What Was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh?

In my book, Stop Trying to Fix Yourself, I speak of the Apostle Paul and how the thorn in his flesh put him into a position where he had to accept a physical struggle that made him weak, but this weakness became his greatest asset. He explains, “I will take pleasure in my infirmities…for when I am weak, then I am strong,” referring to the strength of the Lord that empowers us when the flesh is no longer our focus.

 

Though I don’t believe this should be controversial, it has created a bit of controversy – especially in Christian circles that believe God will never allow a Christian to have a physical problem. Since this comes up frequently, I thought it would be good to answer these objections in a post. Let’s begin by focusing on an important principle for interpreting scripture. As much as we are able, we should approach scripture with an open mind. Problems arise when we are so emotionally invested in a doctrine that we cannot accept what is plainly stated in scripture. When we impose our ideology on scripture, instead of drawing our understanding from the Bible, it becomes hard to get past preconceived ideas.

 

We all struggle to overcome this, but we should also be willing to search the scriptures to see if what we are being taught is true – and to see if what we believe is true. Many misconceptions I once held dear have died slow and painful deaths as the scriptures challenged my ideas. Some ideas I held on to, but the more I studied, the more I had to let go of beliefs that could not be supported by scripture. When I say a doctrine can’t be supported, I am referring to looking at passages in context. Nearly any belief can be proven when scriptures are taken out of context.

 

It is argued by many well known teachers that the Apostle Paul’s thorn in his flesh was not a physical problem, but rather it was the persecution he endured. The reason this is important to many is because there is a belief that God will never allow sickness to enter the life of anyone who has faith. Before digging into this, let’s stop for a moment and analyze this idea.

 

Will God allow persecution? Obviously he will, for the Bible says that any who live godly will suffer persecution. What about physical harm to the believer? Even in the Bible, we see physical pain inflicted upon Jesus’ followers. Many were killed by the damage done to their bodies. So the logic is, God will allow a sword, bullet, or whip to damage our bodies, but he will never allow an infirmity to damage our body. Is there a difference?

 

As one teacher put it, “If Jesus suffered for it on the cross, we won’t, for by His stripes we are healed.” He was beaten, so why weren’t His disciples spared this penalty? Some argue that sickness is an attack of the devil, but so is persecution. Let’s look at the passage that has bothered some people, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

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.
8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.
9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
10 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.

 

Let’s first dispel the idea that persecution was Paul’s thorn. In Acts 14:22, Paul has just been stoned and left for dead, but he recovers and immediately visits the disciples to encourage them. Knowing people may be shaken by this type of persecution, the Bible says he strengthened the disciples by saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”

 

In Acts 5, Peter and John are arrested for preaching Christ, even though they performed an undeniable miracle. They were persecuted and then beaten at the stocks as a stern warning not to keep preaching, and Acts 5:41 says they left the council after being beaten and began rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for the name of Christ. So are we now to believe that the other apostles rejoiced that they suffered for Christ, but Paul was tormented because he was being persecuted? He first encouraged the church to be strong because persecutions were something we endured on the path to heaven, but when it came to himself, he begged God to keep him out of persecution?

 

Don’t forget that when God called Paul, his ministry began with God telling him, “I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:16) Every apostle was persecuted heavily. Every apostle except John was tortured and killed because they would not stop telling people about the new life of the Spirit through Christ. But even John was beaten, persecuted, and banned to a penal colony, isolated from the church on the isle of Patmos for his faith.

 

It’s undeniable that persecution was part of the early church, and has been a part of the church for thousands of years. In many countries, Christians are being tortured and killed for their faith even as I write. In Hebrews 11:35 we are told that many believers refused to accept deliverance, knowing they would obtain a better resurrection. Does God allow His children to suffer? Why? Not one thing that is lost in this life has value. We are giving up health, life, and possessions for the sake of Christ, knowing that what God returns to us is far better than what we lose.

 

Paul’s thorn of the flesh is NOT persecutions, though he was persecuted. Let’s go back and look at Paul’s conclusion concerning his thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:

 9b Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
10 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.

 

Persecutions are mentioned. So is needs. So is distress. More importantly, so are infirmities. It was the first thing Paul mentions. Infirmity is mentioned 13 times in the New Testament. 100% of the time it is referring to a physical problem. In fact, the word infirmity (astheneia in the Greek) means physical frailty, feebleness of health, illness, disease, or sickness. It does not mean persecution. By Paul’s own testimony, his infirmity was an attack of Satan, but was actually a gift of God to produce weakness so he learned to receive the strength of the Spirit – which was far better.

 

According to Paul, pride was a struggle, and so he didn’t get lifted up in pride, God gave him a thorn in the flesh. I know this flies in the face of the belief system of many who say God will never inflict a believer, but as we shall see, this is not what the Bible teaches. We’ll look at another example in a moment, but let’s see how Paul discusses his own infirmity.

 

In Galatians 4:13, Paul says that he preached to them through his physical infirmity. Some translations say ‘because of physical infirmity’, but the word is ‘dia’, which means ‘through or with’. Either way, Paul clearly says it was a physical infirmity. In Galatians 4:14 Paul again affirms this by saying, “My trial that was in my flesh, you did not despise or reject.” Let me reiterate this. Paul said, “I preached to you through physical infirmity/illness, and you did not reject the trial that was in my flesh.” There is no way to escape the truth that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a physical problem that people could see, and some rejected him because of it – but not those who believed his preaching in Galatia.

 

Paul then gives a clue as to what that infirmity could be in the very next verse. “For I bear witness that if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me.” If you read the full context of Paul’s discussion, he makes it clear that the people he reached with the gospel did not turn away from Paul because of the infirmity of his flesh, but as they grew to love Paul, in their compassion, they wanted to take away his thorn, and if they could have, they loved him enough to give him their own eyes to ease his infirmity. There is no other reason they would have wanted to give Paul their own eyes.

