A thorn in the flesh

Are we ever tempted to pride, especially in the area of spirituality?  Maybe we think we know more about the Bible than someone else, or pray more fervently, or give more to the church. And as facts go, we may be right. But does that make us feel like boasting, even if just to ourselves? What would it take to keep us humble?

Gualberto107 / freedigitalphotos.net
Gualberto107 / freedigitalphotos.net

As we saw in the previous post, Paul reluctantly told the Corinthians about an incredible experience, a vision of heaven that he had kept to himself for years. His purpose in telling them was to redirect them away from the kind of top-dog, competitive spirituality that plagued the church and was exacerbated by the arrival of false apostles.

All of that sounds appropriately noble. But Paul himself may have been prone to the same kind of braggadocio.  God granted Paul an amazing spiritual revelation, and then made sure it wouldn’t go to his head:

I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited. I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:7-9a, CEB)

Nobody knows what this thorn was, though speculation abounds. Was it persecution or opposition? Some kind of physical ailment or deficiency? And if the thorn was something the people already knew about, it probably gave his opponents yet one more reason to ridicule him to the congregation.

But for Paul, what the thorn was is immaterial. It’s the why that matters, and he says it twice: “so that I wouldn’t be conceited.” The word suggests being exalted or lifted above. By it, Paul probably means not only to describe his own experience, but to take a stab at the spiritual conceit of the false apostles. Indeed, the only other place he uses the word is to describe the mysterious “man of lawlessness” who exalts himself as if he were God (2 Thess 2:4).

One can only imagine Paul’s prayer: Lord, please, take it away! I promise to be good. I won’t tell a soul. It’ll be just between you and me.

But the answer is no.

Three times he prays. But only three times? Is it because Paul lacked persistence? That seems doubtful. Is it because Paul was so faithful that he was ready to accept the Lord’s verdict quickly? Perhaps.

But the number was probably more symbolic than actual. If, as seems likely, the “Lord” to whom Paul prayed was Jesus himself, then we must remember Gethsemane: Jesus also prayed “Take it away” three times. And the answer he received was also no.

There are mysteries galore in this passage. We will never know what Paul’s thorn was. We will continue to wrestle with Paul’s words as we do with the book of Job: how do we explain the relationship between God and Satan in Paul’s suffering?

But the lesson itself is clear: God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Jesus embodied that truth in Gethsemane and on the cross, and Paul has struck the same note repeatedly throughout the letter.

We may not need a thorn the magnitude of Paul’s — if only because we have nothing equivalent in which we might boast. Yet we have much to learn from the weakness of both Paul and his Lord. God’s power is most clearly on display when our power fails.

And something about that is reassuring indeed.

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