Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

"Martyrdom of St. Paul", from an 188...
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Opponents of the view that healing is in the atonement often point to Paul’s thorn in the flesh. According to their interpretation, Paul’s affliction was some sort of chronic physical problem that he repeatedly begged God to remove. In order to keep Paul humble, God refused his prayer to heal him. The reasoning follows that if the great apostle Paul’s prayer got rejected, how can Christians possibly expect God to always heal them?

I really feel like this objection is quite weak, as it is based on some very sloppy exegesis. Let’s look at the passage in question:

Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself. Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So because of Christ, I am pleased in weaknesses, in insults, in catastrophes, in persecutions, and in pressures. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (HCSB)

The context of these verses makes this passage more clear.  In the earlier chapter Paul is discussing false apostles whom Paul feared were leading the Corinthian church astray. These teachers were questioning Paul’s authority. Reluctant to defend himself, Paul tells of his hardships, pointing to proof of his commitment to Jesus in comparison to some of these false teachers.

But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?

Conspicuously absent in these passages is the mention of sickness and disease. Many bible scholars believe that this thorn was actually demonic messenger who stirred up persecution everywhere Paul went, not to mention many heresies from within. The term “thorn in the flesh” is a metaphor similar to the expression “pain in the neck” in our modern vernacular. In the bible, the metaphor is never used in connection with illness. For example, see Numbers 33:55,

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell.

(See also Judges 2:3, Joshua 23:13 and Ezekiel 28:24.) This was the view of the ancient church father John Chrysostom, who said:

“And so by the “messenger of Satan,” he means…those who contended with and fought against him, those that cast him into a prison, those that beat him, that led him away to death); for they did Satan’s business.” (Homilies 26)

Following Paul’s conversion, Christ said that Paul is “a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” This wasn’t just Jesus “picking on Paul”, as Christ warned his disciples that they “will be hated by all because of My name”. (Mk. 13:13)  But Paul did lay a large part of the foundation for Christian doctrine, and he preached the gospel to much of the known world. His impact is immeasurable, so naturally he greatly opposed by Satan. While it was men who persecuted him, Paul teaches us that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” but spiritual forces who oppose the gospel. (Eph. 6:12, see also 1 Thess. 2:18)

Given that demonic spirits and human beings can presently freely choose to oppose the gospel if they so wish, God could not take this “thorn” away that was stirring up trouble and thus tormenting Paul. For when Paul was weak and weary from the persecutions and trials, then he was strong through the grace of God, demonstrating the “marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles”, which we know includes healing (2 Cor. 12:12, see also Acts 19:11-12, 28:8, Rom. 15:19). This humbling lesson that he learned is clear from the outset of this epistle, as Paul began by saying that he “felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead…” (2 Cor. 1:9)

Some have also connected Galatians 4:13-14 with these passages in order to explain that Paul’s disease was eye-related. However, we learn from Acts 14 that Paul was stoned by an angry mob and left for dead in Lystra, a city in Galatia. It is noteworthy that this stoning took place in conjunction with Paul healing a man from the town who was born lame.  (see Acts 14:7-20) This miraculous healing brought undesirable attention from Satan, who worked through the mob that nearly killed Paul.  It is not at all implausible to think that Paul’s eyes, as well as other parts of his head and body were still bruised and swollen when he had preached to those addressed in the epistle. At the end of his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul speaks of his scars that he bore in his body attesting to the fact he belonged to Christ. So this was not some sort of illness in his eyes, but the scars of persecution that Paul bore in his body.

Christ said that the tares would stay with the wheat until the last day, and not until then. Jesus took our sicknesses and bore our diseases, but not our persecutions. It is incongruous with the ministry of Jesus —  who healed everyone who approached him asking for healing — to turn away one of his greatest servants; a humble man who continued Jesus’ ministry to the Gentiles, a ministry which included divine healing.

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