The What & Why of Paul’s Thorn

Right away in 12:7 we see Paul being counter cultural by stating in the beginning of 12:7 and at the end of 12:7 that a thorn in the flesh (which he also referred to as a messenger of Satan) was given to him for one reason – to keep Paul from becoming conceited. Lets pause and ask two questions here: a) What was the thorn? And b) What purpose did it serve? So what was this thorn? Before we go any further I must say the idea of “thorns” is highly abused. You’ve heard this right? People label what ever the currently dislike as their thorn. My job, my spouse, my child, my in-laws, my car, my weight, my lack of weight, my height, my lack of height. These are not thorns. Let me get one things straight: a thorn is a thorn because it is something you ask God to change because you can’t change it yourself. Something so deep in the center of who you are that it haunts you to see it. Something that rids your bones of all confidence.

Now, I’m sure many of you have heard of Paul’s famous thorn in the flesh, and throughout the church history it has been a hot topic; many people have believed the thorn to be many different things. The good options range from inner emotional struggles from excessive sorrow and weight on his heart for the churches, to Paul’s enemies and false teachers who had a knack for following Paul and disrupting his work, to some kind of demon like harassment that ate pressed at him constantly, to a poor and rapidly decreasing eyesight that plagued his ability to read, write, and preach. Honestly it doesn’t matter which one is the correct option, there is evidence for all of these in Paul’s letters.

So lets ask our second question, what purpose did the thorn serve for Paul and what does it teach us today? It is crystal clear that Paul’s thorn was from God to keep him humble. The thorn was from God because it is God, not Satan, who wants to keep his people humble, and it served the purpose of keeping him humble because Paul had a huge reason to be prideful. Thousands of people were streaming into the Church because God was working and saving people through the preaching and ministry of Paul. And knowing how gigantically God used Paul for His work in spreading the gospel, can you see that out of all men he had a real need to kept humble. Who knows what would’ve taken place if God had not given him this thorn. Perhaps an example would help here. I’ve been in and around pastoral ministry for the past 10 years or so, and I’ve heard the praises. Everything from the casual “Thanks for the sermon Pastor”, to people coming up to me unable to say anything because they’re so thankful for what the pastor just said. You see, when that kind of praise is coming at you, it’s tempting to believe it. And it’s when you begin to believe the praise that you begin to believe you’re the one doing the work rather than God. Can you see why nothing good comes from pastors who think they’re big man on campus? When the glory of the message becomes focused on the glory of the messenger, the glory of God is mocked and defamed.

Whatever the thorn was it kept Paul humble, and apparently it did such a great job of keeping him humble that Paul begged God to take it away from him. When Paul says he pleaded with The Lord “3 times” he doesn’t mean he tried three times and stopped. The use of the “triple” in Hebrew culture was used to show the superior, sensational, and unsurpassed nature of an object. This is why in Isaiah 6 God is referred to as “Holy, Holy, Holy!” It’s meant to teach that out of all things there is none as Holy as God, and God’s supreme characteristic is His holiness. So when we see Paul say he pled “3 times” with God to remove this thorn, it means he really didn’t want it, and he constantly was asking God to remove it from his life.

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