange how things like that happen as if on cue?

I once knew a dear, sweet wife and mother who stepped out in faith to begin a new job opportunity. On the first day of this new endeavor, however, she was walking out to her car and saw a long, slithering snake in the driveway blocking her exit. Immediately, doubt entered her mind. “This must be a sign from God that I am not supposed to start this new thing,” she reasoned. That’s a tempting thought sometimes, isn’t it? If opposition comes, it must mean that we are supposed to stop and go back to the familiar and comfortable. Our default position is to stay in the ‘knowns’ of life. Anything that rocks the boat must mean that we should stay tied to the moorings.

While participating in a Bible study several months back, I was struck with an idea that caused me to stop and take note. While studying about the life and ministry of Paul the apostle, we discussed the passages from 2 Corinthians 11-12. Here Paul is correcting the believers living in Corinth who had begun to follow false apostles, whose corrupt teaching had threatened to draw people away from the truth they accepted at their conversion and cause them to return to spiritual bondage. In order to defend himself against those accusing him of ulterior motives, Paul is describing the hardships and persecutions he had thus far endured on behalf of the Lord. Here Paul is speaking of himself in the third person. I like the way The Message Bible words this:

You’ve forced me to talk this way, and I do it against my better judgment. But now that we’re at it, I may as well bring up the matter of visions and revelations that God gave me. For instance, I know a man who, fourteen years ago, was seized by Christ and swept in ecstasy to the heights of heaven. I really don’t know if this took place in the body or out of it; only God knows. I also know that this man was hijacked into paradise—again, whether in or out of the body, I don’t know; God knows. There he heard the unspeakable spoken, but was forbidden to tell what he heard. This is the man I want to talk about. But about myself, I’m not saying another word apart from the humiliations. If I had a mind to brag a little, I could probably do it without looking ridiculous, and I’d still be speaking plain truth all the way. But I’ll spare you. I don’t want anyone imagining me as anything other than the fool you’d encounter if you saw me on the street or heard me talk. Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.

My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become. 2 Cor. 12:1-10

This is where it hit me: Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus) did not receive the ‘thorn in the flesh’ as this is often referred to, while he was acting as a soldier for Rome. It wasn’t while he opposed God; no, it was while he served God. It was while he preached.

You see, before Paul became Paul the apostle, he was Saul, the persecutor of the followers of Christ. Saul was present and oversaw the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of the New Testament (Acts 7:59). It wasn’t until after Saul had his incredible encounter with the risen Christ in Damascus (Acts 9) that Paul (the new name he was given) began to experience this thorn in his flesh, or handicap. No one knows exactly what this challenge for Paul was. Some speculate that it was a medical issue, like epilepsy, an eye condition, or some other ailment. Others believe it may have been some temptation or even a persistently aggravating person trying to thwart him. Any of these scenarios seem relatable, right? Who of us hasn’t faced illness, temptation, or annoying people who make our jobs miserable at times? I’m no Bible scholar, but since no one has a definitive answer to the question of what Paul’s specific “thorn” was, I have my personal theory.

Scripture records Paul as saying, “…so 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 Cor. 12:7). I recently learned that in Hebrew, the satan (pronounced “suh-TAHN”) is not the name of a particular being; rather it is translated as ‘the adversary,’ one who opposes or obstructs another. In Greek, it is more often translated as ‘the slanderer,’ one who accuses.

Taken in this light, I wonder if Paul’s thorn wasn’t a persistent, nagging reminder of who he was in his past, Saul, the cruel, unrelenting persecutor, one who captured new converts and returned them to Rome in chains, a Pharisee among Pharisees who looked on approvingly as believers were martyred. How often does the enemy remind you of your sinful past, pointing out your hypocrisy, your flaws, your grievous falls into temptation. I wonder if the thorn in Paul’s side was just a constant temptation to feel guilt and shame for who he used to be before his extraordinary encounter with the risen Christ. This seems reasonable to me because of God’s response to Paul’s three-time request to remove it completely from him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9).

God says He did not remove the thorn because doing so would have allowed Paul to depend on himself rather than leaning on God’s unmerited favor. It is when we are completely and utterly dependent on that grace, that favor that we do not deserve and could never earn for ourselves, that God’s power can have its full effect in our lives. Only then can we obey and allow God to work in and through us to complete His will.

So, friend, if you are stepping out in faith to follow Christ, if you are willing to take those first baby steps to obey His calling, be ready! There may be a slithering snake in the driveway. There may be major obstacles on the horizon. There may be an accuser asking you, “Who do you think you are? Remember who you used to be?”.

Take heart—- you are in good company! Yes, we have an adversary. But remember, we also have an Advocate in the person of Jesus Christ! His grace is sufficient for you.