What was the mysterious “thorn in the flesh” the apostle Paul was given? Was it a physical ailment, a hostile person or an evil spirit that gave Paul grief?
Many have wondered what exactly Paul was referring to when he said in 2 Corinthians 12:7, “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” (emphasis added throughout).
Some Bible commentaries focus on the “messenger of Satan” in this passage as being the thorn that Paul endured. They speak of a demon or a human being under the influence of an evil spirit who “buffeted” [struggled against] Paul continually.
Other scholars disagree, saying that it was some physical malady that caused Paul endless grief. Can we really know exactly what this thorn in the flesh was? Does the Bible tell us for sure?
Why was Paul given a “thorn”?
Paul states twice in verse 7 of 2 Corinthians 12 that this thorn was given to him “lest I be exalted above measure.” First, what does “exalted above measure” mean; and second, why might Paul have been susceptible to it?
Paul explains, beginning in verse 1 of this chapter, how he was caught up into the “third heaven” and allowed to hear inexpressible words. (See “Enoch and Elijah: Are They in Heaven?” for an explanation of the three heavens mentioned in the Bible.)
Immediately, we see the uniqueness and overwhelming awesomeness of what happened to him. He experienced things that no man had ever experienced. This was obviously in the form of a vision since Jesus said, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:13).
In leading up to writing of his thorn in the flesh, Paul mentioned the word “boast” four times. Comparing this with “exalted above measure,” the clear implication is that this phrase meant puffed up in vanity or ego. Imagine being taken in vision to the throne of God! (Despite some people’s claims to have had divine visions, such events have rarely occurred throughout history, which is demonstrated by the way Paul writes about his experience.)
Paul may have been tempted to boast about this incredible experience; and for that reason, he said, he was given a thorn in the flesh. The self-evident reason would be to keep him humble. To exalt the self is vanity. To humble the self is acceptable to God. If one humbles himself, God will exalt him in due time (see 1 Peter 5:5-6).
A physical disease?
A compelling case is made by those who believe Paul’s thorn was some physical ailment, such as problems with his vision. Paul makes personal statements that seem to support this understanding:
- “You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first. And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. What then was the blessing you enjoyed? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me” (Galatians 4:13-15). It is clear he had a physical ailment; the reference to their willingness to give him their eyes indicates that it was a serious sight problem.
- “See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand!” (Galatians 6:11). The implication is that he had to use large letters so that he could read them himself.
- “From now on let no man trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).
Man or demon?
Yet there is also biblical support for other interpretations of “thorn in the flesh.”
- Regarding human enemies, Paul speaks in 2 Timothy 4:14 of Alexander the coppersmith who inflicted much evil on him.
- Regarding evil spirit enemies, Paul says he was delivered out of the mouth of the “lion” in 2 Timothy 4:17. (In 1 Peter 5:8 Satan is referred to as a “roaring lion,” stalking victims he might consume. It is hard to imagine any force more hostile than that!)
Probably the stronger implication is that the thorn in the flesh was a physical ailment (perhaps affecting his eyes); but as we have shown, a case can be made for the alternative explanations as well.
It is interesting to speculate, but since we cannot be absolutely sure what this thorn in the flesh might have been, should we perhaps shift our focus to what is really important about this passage of Scripture?
Lessons to be learned
What are the lessons God wanted Paul, and us, to learn from his thorn in the flesh, regardless of what it was?
1. Humility. Paul states twice that this thorn in the flesh was given to him “lest I be exalted above measure.” He realized his need to remain humble.
2. God sometimes answers our prayers by saying, “No.” Paul said, “Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it [this thorn] might depart from me.” But God’s answer was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).
Interestingly, Jesus Himself prayed three times for “this cup,” referring to His crucifixion and subsequent death, to pass from Him (Matthew 26:39-44). However, He graciously submitted to the will of His Father.
We should never assume that a “no” answer to our prayers indicates a lack of God’s care, a lack of His awareness about our plight, or a lack of His love or empathy for us!
3. God’s strength is made perfect through our weaknesses. As stated in 2 Corinthians 12:9, God’s strength was made perfect in Paul’s weakness. Moreover, it is said of the faithful in Hebrews 11:34 that “out of weakness [they] were made strong.”
People whose faith is in God are strengthened in their character by enduring physical infirmities. Paul, perhaps as a result of his personal experience, wrote of this unique strength in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5. When we have faith in God even while we physically suffer, God can grant us love, sympathy and empathy for other people who suffer ailments. As well, it helps us to sense God’s personal consolation, even if we’re not delivered from the trial.
4. Keep a positive attitude even when God does not heal you. Once Paul realized God’s answer was no, notice his attitude: “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” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Said another way, when I am physically weak, I can become spiritually strong.
5. Patience. James tells us, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2-3). We are further admonished in verse 4 to “let patience have its perfect work, that you may be [become] perfect [spiritually mature] and complete, lacking nothing.” This hints at a spiritual maturation possible only through challenges.
God promises that He will not allow anything to happen to us that we would not be able to handle and endure with His help.God promises that He will not allow anything to happen to us that we would not be able to handle and endure with His help. “No temptation [trial or difficulty] has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted [or tried] beyond what you are able, but with the temptation [trial] will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Another key promise states: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
He did not say that everything that happens to a Christian is good, but rather that all things work together for good. That means God can make bad events work out for good. God is able to rescue His people outright or to guide them through whatever comes up in life. He never abandons His children.
Do you have a thorn?
When Paul was facing imminent death, he wrote to encourage Timothy. His words conveyed his enduring trust that God always works for our good.
“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
There are many believers—including Paul, Job and others—who have suffered or are presently suffering with a “thorn in the flesh.” No doubt these same people have asked God three times or more to remove whatever obstacle it might be. God’s answer to them may have been “no” or, perhaps, “wait a while.”
When God allows us to endure a thorn in the flesh, whether for a short or a long time, hopefully we will be able to learn the lessons that Paul learned and be sustained by our faith, knowing that God will also see us through it all.
We encourage you to explore our article on “Divine Healing,” as well as our articles on “Faith: Believing and Pleasing God,” which are part of our “Change” library. In the “Faith” section you will find several articles on this essential spiritual attribute, including articles on faith in general, the faith of Abraham and women of faith.