Why did God allow the enemy to put a thorn in Paul’s flesh? What was the thorn?
When I think of a thorn, I picture something like a rose thorn, prickly and sharp, the kind of thing you unexpectedly encounter under the guise of something beautiful. “In the flesh” then takes me to visualising that same rose thorn, being stabbed into someone’s abdomen. Not life-threatening, but very painful and temporarily limiting.
That’s in the literal sense. Obviously, Paul is speaking figuratively here, but the impact is the same. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is something he’s been saddled with – pain, suffering, hardship – something that limits him in some way. Paul doesn’t tell us what his thorn is and the details probably don’t matter.
The question is, why would God allow such a thing in Paul’s life? Why allow the pain and the suffering? Wouldn’t it slow Paul’s momentum, making his ministry less effective?
Then I remember Paul’s statement before he mentions the thorn in his flesh. He admits that he was receiving extraordinary revelations from God. These revelations were so great that they could easily be cause for him to boast in his gift. Paul had every reason to boast in this ability, for no other person received such divine revelations at the time. But we know what pride leads to…
“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18
I believe God didn’t want that for Paul. Paul was at the height of his ministry, bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles (non-Jews). It’s because of Paul’s ministry that the gift of salvation is available not only to Jews, but also to you and me.
So what did God do? He allowed Satan to put a thorn in Paul’s flesh. Or in today’s terms, He allowed the enemy to give Paul a kryptonite – a serious weakness. Why? I believe it was to put Paul in a position where he couldn’t do it in his own strength but only by relying on God.
It all sounds a bit counter-intuitive by our human understanding. I mean, if one human did something like that to another human, it would be considerably wrong. On so many levels. But we’re talking about God Almighty here, the Creator of the heavens and earth! The way He works rarely makes sense by our limited human thinking.
Think of it this way – Paul’s mission, his purpose, was to preach the Gospel. To lead people to Jesus. Now, if he shared his earth-shaking revelations and took all the credit for himself, where would that have led? To followers of Paul rather than followers of Jesus Christ. Paul’s weakness, the thorn in his flesh (whatever it was), kept him on mission – giving all the glory to God.
Paul pleaded with God three times to remove the thorn in his flesh. Why didn’t God do it?
This one was a tough pill for me to swallow. I know what it feels like to experience pain, suffering and grief, continually begging God to take it away, only to wake up to it again each morning. It isn’t God’s will for us to suffer, so why doesn’t He relieve us of it at our first request? Doesn’t the bible tell us that our God is gracious and compassionate?
“The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion.” Psalm 116:5
Yes, God is gracious and compassionate. It’s out of His grace and compassion that His desire to give us what we need is greater than His desire to give us what we want.
If you’re a parent, you’re likely to understand this more than I do! Maybe you’ve heard the constant pleas of your toddler, desperate for ice cream before breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No matter how much you want to see your child happy, with a grin as wide as their face as they lick their ice cream (momentarily satisfied), you know it’s not the best option for their long-term health. And maybe your short-term sanity (think of the inevitable sugar high before 8am)! You know you’ll eventually give them the ice cream, just not now.
I see God much the same way. As a loving Father who hears every prayer. He’s a Father who answers our prayers, it just might not be the answer we want to hear.
“For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer.” 1 Peter 3:12a
God heard Paul’s three pleas for the thorn in his flesh to be removed. This was God’s answer:
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9a
God not only gave Paul a reason for not removing the thorn in his flesh, He encouraged Paul to change his prayer. God wasn’t refusing to meet Paul’s request, He was waiting for Paul to change it to the right request. A request aligned to the will of God and Paul’s purpose on earth. A request for the Lord to strengthen him in his weakness rather than remove his weakness. So that God’s power would be on full display.
What does it mean to boast or celebrate our weaknesses? Isn’t that a bad thing?
“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 12:10
By the world’s definition, weakness is a bad thing. By Kingdom definition, as we read in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, weakness is an opportunity for God’s power to find its full expression. For God to get the glory through us. If God getting the glory isn’t cause for celebration, I don’t know what is! We were created to reflect God’s glory.
“…everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Isaiah 43:7
But that’s easier said than done.
It’s tough to celebrate your weakness when you live with it every day. It could be a speech impediment, chronic illness, loss, or disability – we all have our own version of a “thorn in the flesh” we are dealt with. And our greatest desire is for God to take it away from us so we can live our definition of a full life here on earth. Did you catch that? Our definition. Not God’s definition.
Ouch, I feel the conviction too.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10
What if, instead of asking God to take away our weaknesses, we instead gave them to Him? Allowing Him to use those weaknesses in a way that only He can. In a way that fulfills His purpose and in turn, enables us to live a full life by Kingdom standards.
What that life looks like is unique to each one of us.