Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12) can be the gateway to some important and profound truths—and none of them have anything to do with identifying what his infirmity was! Whatever Paul’s “messenger of Satan” (v. 7) was is unimportant. What matters was God’s purpose in allowing it and Paul’s response to it. Everything else is peripheral.
In the context, Paul has been engaged in a reluctant rehearsal of how he has been humble and exalted in his ministry. He begins this discussion in chapter 10 but really gets down to business in 11:16ff. His purpose is to “cut the ground from under” the false teachers who have influenced the Corinthians with their big talk and relentless criticism of his ministry (11:12). Paul shows in this section that while they are masquerading as apostles (11:13), he has all of the characteristics of a true apostle (12:12).
That leads to him sharing something that happened 14 years before (the implication is that he is sharing this for the first time, a remarkably refreshing reticence from those who feel compelled to make their endless experiences the message rather than the good news of Jesus). He was “caught up to paradise” (12:4) where he heard “inexpressible things, things no one is permitted to tell” (or write a book about).
But all of this is mere prologue to what Paul wants to say. Instead of riding his vision for all of the glory it could bring him (and beating his opponents at their own game in the process), he drops the other shoe and explains how to keep him from becoming “conceited” or “exalting myself” (NASV), he was given “a thorn in my flesh” (v. 7). Three times he asked God to take it away and was told, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). Paul concludes from this that unlike his opponents, he has learned to boast about his weaknesses “so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (v. 9).
There are obviously lots of places you can go with a text of this richness and depth. I want to use it to address how we think about suffering. For example, we learn here that not all suffering is a bad thing. Paul’s suffering led him to look away from himself and to trust in God and His power. But was it worth the price of his torment? He definitely thought so.
This in turn leads to another big truth: a pain-free existence isn’t a goal we should pursue. We live in a culture that caters to the idea of a pain-free existence as the only acceptable way of living. Commercials assure us that if we have the slightest ache or pain, we can consult our doctor about the latest, greatest medication and if we don’t grow a second head or third arm, we can be pain free. The better part of us understands that pain is part of life. The best part of us understands that God can use it to bring us or others closer to Him or in a way that we may not in this life understand or appreciate.
All of this should inform our prayers. In short, they need more humility. To listen to our prayers at times, you would we have a direct pipeline to God and He has told us that our difficulties or those of loved ones have absolutely no purpose or value and they can’t be used by Him in any way, shape, fashion or form. Maybe this was Paul’s thinking when he asked for his thorn to be removed. If it was, he grew out of it. He came to the understanding that there is no such thing as painless growth, so he quit seeking it! Jesus learned obedience from the things He suffered and so will all who follow Him (Hebrews 5:8-9).
When trouble occurs in our lives or in the lives of our loved ones. we can be sure that God is in control and He will work all things for the good of those who love Him. Precisely how He does this is a glorious mystery that we accept now and will understand in eternity. But Paul said he was sure that “our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). In the face of the deepest pain or suffering we have a clear word of hope. Not only is there life among the thorns—there is life through our thorns!