What was the biblical “thorn in the flesh” that so plagued St. Paul?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
We’ll never be sure. But the question is perennially fascinating.
“Thorn in the flesh” is one of many commonplace phrases we take from the Bible. It appears in 2 Corinthians chapter 12, where St. Paul writes that he knew “a man” — modestly referring to himself — who was “caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told.” He describes the aftermath of his powerful experience in verses 7 – 9:
To keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (New Revised Standard Version)
Other English translations say “arrogant,” “conceited,” “lifted up,” “proud,” or “exalted” instead of “elated.”
Christians through history have pondered what so plagued this New Testament writer and Christian founder (though we can imagine his close colleagues knew). Some say it was a interior spiritual or psychological challenge, while others see opponents, obstacles or persecution his pioneer missionary work coped with. Many focus on the telltale word “flesh” and insist it must have been some physical malady.
The 2nd Century theologian Tertullian supposed the “thorn” was recurring earaches, and two centuries later Archbishop Chrysostom proposed severe headaches. But later Catholics, and Protestant Reformers Luther and Calvin, thought it was some sort of spiritual struggle. Methodist Adam Clarke suggested Paul was referring to the fraudulent teachers he had to continually counteract. Other ideas over the years have included chronic malarial fever, epilepsy, various other diseases, hypochondria, a hard-to-control temper, or a speech impediment.
Some have wondered if the apostle was lamenting that he was unmarried. Ever zealous to push his Episcopal Church into modernism, New Jersey’s skeptical Bishop John Spong (who died September 12) saw Paul as “a rigidly controlled gay male” who therefore felt “tortured and rejected.”
The technical commentary by Murray Harris of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Eerdmans, 2005) devoted eight pages to just the one verse that mentions the “thorn.” He says though the enigma remains unsolved, the following points are certain.
The thorn was “a direct consequence” of those remarkable heavenly revelations that he never described to others. It “caused him acute pain, either physically or psychologically” and he urgently sought its removal. “He regarded it as simultaneously a gift from God and an instrument of Satan. “It was “permanent” but “intermittent,” as implied by the three times he focused prayers upon its elimination. It was “humiliating” and “caused Paul to feel “weak.”
The noted British pulpiteer Charles Spurgeon had a slightly different take: “A thorn is but a little thing, and indicates a painful but not a killing trial — not a huge, crushing, overwhelming affliction but a common matter, nonetheless painful.”
A September 22 patheos.com posting by “progressive” Christian Keith Giles spelled out one of the most popular thorn theories, that Paul suffered from poor eyesight or an eye disease. For one thing, he often dictated his letters to a secretary.
The most telling argument for this occurs at the end of the Galatians letter (6:11) where Paul says “see what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!” That apparently tells us that at least by the 50s A.D. he had poor eyesight. The same letter (in 4:15) says “I testify that, had it been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.” This suggests Galatian friends were concerned specifically about eye afflictions.
Giles thinks the malady perhaps resulted from Paul’s dramatic conversion to faith in Jesus Christ while on the road to Damascus. We learn in Acts 9 that he was knocked to the ground after seeing a flashing light that struck him blind. He remained blind for three days till the healing work of Ananias when “scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.” Giles supposes that Paul’s eye problem “was a constant reminder” of the day “when he first encountered the risen Christ, who blinded him, transformed him, and set his life in a new direction.”
Giles continues, “It’s when people see our weaknesses, they give glory to God because they realize that whatever influence or power or authority we have is not from within ourselves but from the inner spirit of Christ that works through us, in spite of our frailty.”
Murray Harris finds it fortunate that Paul was inspired not to specify what his thorn was since his letter ended up in the Bible to be read forever after. If the great apostle had named his specific problem, later readers might have seen this as “largely irrelevant to their situation.” As it is, multitudes coping with their own sorts of thorns “have been challenged and consoled as they have made Paul’s experience their own.”