A Thorn in the Flesh

We have all been caught in that awkward conversation when someone is trying to show us how spiritual they are. People will tell you about the books they have read, the experiences they have had, and the prayers they have had answered. Never mind that the Bible clearly tells us that those who wish to be first must be last and those who wish to be greatest must be the servant of all. Humility, not fanfare is the true test of spiritual maturity.

Paul was facing this kind of situation with his opponents in Corinth.  It was more complicated because these opponents were using their “spiritual experiences” to lead people away from the truth. They were using their spiritual pedigree to push their way into positions of power in the young church. Paul had to stop the boasting. Unfortunately, the only way he can do that was to tell of his own personal experience with the Lord. He shared two experiences. One is the kind of thing of which books and movies are made. The second experience is one that no one wants but actually is much more instructive as to a person’s relationship with God.

A Heavenly Vision

Paul has shared much more about his own life than he desired to share. He knows it sounds like he is bragging. That is not what he wants to do. He wants to silence the antagonists and save the church from giving in to destructive teachings and leaders. So, Paul continues,

This boasting will do no good, but I must go on. I will reluctantly tell about visions and revelations from the Lord. I was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know—only God knows. Yes, only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body. But I do know that I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell.

 There are several things to see here. First, the New Living Translation writes these testimony in the first person. It is actually written in the third person “I know a man who . . . “. It is obvious that Paul is talking about himself but he is somewhat embarrassed or uncomfortable about the whole thing.

Second, notice it was something that happened 14 years earlier. In other words this took place before Paul came to Corinth and helped found the church. All this time Paul has not spoken about his experience. We have the sense that if this situation had not demanded Paul share his experience it would have remained something between him and the Lord.

This is not what generally happens today. People who claim to have had some great religious experience sign a book contract, go on speaking tours, and often develop a merchandise line.

Paul’s experience was something he did not understand fully. He doesn’t know whether it was a dream, a vision, or whether he was actually transported to this “third heaven”.

The Jewish way of looking at the world was to see three levels: there is the earth and its atmosphere, there is the universe beyond and then there is the third heaven which we would generally simply call Heaven. The number three (and seven) are often used to show perfection or completeness. In that case all “third Heaven” means is: the highest Heaven.

So Paul was transported to Heaven (Like the Apostle John in the book of Revelation. In John’s case he was told to write down his vision). It is interesting. The only way Paul can describe what he saw was that it was beyond description. And even if he could describe it, he was not allowed to do so.

Think about how hard it is to even describe a majestic view you saw while on vacation. Words fail when we try to describe beauty that speaks to us so very deeply and emotionally. Paul’s experience was far superior to this.

You and I are filled with questions aren’t we? We want to know: What did you see? What was it like? What kind of bodies will we have? How old will we be? How will we know each other? In Paul’s experience all he could do was listen and watch in stunned silence.

It appears that Paul’s rivals were filled with stories about their visions. They used them to boost their own standing with the Corinthians. Paul mentions he had a vision but that is all. The rivals were quick to share details to boost their authority. Paul however states that he will not and cannot share details because what he saw was beyond words. Perhaps it was too holy to be spoken of. Note the difference: self-promotion versus reverence.

I read about some of the great preachers and leaders of the Church over the centuries and many talk about having a “holy moment” which they cannot put into words. No details.

Grand revelations and great experiences are not something we seek. It is something God may give to us if He sees a reason. It could be to comfort, to strengthen, to inform, but also to rebuke. I have not had one of those kind of experiences and I have certainly never been transported to Heaven.  The point is that these are the exception rather than the rule. They are not a badge of superiority or even greater spirituality. They are simply a gift from God.

A pastor made his rounds in one of the hospitals in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and came to the bedside of a member of his church. The patient was an elderly gentleman who had been in a coma for a few days. Knowing this, the pastor feared that his visit would be ineffective because he could not be sure the patient would be aware of his presence. But as he entered the room, the patient suddenly came out of the coma, looked at the pastor, and said: “Pastor, I have just been in heaven.”

Surprised by the patient’s remark, the pastor expressed his reservations by cautiously asking, “And how do you know that you were in heaven?” The man replied, “I know because I saw Jesus.” Once more the pastor revealed skepticism when he inquired, “And how do you know that you saw Jesus?” The patient responded, “I could see the marks in his hands.” With growing interest in the ensuing conversation, the pastor asked, “What did Jesus say to you?” The man elaborated: “Jesus said, ‘Come, I have paid for you.’ ” Having said that, the patient breathed his last and responded to the Lord’s invitation.

Now and then God permits us to see a glimpse of heaven. He lifts the curtain of heaven, as it were, so that we are able to peek and see what the Lord has in store for us.[1]

A Thorn

Paul however does not want to boast about this blessing he was given. In fact, he takes an unexpected turn.

That experience is worth boasting about, but I’m not going to do it. I will boast only about my weaknesses. If I wanted to boast, I would be no fool in doing so, because I would be telling the truth. But I won’t do it, because I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life or hear in my message, even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.”

Paul says you don’t test a person’s walk with God by their experiences, you test it by looking at and studying their lives. You learn the most about a person not when they are riding the waves of success but when they are in the throes of pain or failure.

