What is the “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12 and how do you apply to your life?
Background of 2 Corinthians 12
When Paul mentions his thorn in the flesh, he is in the middle of a rant to show how worthless it is for the “super apostles” that oppose him and share personal spiritual victories and visions to boast about their spiritual prowess. So he goes on this rant to talk about himself and everything he has experienced.
This entire section in 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10 is meant by him to be sarcastic. He argues against spiritual superiority in the body of Christ. So he uses himself as an example to boast. One of his boasts is that he has been transported in visions to heaven and seen things no other human can imagine.
So when he says he knows a man, he is referring to himself (2 Corinthians 12:2). So he talks about this amazing encounter that he can’t even put into words. Such amazing things that have happened to him may give him a big head like these other “apostles.”
Paul gives the impression that he knows things that God has told him that he is not allowed to tell anyone else (2 Corinthians 12:4). So that he doesn’t become conceited and it remains humble about his amazing experiences, he receives a thorn in the flesh, something to keep him from thinking he is all that and a bag of chips.
The Thorn in the Flesh
He says this is a messenger from Satan (2 Corinthians 12:7). But what is this thorn in the flesh? It could fall under one of these three categories:
- Spiritual or psychological – anxiety over Israel’s conversion to Christ (Romans 9-11) or spiritual battles he fought for the churches.
- Ministry opponents – there were “super apostles” and false teachers like the Judaizers who followed Paul around and tormented him or went to church as he preached in and founded and teach false doctrines.
- Physical ailment – nobody knows what kind of ailment it may be. It could’ve been anything from migraines to eye conditions. Any of these would have made it harder for Paul to effectively minister.
My personal opinion on this matter is that it was a physical ailment possibly related to an eye condition. There is evidence that Paul could not see very well and wrote larger letters (alphabetic, not epistles) in Galatians 6:11 at the bottom of the epistle.
Paul used a secretary to write most of his letters and then at the end he would usually write the last couple of lines or verses. This would give the letter it’s genuine proof that Paul was the communicator even though he used a secretary.
If he writes large letters on the papyrus, it would suggest that he can’t see as well as he used to. Another example of Paul’s eye condition comes from earlier in the letter to the Galatians. Paul says that he can testify they would have torn out their eyes and given them to him (Galatians 4:13-15).
Right before he declares their support for him, he specifically mentions his bodily ailment. Galatians gives us a look into Paul’s life that we don’t really see anywhere else.
There is also the possibility that all of the things Paul suffered throughout his ministry from shipwrecks to beatings and imprisonments could also be the thorn in the flesh. He would go from amazing revivals and incredible miracles to extreme lows through suffering and prison.
Whatever this thorn in the flesh is, the text suggests that it comes from God. Paul prays to Jesus and asks him to remove it. Jesus says no because his grace is sufficient. Jesus wants to use Paul in this weakened state so that the Holy Spirit can minister through him instead of anyone believing that it was all Paul.
Praying for Release
Paul further explains that he prayed and asked the Lord to remove this thorn three times (2 Corinthians 12:8). But the Lord doesn’t remove it. Instead he gives Paul sufficient grace to deal with the thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:9).
It’s interesting that Paul could consider this thorn of the flesh that the Lord allowed to be from Satan. It could be much like Job 1-2 where God gives Satan permission to afflict Job and then restores after his faithfulness has been put on display for the world to see.
Apparently there are certain things we will have to deal with in this lifetime. This goes against the theology of TV evangelists and other theologians who suggest that we as God’s children should live in perfect health, be wealthy, and be living the high life.
That is not seen very often in Scripture. Even the people that we would look up to suffered grave things for the sake of knowing God and walking with him. I would say their experiences with God may suggest that one metric of our relationship with God is whether or not we are suffering or minister out of our weaknesses rather than our strengths. Only through weakness can the Holy Spirit do his best ministry through us.
If the Lord releases us from these thorns in the flash or these weaknesses that we have, then praise the Lord and give him the glory. But if he doesn’t, he will minister through these weaknesses that we have and his glory will still shine through.
How do I apply this to my life?
There are a couple takeaways for what Paul has said. First, we must not become conceited and think that we are spiritual superheroes. God wants to use us in our weaknesses rather than us showing off in our strengths.
We must be humble about our walk with God. We are not here to show off. We are here to represent Jesus and show his love to the world. When we experience amazing things in our spiritual lives, even when we share them we must be careful in how we present what we have experienced.
I’m reminded of Joseph who in his younger years thought it was a great idea to share with his parents and brothers the fact that they would be bowing down to him someday. Yes, his dreams came true when he became second in command of all of Egypt and they needed food, but sharing it with them actually caused all of his trials because he was unwise and how he shared his dreams.
I have already mentioned another takeaway, that we may suffer things out of weakness that God wants to use to show his strength. This may go against popular teaching and theology, but it is in Scripture more than once. Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 1:27-31 about God using our weaknesses and foolishness according to the world to show his power and glory.
The point of ministering out of weakness is that God receives the glory for anything positive that happens. It’s not about us. It’s about God. When he keeps us humble even though he shows us incredibly amazing things, he still receives the glory instead of people thinking we are so great.