WHAT WAS PAUL’S THORN?
Many interesting theories have been suggested in answer to the question, “What was Paul’s thorn?” Some suggest that it was a physical ailment, a sickness, or a serious eye condition, backed up by his use of a scribe to write his letters.
Does Paul himself answer this question? What lessons can Paul’s “thorn” offer us in our walk with the Lord?
Firstly, where in the Bible does the idea of a thorn originate?
55 But if you fail to drive out the people who live in the land, those who remain will be like splinters in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will harass you in the land where you live. 56 And I will do to you what I had planned to do to them.”
Numbers 33:55-56 NLT
Befote Israel’s occupation of the Promised Land, God warned His people not to tolerate idol-worshippers among them. If they failed to rid the land of the Canaanites, the Canaanites’ idolatry would be both a constant irritation to them and a lure to participate in their ungodly behaviour.
In the New Covenant, what the Canaanites were to Israel, the flesh is to the believer. The Apostle Paul warned the Galatians that there is a relentless war going on between the flesh and the spirit, triggered by the people and circumstances in our lives that rub us up the wrong way, and our reactions to them.
The flesh demands that we retaliate while the Spirit calls us to resist the temptation to react by remaining in the love of God because He is the supreme authority in all our circumstances. Through these uncomfortable or trying circumstances, God calls us to reign over our flesh by receiving His grace to overcome.
The bottom line in this war between flesh and spirit is the issue of idolatry. When we allow our flesh to dictate our responses to the tests, we declare ourselves to be god. We think we know better than God; we make our own rules and are, at that moment, eating “the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, declaring independence from God and no need of Him to help us in this war.
What is idolatry?
18 I am making this covenant with you so that no one among you—no man, woman, clan, or tribe—will turn away from the Lord our God to worship these gods of other nations, and so that no root among you bears bitter and poisonous fruit.
Deuteronomy 29:18 NLT
The writer to the Hebrews speaks of idolatry as a poisonous root of bitterness.
14 Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. 15 Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.
Hebrews 12:14,15 NLT
Idolatry is that attitude that I don’t need God. I am self-sufficient; I can navigate life’s problems on my own. However, by doing so, I inadvertently put my confidence in some other source. most often money or some person or thing I lean on for support. I am essentially my own god because I replace the true God with my own solutions and act on my own wisdom.
When I react in anger or bitterness to some affront to the god I am, I compound my accuser’s sin with my own which does not solve the issue. It only makes it worse.
During Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, which was his calling, he was confronted by hostility from the Jews, the Gentiles, the Roman government and even the geographical environment in which he worked. He was tired and frustrated by all these hindrances, this “thorn in his side”, these ungodly people who interfered with his ministry. He begged the Lord three times to take it (the thorn) away.
What Paul did not realise that, though the “thorn” was from Satan, designed to stop him from doing God’s will, it was the very instrument the Lord was using to teach Paul how to overcome the danger of his flesh.
God was using the very hatred and opposition to the gospel Paul was experiencing to protect him from the danger of thinking that his “supernatural revelations” made him better than others. Pride would cut him off from fellowship with Jesus.
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
1 Peter 5:6 NLT
Paul’s greatest asset was not the revelations that gave him understanding of the message he was called to proclaim or the eloquence with which he preached and taught. He was not to revel in the visions of heaven and eternity he was privileged to experience. His greatest asset was the “thorn” of opposition and persecution, of hardships and deprivation that kept him in intimate touch with his Lord because of his need for humble dependence on Him.
Paul would never fully experience the power to overcome his fleshly responses without the tests that exposed his weakness. The very weakness of his flesh qualified him to receive all the grace he needed to maintain his close connection to Jesus and to draw his life from Him.
God knows exactly what form our “thorn” should take to keep us dependant on the power of His grace to overcome our weakness. Instead of viewing our thorn as a hindrance, we should recognise that God gift-wraps His grace in a package that appears distasteful to us.
The wrapping may appear unsightly, but the gift within is valuable beyond understanding. Only as we open the package and unwrap the grace, will we appreciate the love that gave us the gift. God’s passion is to bind us to Him in loving trust and unity. He will do whatever it takes to keep our hearts in submission to Him.