 

Let’s throw another monkey wrench into this doctrine that limits God’s authority to use the flesh as He chooses. Look at Exodus 4:11

So the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the LORD?

 

Who made the mute, the deaf, and the blind? According to God’s own word, He did. According to Psalm 139, God knit us together in the womb, and we are made exactly as God intended. Why does God allow disabilities at birth? He doesn’t always give the answer, but He does assure is that whatever we miss in this life, becomes a better resurrection in the life to come.

 

Then there is Job. Job went through immense suffering from the hand of Satan, but who began this challenge? Look at Job 1:8

Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?”

 

God challenged Satan to consider Job’s faithfulness, and then God permitted Satan to afflict him, but with specific boundaries. God allowed Satan to rob Job of everything, including his health.

 

Job’s friends accused him of having secret sin or some reason that this evil came upon him. They said, “God would never do this to a righteous man.” They all were very religious, and one even said, “The Lord said to me,” and then gave Job counsel from his own heart while claiming it was the word of God. All three of Job’s friends rebuked Job for claiming he was standing upon faith. Job said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him,” and expressed his confidence that in the end, God would rescue him. The only thing Job said wrong was, “When I see God, I’m going to ask why.” Then when God appeared, God said, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” God then asks Job where he was when the earth was founded. Since Job was wise enough to question God, the Lord asked him questions and says, “Tell Me, if you have understanding. The one who corrects the Almighty, let him answer it.”

 

That was the moment Job understood that God had the right to do as He pleased. He also found out that what God permits Satan to steal, He abundantly restores. Job received ten times what he lost, for God’s goal was always to bless. Through the infirmity of Job’s flesh, he suffered, but that suffering established him in the Lord’s strength, and made it clear that all good comes through God, and Satan has no power to defeat God’s will for Job’s life.

 

To Job’s friends, the ones who said, “God would never do this,” God said in Job 42:7

And so it was, after the LORD had spoken these words to Job, that the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.

 

God made Job’s friends, the ones who claimed to be wise counselors and condemned the suffering Job, to come and submit to Job. God said He would not even hear their prayers, but Job had to petition for them before they would be forgiven.

 

Similar situations happen in the church today. When my grandfather was dying of cancer, the church heaped the burden of guilt upon them by saying things like, “There must be secret sin in his life.” To my grandmother, one person said, “You are the reason he is dying. If you had enough faith, you could raise him off that bed.”

 

Is this what the Bible teaches? That we should condemn the sick? Does the Bible teach us to criticize people for not having enough faith? Or does it teach us to bear one another’s burdens. I have many friends in various healing movements. One thing they all have in common is scolding the ailing. If someone gets a cold, they are the first to tell them they shouldn’t be sick. If I had a prayer need, I wouldn’t tell them because I would hear how I shouldn’t have a need – I just don’t have enough faith.

 

Have they never read the letters the Apostles sent to the churches? Nearly every letter expresses prayer needs. When imprisoned, Paul pleaded for the church to send him a cloak before winter. He praised the Philippian church for meeting his needs.

 

What about 2 Timothy 4:20 where Paul said he had to leave one of his missionary helpers in Miletus because he was sick? Or what about Philippians 2 when Paul talks about his companion, Epaphroditus who became very sick and almost died? Or what about 1 Timothy 5:23, where Paul tells Timothy to drink a little wine because of his stomach problems, and his frequent infirmities?

 

Do you know one thing that is missing in all these accounts of sickness in the Bible? Not one time does a minister of God condemn the sick, nor do they tell them they shouldn’t be sick. Does God heal? Absolutely. I have friends that were miraculously healed. I have a relative that had terminal cancer as a baby. The doctors gave up and called the family in to say their good-byes. They gathered and prayed, and the child was instantly healed. Nearly 50 years later, he is still healthy and cancer-free. I have a friend of the family that had cancer of the mouth. She is not active in church and is not part of any healing ministry. The night before she was to go in for surgery, she poured her heart out to the Lord. When she went in the next morning, cancer could not be found.

 

Yet others pray, claim divine health, and do all the right things according to what people teach, but are not healed. Why? According to the book of James, the prayer of faith will heal the sick. I’ll also add that the elders are responsible for praying for the sick, and no where do we see the church condemning the sick. But also keep in mind that the Bible says that God deals each person a measure of faith and that faith is a gift of the Spirit. Faith is not produced by man. You can’t muster up enough human faith to do the work of the Spirit.

 

God did not explain why Paul could miraculously heal the unchurched people he encountered in Acts 28:8-9, but did not give Paul the power to heal Epaphraditus, Timothy, or Trophimus. Indeed we should pray for the sick with expectation, but ultimately healing is a gift of the Spirit and is according to a purpose we, like Job, cannot see.

 

People put God into a box, and then they have to explain away scriptures that don’t fit in that box. Because of doctrines like these, people are distracted from the truth. Instead of seeking God, they are seeking their will. Paul struggled with this. Three times he begged God to heal him, but God’s answer was, “My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in your weakness.”

 

Sadly, the teachings of some cause people to reject this. Instead of walking by faith, they are demanding their own will. Unless God gives them the miracle they demand, they are paralyzed in their walk, and if God doesn’t give them the answer they want, their life becomes one of confusion, disappointment, and frustration.

 

Expect the miraculous, but don’t forget that the miraculous might be God’s strength in your weakness. Don’t short-change yourself by demanding the strength of the physical when God is calling you into the power of the Spirit.

 

Eddie Snipes 2015