What is Your Thorn in the Flesh?

In 2 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul describes an affliction he calls a “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know the precise nature of his thorn, except that it likely wasn’t a literal thorn. Biblical commentators have suggested that his personal scourge may have been a struggle with epilepsy or some other physical ailment. Others have proposed that it could have been a besetting sin akin to spiritual depression or anxiety. While we do not know the identity of his thorn, Paul does share its purpose.

7b Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10)

Apparently, Paul had been given a vision into heaven, possibly like the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6). Knowing that the besetting sin of his flesh was prideful superiority, the Lord provided a “gift” (“there was given me”) in the form of a “thorn” that was intended to make him perpetually conscious of his desperate need for both justifying, saving grace and sanctifying, enabling grace to fulfill his apostolic calling. According to his own testimony in 1 Timothy 1:13 and Philippians 3:3–9, humility and God-dependence did not come naturally to Paul.

It doesn’t come naturally to me, either. What comes naturally is self-righteous pride and self-dependence. How dumb is that?

Through his thorn (whatever it was), the bandwidth for Jesus to manifest his strength was increased exponentially. Jesus calls this influence “grace.” Because of his thorn, Paul came to savor the power of this grace more and more. So much so that he could actually “delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, and in difficulties.”

My assumption with this text is that, while none may claim the title of Apostle, all who can relate to a prideful, self-righteous, self-dependent flesh should expect to receive such a gift as a thorn in the flesh. These thorns seem to come in various shapes, sizes, and varieties. Some press upon us acute pain but seem to let up over time. Others are chronic, ongoing, persistent, and unrelenting.

I believe it is the chronic thorn of which Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians 12. His thorn is not removed but remains. Relief is not found anywhere but in knowing that Jesus has a purpose for the pain.

Maybe it would be helpful to identify these thorns so that, even while praying that they are removed, we may be encouraged to learn the lesson of the thorn and not waste the opportunity to experience an increased bandwidth of grace in our lives as a result. Below are a few thoughts on what your thorn could look like.

Physical Afflictions

This may be the most common thorn. However, do not get me wrong. I am not saying that sickness or injury is a direct result of willful pride. No. We cannot know the exact reasons for God’s providential allowance of these hardships. I just don’t want us to waste the pain. Pray for its removal. But as you suffer, hear the voice of Jesus speak, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Mental Afflictions

Those like myself who have suffered from conditions such as clinical depression, anxiety, OCD, or other brain chemistry disorders know how debilitating these thorns can be. While it is right to pray for healing of the medical issues related to these conditions and take medication when advised by a physician, what if we allowed the remaining struggle to drive us to Jesus. Just like the law was given to lead us to Jesus for justifying grace, what if our thorns are given to lead us to Jesus for living the new life of grace — by grace? Again, the gentle exhortation (from someone who understands) is not to waste the pain but let it open wide the floodgates for Jesus to manifest himself to you as all-sufficient.

Financial Afflictions

Paul’s thorn caused him to “delight in insults and persecutions.” What?! How is that possible… and why? Sometimes these assaults come from people outside the church. However, Christian leaders like Paul through history attest to being wounded by professing Christians who complain without offering solutions, critique without providing encouragement, and assassinate others behind their backs with loose and slanderous words. Thinking they are doing God’s will (like the Pharisees), they are acting as agents of Satan to cause division and disruption. This may very well be what Paul meant by his thorn in the flesh — that it was not an object, an illness, or a circumstance, but a group of people such as the Judaizers in Galatia.

Interpersonal Afflictions

Paul’s thorn caused him to “delight in insults and persecutions.” What?! How is that possible… and why? If there is anything that pains me more than all else, it is people (especially ungracious professing Christians — yet I do the same things — “Help me, Jesus!”) who complain without offering solutions, critique without providing encouragement, and assassinate others behind their backs with loose and slanderous words, thinking they are doing God’s will for the good of the church when all along they are acting as agents of Satan to cause division and disruption. This may very well be what Paul meant by his thorn in the flesh — that it was not an object, an illness, or a circumstance, but a group of people such as the Judaizers in Galatia.

The broader context of the letter Paul writes indicates that this was exactly what had happened in the Corinthian church, revealing that the interpersonal wounds he had received were not at the hands of unbelievers, but professing Christians. Those who were insulting and persecuting him were unknowingly tools in the enemy’s hand, seeking to undermind the unity of the church and ministry of Paul. Their unholy ambitions would backfire in the same way that the Pharisees’ unrighteous persecution of Jesus would.

Your interpersonal affliction may not be arrows aimed at a leader, but may be simply a conflict with a member of your family who has alternate expectations for who you should be or what you should do. Maybe as a disciple of Jesus, your decisions are not popular among your peers and you feel insulted and left out. While relational conflict is a uniquely agonizing thorn, I think the Father would want us to see even this affliction in light of a greater purpose that enables us to hear Jesus speak to us in this, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Grace. That is the purpose of our thorns. Because when we are pierced by a thorn, we can remember that Jesus, himself, was pierced by thorns for us. In fact, in view of the cross, we can know that while our thorns are always lesser than his, they are always as purposeful, intended to increase our experience of grace upon grace.

Grace tells me that my physical affliction is a temporary trial in light of eternity.

Grace tells me that my mental afflictions are able to make me far more empathetic to others than I could be otherwise.

Grace tells me that my financial afflictions are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed.

Grace tells me that whatever insults and accusations someone can hurl at me, the reality is far worse. I’m a much worse sinner and in more desperate need for God’s mercy than anyone could imagine. And yet I am far, far more forgiven, accepted, and loved than I could ever dream.

“Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses… because when I am weak, then I am strong.”

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