Paul’s thorn in the flesh
E W Rogers, Oxford
How often we fail to realise that a prayer has been answered, simply because the answer is different from what we expected.
The central phrase in Paul’s compulsory self-defence as set out in 2. Cor. 12 vv. 1-10 is “There was given unto me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan.” In this sentence Paul acknowledges three things:—
(a) that he was suffering from a physical handicap:
(b) that such handicap was permitted of God:
(c) that it was, moreover, inflicted by Satan.
“There was given to me” — a divine permission — “a thorn in the flesh” — a physical handicap — “the messenger of Satan” — an assault of the devil.
This remarkable triple combination is not new. As far back as in the garden of Eden God had promised ultimate victory to the human race by such means. To the serpent He said “The seed of the woman shall bruise thy head and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3. 15). Such bruising of the heel of the Coming One was divinely permitted; its accomplishment entailed physical suffering; which suffering was inflicted by the devil.
Again, in the case of Job the three things were operative, It was God who initiated all the proceedings recorded in that remarkable book: God permitted whatever the devil did. Job, in consequence, was the victim of physical affliction. This affliction was inflicted directly by the devil God permitted it: Job suffered it: the devil inflicted it.
So it was with Paul. He acknowledges first of all the ultimate source, the permissive will of God. In that he can rest, knowing that the design of God is his own good. The devil's share in it was, for Paul, secondary. It may have been the immediate cause of his troubles but it was not the ultimate source. God was behind it all and Paul’s best interests were His concern.
It should be no cause of astonishment that the devil thus molested Paul. Indeed, it was only to be expected seeing that Paul’s commission was to turn sinners from darkness to light, from the power of Satan unto God. Paul knew, and said, that the devil was the god of this age responsible for blinding the minds of those who believe not. He had declared openly that the resurrection of Christ was the making a show in public of the impotence of Satan and all his hosts. No wonder then that the devil should assault one who was dealing such heavy blows against his kingdom.
In what particular way he inflicted trouble upon this servant of God is not clear. That it was very painful is clear: a thorn in the flesh at any time is exceedingly hurtful. Paul may have alluded to his ophthalmic trouble, a trouble which led the Galatians to be ready to pluck out their own eyes for him; a trouble which necessitated Paul in writing to them to use “large letters,” Or, it may have been some impediment which made his speech “contemptible,” a handicap to which he refers in writing to the Corinthians. Or it may have related to something adversely affecting his “bodily presence.”
It is a happy thing that the Spirit of God led him to omit naming the specific trouble. He, Who knows the subtlety of the human heart, knows well what capital would be made by those who suffer the same malady as Paul, and on the other hand, what loss those would sustain who knew for certain that their own handicap was not Paul's Here silence is golden.
God never acts in an arbitrary manner. Though sovereign, there are always reasons for His sundry workings. Sometimes He discloses such reasons while at other times He conceals them. In the case of Paul the reason is known. It was in order to prevent this servant of God becoming unusable because of self-exaltation resultant upon unique experiences.
These experiences he recites in the earlier part of chapter 12.
At Corinth the authority of the Apostle Paul had been called into question, and he had been driven by the exingencies of the case to write an Epistle defending himself and his apostles hip. Had his apostleship been repudiated successfully at Corinth the validity of all his writings, which he claimed were to be regarded as commandments of the Lord, would have been undermined. Also, the whole of the Pauline doctrine would have been repudiated as un-authoratative. Thus the matter was one of the utmost importance, not only for the Corinthians, but for all Christians ever since their day. He was compelled to boast.
In the latter part of chapter 11 he recites external evidence of his apostleship in his endurance of hardships which exceeded those of the other apostles. His long list terminates with the record of his suffering the indignity of being put in a fish basket, and through a window let down by the wall of the city of the Damascenes and, in that manner, escaping the hands of Aretus the governor.
There was, however, another and better line of defence. Paul will not boast in Paul but he will boast in a “man in Christ” whom he knew. Of course, that man was Paul but it was Paul hidden ‘in Christ’. Though he had thus been “let down” in a basket he is now able to speak of being “caught up” to the third heaven, to Paradise, where he heard unutterable utterances, things that it was not permitted or possible for him to speak.
