What was this thorn in Paul’s flesh? Some suggest that Paul’s thorn was a physical affliction. Others think it could have been a besetting sin. Some things we just won’t know until we get to heaven. This much we can say: There was something in Paul’s life that had risen up to give him trouble, and he wanted it out.
I believe that whatever the circumstance, its sole purpose was to get Paul to take his eyes off of God’s grace and turn them inward, where, Paul would have to admit, lies no good thing. With his eyes off of Jesus and fixed on his own wretchedness, Paul would soon become so discouraged that he would be rendered useless to the Master. But God had a different plan.
Before Paul had his radical conversion experience on the road to Damascus he was a persecutor of the church. No doubt, there were a good many Christians – and their families, whose lives had been changed forever in a painful way because of Paul’s contempt for Jesus and his followers. The Bible says that Paul stood by in proud approval while Christians were persecuted, imprisoned, stoned, and maybe even murdered. Now, this persecutor turned preacher would minister the gospel of grace – perhaps even to some of those same people. Some would never see Paul through divine eyes and could never receive the gospel as ministered from his mouth. They would see him only as a religious hypocrite. Paul was charged to preach the gospel nonetheless.
Consider that Paul, in his former life was a staunch legalist. Before Christ his entire worth was wrapped up in keeping appearances, and looking the part. Once bound by mans approval, Paul was set up by his contemporaries as the exemplar of tradition and religiosity. None of that mattered anymore. Paul would have to preach Christ and preach him crucified; nothing more. Ministering a gospel of grace in the face such harsh condemnation would require a faith that only God could produce.
The second letter to the church in Corinth was written in part because Paul’s apostolic authority was being attacked by certain legalistic teachers in the church. At the time that Paul wrote the letter his motives, mission, and methods were all being questioned. It was a time of intense personal persecution for Paul. In this environment rumors were swirling. Lies were being spread. Criticism abounded. False accusations were springing up in certain circles. Half truths and misrepresentations were being spoken of as if they represented the whole truth.
It is within this background that the Bible says Paul asked God three times to remove his thorn. When God finally answered Paul, He told him,“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
God would deliver his son, but not in the way that Paul’s conventional wisdom would imagine. You see, I believe that God was, in a sense, prying Paul’s spiritual fists open to release that last bit of self-worth that he was clinging to. Self-effort, self-sufficiency, and self-satisfaction would have no part in the glory that God alone would receive in the life of Paul. It was a tough way to learn humility, but Paul would discover that Jesus would never forsake him.
God is sovereign. He’s sovereign over everything – both good and bad. Psalms 76:10 says that even “the wrath of man shall praise You.” What was designed to obliterate Paul would be God’s instrument to conceal him deeper in Christ. Paul’s current distress would cause everything of the flesh in Paul to fall to the earth until it was no longer Paul who lived, but Christ in him. Colossians 3:3 states that, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”
Today, maybe you have you have a thorn in your flesh. Maybe there is undeserved trouble in your life that is causing you unspeakable anguish. Maybe you have been misunderstood, misrepresented, and even maligned. Maybe your good intentions have been spoken of as evil. It’s ok. You are in good company! Hide yourself in Christ and be safe.
After Paul realized the method whereby His God would deliver him he gets excited. He exclaimed,“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 persecution, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10.) What an amazing thing Paul had just experienced! The harder we get hit and the weaker we grow, the stronger and greater He becomes!
This is how Paul silenced a messenger of satan. And that is how you will too!
“O be persuaded to hide yourself in Christ Jesus! What greater assurance of safety can you desire? He has undertaken to defend and save you, if you will come to him: he looks upon it as his work; he engaged in it before the world was, and he has given his faithful promise which he will not break; and if you will but make your flight there, his life shall be for yours; he will answer for you, you shall have nothing to do but rest quietly in him; you may stand still and see what the Lord will do for you.
If there be any thing to suffer, the suffering is Christ’s, you will have nothing to suffer; if there be any thing to be done, the doing of it is Christ’s, you will have nothing to do but to stand still and behold it.” 1
1 Jonathan Edwards “On Knowing Christ” (Banner of Truth, 1990)