Paul’s Thorn: An Excuse to Refrain from Prayer?

I was chatting with a buddy a few days ago, and he brought up 2 Corinthians 12 – Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” – and he made a point that blew me away.  I wish I could take credit for what follows, but only part of it came from my own head.

As the chapter opens, Paul is bragging about how tight he is with God, about how super spiritual he must be because he’s had these far out visions of the third heaven (whatever that is) and so on.  Then he starts to bring himself back down to earth in verse 7:

So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Cor 12:7-9)

This text is often cited by those who do not believe it is always God’s desire to heal physical illness as proof positive (or negative).  But several things struck me about this passage as I discussed it with my friend.

  1. It is not perfectly clear that Paul is actually talking about a physical malady.  I’m not sure anyone believes that Paul is referring to a literal thorn.  It could very well have been a figure of speech, as it is today, of just about any bothersome situation.
  2. Paul is clear that his trouble has come from Satan, the accuser.  This, along with the personal weakness talk, makes me think it’s more likely a spirit come to incessantly remind Paul of his deficiencies, like maybe he’s not such a good speaker (1 Cor 1:17).
  3. Whatever the actual thorn is, Paul seems certain its source is not the Lord.  (That was my buddy’s main point.)
  4. It’s also worth noting Paul’s response to this thorn.  His reaction is to pray for its removal.  It is not until the Lord specifically tells him that it’s there to stay that Paul relents in his prayers.  Paul assumes the proper stance is to petition for its removal unless he hears otherwise.  He does not assume the thorn is there to stay unless God instructs him to pray against it, but the other way round.
  5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the point of the whole passage is just that God does actually overcome whatever this thorn is.  The Lord’s power is only made perfect when He actually acts in power.  This is partly why I like thinking this was a deficiency in Paul’s gift-set.  Despite being discouraged by the constant reminder that he’s not an eloquent speaker (I’m postulating), Paul would consistently find that the Lord shows up to impact his audience every time.

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