Precisely when this happened he knew but none others knew. That it was “above fourteen years ago” leaves the precise moment indeterminate even for the Corinthians. Conjecture, therefore, is useless. The experience, however, was so unique, and to Paul so confirmatory, that he would boast in such a person who had it. Whether he was in the body when it occurred or out of the body he could not tell: God knew that, but what he saw and what he heard remained with him.
Self-boasting, however, is a very precarious thing. If one is driven to it in self-defence, and that with the highest motives, namely the safeguarding of divine truth, it needs to be conducted with much caution. Saints are only able to judge of a servant of God by what they see him to be or hear from him. Alleged extraordinary spiritual experiences in which they do not share, and which they have not seen, cannot weigh with them in estimating the worth of a servant of God. Even the disclosure of such an experience is apt to result in boasting in them instead of in the Lord. Paul’s heroism in missionary adventure of itself constituted no ground for asserting Apostolic authority. Consequently Paul forbears all such boasting (v. 6) and if he boasts at all he will boast in his weaknesses. He knew the origin of those weaknesses: he knew their object.
They were permitted of God in order that he might not be exalted above measure. Twice he says it (v. 7). They were as the string of the kite which keeps it under control to prevent it soaring beyond hope of recovery. “Pride goeth before a fall” and “he that exalteth himself shall be abased.” God valued His servant far too much to allow such a thing to befall him and, therefore, gave to him this thorn in the flesh with the view of preventing that calamity. It was an ever present danger, and while it remained the thorn remained.
God’s purpose, therefore, was His servant’s good and safety. The devil’s, purpose, however, was far different. He inflicted it “to buffet him,” i.e. to cuff him. Such a constant invader into his realm who was bent upon robbing him of his captives must be checked by all means. His purpose was only Paul’s ill.
The devil, however, did not succeed. Paul found his resource in prayer. “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice that it might depart from me.”
(a) His prayer was specific—“For this thing.”
(b) His prayer was urgent—“I besought,” begged, pleaded.
(c) His prayer was submissive—“I besought the Lord” Who is the disposer of all circumstances, in wisdom and love.
(d) His prayer was persistent: “thrice”. In the garden of Gethsemane the Lord Jesus had similarly prayed to the Father three times. “If it be possible let this cup pass from me.” Having prayed thrice He received the answer: “The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” Once the answer is received continuance in the prayer becomes unnecessary. Likewise with Paul. He would have prayed more than thrice, and as many times as necessary, until the answer had been received, but having received it, after thrice asking, he prayed no more concerning this thing.
(e) His prayer was child-like in simplicity. “That it might depart from me.”
(f) His prayer was answered (v. 9).
(g) The Answer was final. “He hath said” (R. V.). That answer was a constant stand-by for him. So long as the physical handicap was present the flow of sustaining grace was always available.
(h) The answer was satisfactory. “My grace is sufficient for thee.” The Lord was on his side. His favour was toward him. There is one of two ways in which a ship that has grounded can be re-floated. Either some of the cargo can be jettisoned or else the flood of tide water will buoy up the laden vessel. It was the latter procedure the Lord adopted here: He would not remove the cargo, the thorn, but the flood tide of His grace bore the Apostle upon those waters enabling him to carry the load.
(i) The answer, moreover, was reasonable. “For my strength is made perfect in weakness.” There was room for Christ to work through Paul while Paul was weak. Thus would He be magnified in Paul’s body, a thing which he profoundly desired.
In such circumstances what could Paul do but ‘most gladly’ boast in his weaknesses in order that he might be enveloped with the power of Christ. His desire was, not that the power of Christ should occasionally come upon him as the Spirit of the Lord from time to time came on the Old Testament Judges, but that it should permanently tabernacle upon him, concealing Paul and displaying itself.
Indeed, he could even ‘take pleasure’ in his weaknesses and all those things, estimated by most as adverse, which are incurred in the furthering of the gospel for Christ’s sake. It results in the strange paradox, “When I am weak then I am strong,” the depletion of physical strength makes room for the increase of spiritual power.
Here, indeed, is a message for all the Lord’s servants. The strong and the healthy should beware lest that very blessing be a means of eclipsing Christ. The weak may take courage, being assured that their very infirmities can become the instrument of magnifying Christ.