Paul tells us that God was concerned about Paul becoming proud (perhaps because of the vision). So, to keep him grounded he was given “a thorn in the flesh”. He calls this a “messenger of Satan” to torment Paul and keep him humble.

This is a passage that has provoked no end of debate. What was this thorn?  Was it physical challenge? (Paul mentions problems with his eyesight several times and indicates there were times when he needed to be cared for). Was it a psychological problem (such as depression)? Was it constantly having to deal with antagonists?

Again, we miss the point if we spend too much time on this. I think we are given a couple of clues. Paul says it was a thorn “in the flesh” which leads me to think more of a physical problem. Since Paul doesn’t say specifically what was going on it may be that it was something the churches were well aware of. Perhaps Paul’s words are so cryptic because the Holy Spirit wanted us to be able to apply the lessons of this thorn to various kinds of thorns we face in our own lives.

It seems odd to us that God would allow Paul to be afflicted by Satan (but the same thing happened with Joseph, Job, Jeremiah and many others). We need to understand that the majesty of God is found in the way He uses the work of Satan to accomplish good in the lives of His people.

Notice that Paul did not see this at first. Paul believed this thorn was hampering his ministry. He felt he wasn’t at “full strength” so he did what any of us would do: he prayed (begged) that God would take away the thorn. He prayed fervently, not only once but on three different occasions. In these times God was silent.

Isn’t that your first instinct? We ask God to deliver us and remove the thing that is causing us pain: our illness, the difficult situation at work, the financial pressure, the painful relationship or the depression or anxiety that won’t go away. We need help and we don’t understand why God doesn’t do something!

But God did not remove the problem. He turned the problem into a blessing. God used the problem to teach Paul an essential lesson: “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.”

Paul wanted to be free of the difficulty so he could serve better. God wanted Paul to understand that Paul’s strength was not what was important, it was God’s strength that made him more effective. It is actually the struggle that had the potential (depending on Paul’s response) to make him more effective. Paul learned that the best way to discover God’s strength is to allow us to be in a situation that is so obviously beyond us that we have no choice but to rest in Him. When we trust, we discover that God is trustworthy.

“His grace is sufficient” for the trial we face. We love these words and maybe even quote them on occasion, but when we are facing the trials of life we discover we don’t truly believe them. In the times of crisis we tend to panic rather than rest. We try to make things happen rather than wait for God to open a door. We draw conclusions before the conclusion has been reached. We stress out or get angry rather than rest in Him. We are filled with fear. We drift from God.

God’s response in these times is to give us more grace. Chuck Swindoll wrote,

Grace. The God of all grace ministered grace to His hurting servant. Grace to endure. Grace to handle the pain. Grace to face the future. Grace to accept God’s no. What a profound impact that had on the man![2]

God wants us to learn to truly trust Him. Andre Crouch wrote a song a number of years ago that summarizes the lesson Paul learned.

I’ve had many tears and sorrows

I’ve had questions for tomorrow

I’ve had times I didn’t know right from wrong

But in every situation God brought blessed consolation

That my trials only come to make me strong

So I thank God for the mountains

And I thank Him for the valleys

And I thank Him for the storms He’s brought me through

For if I never had a trial, I’d never know that God could solve them

I’d never know what faith in His word can do.

Through it all; through it all

I’ve learned to trust in Jesus, I’ve learned to trust in God.

Through it all; through it all

I’ve learned to depend upon His Word.

This is what Paul learned: that God is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all we can ask or imagine.


Look at how Paul ends this part of the discussion.

So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. 10 That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

His antagonists were boasting about their visions. Paul however boasts about his weaknesses. He has learned that Christ is seen most clearly in his life when he is not the one standing on center stage. When Paul steps back and let’s God work through Him, well, that’s when things begin to happen. Paul has discovered the wonderful and counterintuitive truth that when he is weakest, he actually has the greatest strength because God takes over and works through him.

We have all seen people who faced enormous difficulties in life and yet they radiated the presence of Christ in a powerful way. It is obvious that they found a strength that was beyond them.

There is a good chance we sit here today as an army of people wishing the thorns would be removed from our lives. Some of those thorns are much deeper than others. But most of us have something. I have to be honest. I am not ready to say that I take pleasure in my weaknesses and in the things I suffer. However, I hope I am learning, as I hope you are learning, that our weakness opens the door for God’s strength to shine. God is not looking for someone who has it all together. Instead He is looking for those who will most fully trust Him. He is looking for those who have learned to trust in Jesus.

Let me be direct. Are you angry at God or relying on Him? Are you trusting your strength or His? Are you relying on the mountain top moments you have had in the past, or are you hanging on to Him for life right now in the present? The key to victory and joy in life is learning that even though life is not easy, God is always good.  He is sufficient for every need. He will give us strength that exceeds anything we can muster on our own. Unfortunately, the only way to learn this lesson is to spend some time with the thorns.

[1] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 19, pp. 410–411). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[2] Swindoll, Charles Flying Closer to the Flame (Waco: Word  1993) p. 149

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