Living with a Thorn in the Flesh
2 Corinthians 12:7-9
It’s interesting how many sayings from Scripture have become part of our vocabulary. A dear friend uses one frequently. When someone asks her to do something she doesn’t feel she’d be good at she says, “That’s not my spiritual gift.” I haven’t learned that lesson yet.
One such expression is “a thorn in the flesh.” My mother used this occasionally, along with several other biblical expressions. It’s interesting: my father was much more of a biblical scholar, but my mother used far more of these expressions.
In verses leading up to this phrase Paul has been boasting about his suffering as an apostle. I use the word “boasting” in italics because no one is his right mind would boast about suffering. Paul doesn’t boast either; he just wants the Corinthians to know he could boast since he has suffered so much on his missionary journeys. A reading of these travels in the Book of Acts makes clear that Paul endured much hardship for the sake of the gospel. He did so willingly because he knew the results would be worth it.
We don’t know what Paul’s thorn was. He doesn’t identify it past saying that it was troublesome. Over the centuries there has been much speculation, but we have no way of knowing what it was. Considering all he suffered in his missionary career we can conclude it must have been very difficult to deal with. Paul identifies this thorn as “a messenger of Satan.” It must have been serious indeed.
Paul took the path most of us would take. He asked God to remove it. Quite likely he believed his service to God would be far more effective if whatever was troubling him so severely was taken away. He wouldn’t have to worry about it any longer, so he would be better able to concentrate on proclaiming the gospel.
God’s answer was a resounding, “No!” God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul had to learn to live with whatever he felt was handicapping him because that’s the way God wanted it.
Many of us are troubled by something we feel inhibits our full and free service to God. It may be something simple or something complex. It may be something physical, or emotional, or something that lies outside of ourselves but still, we believe, prevents us from giving complete, perfect service to God. We may have even prayed as Paul did, asking God to remove what we perceive as a thorn. If so, we may have received an answer similar to the one God gave to Paul. “Don’t worry about what you see as a thorn in the flesh. I’ll work around it—perhaps even work through it. My power will work in you to make your service more than acceptable. You don’t need to be perfectly strong. I’ll be strong for you—and in you, and through you.”
Earlier in this letter (4:7), Paul says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” We cannot effectively serve God in our own strength. We must rely on God’s power to achieve even the limited results of which we are capable.
But we must not worry about the results of our service. God doesn’t call us to be successful, only to be faithful. Paul’s faithfulness, coupled with God’s power produced results that helped change Christianity from a small Jewish sect to a worldwide religious movement. Our jars of clay are vessels enough in God’s hands, and God’s grace is sufficient to overcome any thorn.