Jeff Paton

"there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, 

lest I should be exalted above measure."  

 2 Corinthians 12:7

Christians throughout history have asked this question in trying to determine what exactly this "thorn" was. D.A. Hays remarks that "The translation "thorn" probably is too mild for the Greek word skolops. It may be rather "stake." Then the experience would not be represented by the prick of a thorn which could be extracted with more or less ease. It would be represented better by the agony of the fortunate wretch who was impaled on a stake. It would stand for excruciating torture which a mortal might bear. (Paul and His Epistles, The Methodist Book Concern, New York, Cincinnati, 1925, page 39.)  

Historically speaking, the consensus of the Church has fallen on the side of a physical malady. Paul indicates that he may have had some vision problems when he appeals to writing with large letters, and that he depended on a scribe. To me, that is the most logical and Biblically supported view, but many looking at the agony that he describes believe that such a conclusion fails to account for such a painful description. The Early Church favored the idea of the thorn being bodily disease such as headaches, epilepsy, or the crippling injuries suffered from the multiple beatings and stonings he was the victim of.  

"Much has been made of his bodily ailments. At times he suffered acute attacks of illness (Acts 13:14; Gal. 4: 13-16). The nature of these attacks we cannot guess. They never seem to have prostrated him utterly. Contrasted with them is the "thorn in the flesh." The attention devoted to surmise of its nature probably lend it a disproportionate importance" (The Mind Of St. Paul, Arthur Holmes, A.M., PH.D. Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, The Macmillian Company, 1929, page 25.)

I too believe that it is disproportionate. It is erroneously used as a means of establishing doctrine by some to state indwelling sin and defeat in the Christian as normative. It is not contextually set to state a doctrinal conclusion, but to glory in the grace of God in his daily agony. This is no passage in which one should, or is justified in building deep theological doctrines based upon it. But many people do, and that is the danger of such an overemphasis.

Later Protestantism, Luther and Calvin, sought to emphasize that it was a spiritual malady. This is without any Biblical support, and in fact, defies what Paul said about this thorn.

Later Fundamentalism has had many proponents that key in on Romans 7:8, and say that Paul’s “thorn” was sexual lust. That would make the thorn to be spiritual, but ignores the full meaning of “concupiscence” in the passage, which they make out to be sexual, and not by its true definition; sensual. Being sensual, it could be sexual, or just an inordinate and prideful desire (Saul the persecutor seeking glory and power), or something else that was self-serving. One thing we do know is that Saul (later converted and called Paul) was in angst over such a thing that the Law revealed in him. He saw it as a “body of death” that was clinging to him. But in his conversion he finds absolute deliverance from it through Jesus Christ, and experienced “no more condemnation” from it because he had been entirely freed from it. Therefore, any appeal to pre-conversion revelation of sinfulness in Paul is in no way an indicator of any nagging  post-conversion problem. Paul was a murderer before he was saved, and according to the logic of many Fundamentalists with this view of concupiscence, it would have been consistent in their minds if Paul as a Christian would ever remain a mass murderer after he was saved. All I can say is “nonsense!”  

A spiritual “thorn” is nowhere substantiated in Scripture, and defies Paul’s statements about it.

1). Paul “glories” in his weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul would never “glory” in spiritual shortcomings. Failure is no virtue. There is no humility in sin, or that would make the devil the most humble being in existence.  

2). “I take pleasure in infirmities…” (2 Cor. 12:10). Paul would be evil if he took “pleasure” in sin.

3). Paul said that of this infirmity, “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). One thing is resoundingly true; when you are spiritually weak, that is what you are; weak! You are not spiritually strong! If you are spiritually weak, that is all you are; there can be no positive outcome or glory in it. One can be physically infirm and struggle, and yet be spiritually strong; that is consistent with Scripture.

4). Paul prayed three times to be released from it (2 Cor. 12:8). Would you expect a Christian with a sin problem to only pray three times, then hang up their hat and give into a life with that sin? Glory in it? Take pleasure in it? God forbid!

5). Paul specifically states that this thorn was "in the flesh," and not the spirit. One must grasp at straws in order to make the statement of "flesh" to carry the meaning of an unregenerate part of Paul's self. 

Three Views and Their Consequences

It appears to me that most views are theologically driven instead of exegetically derived. Let's take a look at the different options.

1). Spiritual Temptations~ Many hold to the Augustinian view that such "confessions" are a sign of spiritual humility, and try to use Paul's thorn as a demonstration of it. Contextually however, such an application fails. If Paul was suffering from spiritual temptations, such as blasphemous thoughts, we have to tangle with the fact that he gloried in them, took pleasure in them, and gave up praying for deliverance after just three times! 

2). Bodily Pain~ The modern Health and Wealth teachers are quick to try to make Paul's thorn out to be spiritual, for if was a physical malady, he was not healed, and this would go contrary to the assumption that physical healing is in the atonement. The have a vested interest in making sure that the affliction is something other than physical. If Paul was not healed, then there is no universal promise of healing in the atonement as far as Paul knew.

3). Sufferings Caused by Persecution~ Some of the Ancients believed that Paul was referring to his constant exposure to persecution. This however seems unlikely, since he tells us that this thorn was unique to him as it was bestowed upon him by God for his benefit. Paul was not alone in this form of suffering; all Christians in his day were potentially, if not in all actuality, being persecuted. One could ask why, in later times, why Christians were left out of this same personal benefit as Paul had received. I doubt if the idea here is for the Christian to desire the retribution of persecution so they could glory in it , or take pleasure in it. 

Now one could easily say that I choose to say that it is physical because I do not believe that healing is promised in the atonement, and that it is not spiritual because I see holiness as possible for the believer. I would agree that such a bias could give me an equal motivation to read what I want into the passage at hand, but I believe that I have shown to have arrived at my view through exegetical considerations. If one disagrees, they must overcome the insurmountable difficulties posed in the preceding discussion. They cannot be glossed over and be left unanswered.

It is also necessary to point out that one should not use such an ambiguity to establish any doctrine, for that is not the intent of the context. I know of people with physical struggles that are able to glory in them, for they know that this body is temporary, and eternity will make these sufferings seem minor. Because of that eternal hope, one can take pleasure in knowing that one does not suffer forever. It takes faith to accept that God may give us all a "thorn" in which to buffet us for His use. This is no doubt difficult for many to see God's purpose in it, but it can be a great witness from those that can do as Paul has in finding more faith in the providence of God. We will never know with absolute certainty what this thorn of Paul's was, but we can know the certainty of his acceptance of it.