What Is That "Thorn in the Flesh" and Why Would God Give One to Paul (and Us)?

Updated Jul 30, 2020
What Is That "Thorn in the Flesh" and Why Would God Give One to Paul (and Us)?

Paul's Thorn In The Flesh

The Apostle Paul played a significant part in not only establishing the early Church but also writing much of the New Testament. Once a killer of Christians, Paul's conversion story to become a follower of Christ is truly fascinating. Throughout his writing, you can clearly see his laser-focused passion for sharing with non-believers the Good News of Jesus Christ. His passion and obedience to God were fruitful. Many came to know Jesus Christ because of the persistence and work of Paul, but this came with much sacrifice on his part. In Acts 9:16 God says:

“For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Paul’s ministry would be far from easy. In his second letter to the Church of Corinth, we get a small understanding of the suffering Paul was required to endure for the sake of Christ.

“Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited,” 2 Corinthians 12:6-7.

Paul received visions and revelations from God that he could boast about if he wanted. However, he refuses to do so because he is committed not to boast in himself, but in God alone. Paul shares that to keep himself humble, God has given him a thorn in his flesh. We are not sure what the thorn is or why Paul decides not to go into more detail, but I think we can all relate to having thorns in our lives. Those persistent areas of suffering and weakness that we wish would just go away.

Photo Credit: Pexels

A thorn in the flesh allows us to fully know God's strength in our weakness

A thorn in the flesh allows us to fully know God's strength in our weakness

Naturally, Paul requests of the Lord three times to remove this suffering and thorn, much like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, to which God answers:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me,” 2 Corinthians 12:8-9.

From this scripture, we learn a great deal about suffering, weakness, and the power of God. We learn from Paul’s experience that God will allow our strength to be sacrificed so that we may experience His true and greater strength. We can only go so far in our own strength for the following reasons:

1. Our strength stifles our experiencing God’s strength in our lives.
2. Our strength limits us to only what we can do.
3. Our strength can serve as a temptation to boast in ourselves when our purpose is found in giving God glory.

In God’s response to Paul, we learn two significant lessons when dealing with difficulties in life. 

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Nicole Harrington

1. God’s grace is sufficient.

1. God’s grace is sufficient.

Paul was still able to accomplish the purpose God placed on his life despite his difficulties that caused weakness. Our weakness does not stop God’s strength. Our weakness does not stop God’s plan. Our weakness does not stop God’s grace and love from showing up in amazing ways in our lives. 

2. God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.

The very thing that is making Paul weak is the very thing that God is using to show His power through Paul’s life. Our weakness is the key to God’s strength in our lives. 

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Alexis Chloe

We experience God's grace through our thorns

We experience God's grace through our thorns

We experience God’s grace and strength the most in our weakness. Once Paul grasps this truth, we see a shift in his heart and perspective on suffering. Where he initially pleaded with God multiple times to take away this thorn and messenger from Satan, he now says that he is glad about his weakness. He adds:

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong,”  2 Corinthians 12:10.

Paul could have found contentment in his strength. In Philippians 3 Paul outlines a lengthy list of all his accomplishments, not to brag about them but to say he considers them nothing compared to knowing Christ.

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ,” Philippians 3:7.

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Felipe Benoit Photography

Sometimes our thorn is our greatest connection to Jesus

Sometimes our thorn is our greatest connection to Jesus

Paul would rather be weakened by this thorn so he may have the power of Christ rest on him. All Paul wanted was Jesus, and if his weakness was the key to God’s power manifest in his life, he would gladly walk that path.

Will we have the same resolve? Will we look at our weakness as a key to God’s power or a stumbling block to our own plans? Are we willing to give up our own strength, accolades, and praise from man because we truly believe Christ is greater? Will we see God’s grace and strength even in our suffering?

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Brooke Cagle

A thorn helps us focus on character not wants

A thorn helps us focus on character not wants

This was a massive perspective shift for Paul. As he initially cried out to the Lord to take away this thorn. he probably thought, “If God just takes this away I can be more effective for ministry. If this burden is lifted, I’ll be more fit for my purpose.”

Isn’t that how we most often look at the weakness in our lives? As an obstacle or impediment preventing us from doing what we’re called to do. But through Paul’s thorn, God shows us He is more concerned with our character than what we do. It was more important to God for Paul to be humble and not conceited than to go on 10 more missionary trips because God is more concerned with who we are than what we do.

God had a plan for Paul that did include things to do. Still, God was more concerned with what was going on the inside of Paul’s heart. 1 Samuel 16:7 reminds us:

"For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Ayo Ogunseinde

Our goal is to lose ourselves and serve God

Our goal is to lose ourselves and serve God

It’s essential that we ask ourselves, “Am I more focused on my to-do list, vision board, or #goals than becoming the woman God wants me to be?” Do we see God as a hindrance to our purpose or the only way to it? Our flesh will not like God’s way because it does not include boasting of ourselves, but God alone. The two cannot go hand-in-hand. We lose ourselves and serve God, or we serve ourselves and lose God. Jesus tells us:

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,Matthew 10:39.

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Radu Florin

Thorns let us remove pride in our own strength

Thorns let us remove pride in our own strength

Many times God uses our weakness to help us lose ourselves so that we might find Him and experience His grace and power. In such a competitive culture, many pride themselves in their own strength, but God grants the Christian something greater than that. We are gifted God’s strength through our weakness. Paul shares that his thorn was given to him. He saw it as a gift that benefited him. The thing about gifts is we usually don’t get to choose them. We trust that the giver knows what is best. God, being the ultimate Giver, does not take our pain and suffering lightly, but He will allow it to give us the greatest gift of all: Himself.

I challenge you to look at your weaknesses with a new perspective. Can you see how God is showing up faithful, strong, and gracious in your life despite the thorns that we may feel slow us down and hold us back?

Christina Patterson is a wife and stay-at-home mom with a passion to encourage women in the love of Jesus Christ and the truth of God’s Word. When she is not folding laundry or playing blocks you will find her with her head deep in her Bible or a commentary. She holds her masters in Theology from Liberty University and is the founder of Beloved Women, a non-profit providing resources and community for women to truly know who they are in Christ: His Beloved. She blogs at belovedwomen.org.

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Vladislav Nikonov

Originally published Thursday, 24 May 2018.