Q: How are we to understand Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in II Corinthians 12:7-10, and how does this apply to us today?
A: The Apostle Paul was a man of God who had been called directly by the Lord to be an “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Besides the direct revelation he received from the Lord Jesus at the Moment of his conversion there were numerous other times that God came to Paul in a direct way. On one occasion he was even “caught up to the third heaven” and “heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell” (II Corinthians 12:4).
As a result of these great revelations, Paul could easily have become conceited. After all, he not only was becoming quite a popular preacher, but he had received “inside information” from the Lord. To combat this temptation to arrogance, God had Paul receive a “gift”—some kind of physical ailment simply described as “a thorn in my flesh.” There have been scores of things suggested as to what this was, but the most probable supposition is that Paul had some kind of disease or handicap that affected his eyesight. Several references to his sight in his letters and in Acts lead us to this conclusion (Galatians 4:13-15; Galatians 6:11; Acts 23:5, where Paul did not recognized the dress of the high priest).
Paul’s attitude about this physical problems is one that should be emulated by all Christians who suffer today. Even though Paul prayed fervently to have the affliction removed, God let him know that he was permitting this “messenger of Satan” to torment him, so that God’s grace would be prominent in Paul’s life and that Paul would not depend on his own abilities and strengths.
No matter what the “thorn in the flesh” may be for Christians today, we should like Paul, view it as God’s “gift” to us, keeping in mind that he has a reason to allow it for our spiritual and eternal good. We can be sure of this, because God has revealed it to us in Romans 8:28. That promise holds true, no matter how heavy the burden is to bear.
Over four hundred years ago, under the reign of Blood Mary, an English bishop by the name of John Hooper was burned at the stake because of his Christian faith. When he was placed on the stake, his executioners brought iron chains to tie him up, so that he would not run away when the flames became hot. But, with a martyr’s spirit, Hooper told the soldiers: “God will give me power and strength to remain in the midst of flames without these iron fetters. For although I am only weak and human, I trust in the Savior, who told me, ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ ”
Since God’s grace is always tied to Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins, we can know—come what may!—that God’s grace is more than enough!