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What does it mean to have “A thorn in the flesh?” It’s a biblical trope that people use rather commonly, but do we fully understand it? Some will say that the thorn in the flesh is a physical disability, deformity, chronic illness, pain, or disease. Others will say it is (what the Puritans called) a besetting sin, the kind that remains with us no matter how hard we seek deliverance from it. What about you? How do you understand the meaning of this expression?
As a bible teacher and theologian, I’m always talking about the hermeneutical (interpretation) process and how important context is to understanding sacred texts. The context surrounding Paul’s sharing about his thorn in the flesh really does shine a light onto the subject. The passage I will share comes from 2 Corinthians 12, but the context or backstory is much wider, including his first letter and what appears to be a back and forth between he and the church.
Paul is taking issue with the Corinthian’s (unknown) comments about other so-called apostles in chapter eleven. Paul’s work was a continuation of Jesus’ work and message, which is, the deconstruction of religion by establishing the Gospel as the power that liberates people from institutional overreach. Paul established communities of people who lived freely as Christ followers. Religious spin-offs are a never-ending reality and it seems the Corinthian church had their share of them. Like all world religions, those “super” (úperlian– extreme, exceedingly) apostles (11:5) were fleecing the followers back into a meritocracy by demonstrating their power, perfection, eloquent speaking, persuasive arguments, along with much boasting (11:11-18).
This issue really has Paul worked up. You could say he’s “triggered.” Paul’s following of Christ extracted him from an extremely religious life as a leader in institutional religion. The Gospel he preached was to continue in Jesus’ work and free other from the same. The fact that his beloved church in Corinth has been influenced to align religiously is too much for him to take. “For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face.” (11:20). Contrary to these imposter apostles who present extremely well, Paul goes the other direction, and spends a few chapters showing why he wants nothing to with it, and goes on riffing “as a fool” (11:21, 12:11), showing that if he wanted to compete on religious playing field he most certainly could, but that the true Gospel, is not one of religious perfection or meritocracy, but one of humility and weakness, because Christ shows his power in our weakness (12:9).
Let this sink in. The early church, let by Paul is the antithesis of religious power-over dynamics, it’s leadership from the bottom. Now that we have a sense of the context, let’s look at the central passage.
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)
Paul reveals a bit of his theological grid here. He recognizes that he has been graced with not only a personal experience with the risen Jesus which transformed his whole trajectory of life, but he was graced with a voice and leadership to proclaim this liberating Gospel to the “hethnoi” (Gentiles, heathens) or non-religious. The Spirit of God worked through him in demonstrating supernatural powers of spiritual visions, healing, raising the dead, and being unharmed by poisonous snakes. In other words, if anyone should have a big head about what God is doing in their life, it should be Paul. That’s his point.
Paul acknowledges that pride is the antithesis to the work God has called him to. Therefore, the thorn in Paul’s flesh is an “hággelos” (angel/messenger) of Satan that God has personally dispatched. This is theological gold if you can see it. Like Job; “And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?…”(Job 1:8), Paul’s theology is not one where God and Satan play a cosmic game of chess, but one where God is sovereign and Satan is a created being with a divine purpose and power to act only as God permits. Satan is not a free agent. Let this rewrite your theology. As you do, the scripture will open up to you.
Paul’s thorn wasn’t a physical malady, but a personal force of evil to keep him humble (a subject not object). Like Paul, we would all seek to be free of any form of evil that can plague our bodies, our psychological well-being, our spiritual capacities, or cause us to fall by the wayside in sin. Religion still teaches us that such engagement is sinful backsliding, that God is displeased with us, or even that we are on the verge of apostasy and bound for Hell. Some may say Paul himself condemns such sinful acts in his first letter. Yes but then he follows it up in the second letter with:
“..so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.” (2 Corinthians 2:7-8)
The golden nugget here is that the thorn in the flesh not indicative of God’s disfavor over our failures, but that our weakness is indicative of the sufficiency of God’s grace. As James Finley would say, we are precious in our inability overcome. There are sins God will not remove because he is more glorified by our struggle with them than their removal. We don’t boast in our prideful successes, instead our failures show us just how desperate we are for mercy and grace.
As we reflect upon our own lives and our inability to consistently live in fidelity to the faith within us, we must not let religion kick us when we are down, threaten us, or cause us to feel ineffective, useless, or unwanted with its power dynamics. We must realize that God is more pleased by our struggle with evil. Paul models to us that if we are to boast, it is not in our successful, victorious, sinless perfection, but in our foolishness and inability to live up to any religious standard. Christ following is not a religion with a merit badge system where we arrive in heaven patting ourselves on the back. It’s the humiliation of being buffeted and stretched by the shadows within and without, winning some battles, and losing others.
True faith is for flunkies.
The religious mind deeply believes that he or she has left sin in the rear view mirror. In thirty years of ministry, I have never seen this. I’ve seen transformation, I’ve seen bad behaviors and choices be replaced with better ones, but I’ve never seen the removal of sin. I’ve watched religion create idolatrous, insular cultures where they judge others, (even those who share their faith) as outsiders, less-than, deficient, or simply wrong, because they are over-identified with church history, or seeking to please some historical figure rather than God. This is precisely what Paul is ranting about. The thorn in the flesh, is Paul’s (an our) proximity to the angel of Satan, and the unique way God is using darkness, and our shadows to create a masterpiece of light out of the pieces of our life. Christ following is the faith to see our true identity in God, despite our sin, not a religious false self who believes he or she is exceeding others. It means we can see ourselves in even the worst among us.
Think about the last fundamentalist you met. Did you feel judged? Did they try and fix you in their superiority? Were they a “super-apostle”?
The thorn cannot be removed, in part because it is not an object or a thing, it’s a subject or a persona. Your prayers won’t work any better than Pauls (12:8) because the thorn is the love of God sufficiently gracing in and as the angel of Satan. For some, that just broke your framework. Religion hates this because it’s not binary and it can’t control it, but biblically and theologically, this doctrine holds water (living water).
Paul is modeling for the Corinthian church to trust the “thorn” and its purpose of keeping us humble. We may hate how weakness and failure feels, but we need buffeting to become authentic (télios). Think about it. What occurs in our minds and hearts the moment we grow in a way someone else doesn’t? We puff up just a bit. We gain knowledge and expand, then we are tripped by a personal force and fall on our face…where in the mud yet again, we gain humility…and with that comes wisdom.
The sufficiency of Grace means that when it comes to our standing with God…we’re good. The challenge is believing when our behaviors and feelings don’t line up with what the Gospel tells us is true. The Christ story is the end of religious appeasement. The Gospel calls us out of our religious tombs of over-identification and condemnation and invites us to believe that the Grace of God reaches each of us, not when our behaviors improve, but despite the worst of them. The thorn isn’t a punishment or an indication God is mad or has forgotten about us. It takes courage to believe it, trust it, and be transformed by our struggle with it. The way up…is down. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:10)
If God isn’t answering your prayer for your thorn to be removed, take heart because the thorn in the flesh is not something happening to you…it’s someone happening for you.