October 4, 2020
Many people reading this post may have never heard of the expression “having a thorn in the flesh.” And even if that expression may easily be figured out as to meaning by some, they may not recognize the origin from which that term was probably made most popular.
I’m going to talk about that phrase as I learned about it from the Bible. Now don’t quit reading and think this post is just a bunch of religious nonsense. Follow me and you will see that today’s post is important to anyone who reads it, even if you don’t believe in religion or anything in the Bible. Just pretend I’m telling you a story with a moral.
Most people who are familiar with the Bible recognize the phrase I’m discussing as having been said, and prayed about, by the Apostle Paul. He probably was not the first to use the phrase, but he’s the one who made it popular and important to me.
First, one needs to know a brief history of Paul’s life. He was a Godly man but did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, long promised by God, to be sent to his people at the right time.
Consequently, Paul believed Jesus was an impostor, and did his best to eliminate Christianity. Paul was a man of high standing in his day and had received permission from his authorities to kill, torture, burn down, or use any means to stifle, and eventually wipe out, this new movement of Christianity.
One day, on a journey to kill Christians, Paul was stricken off his horse and lay on the ground blind. Paul somehow knew immediately this was some sort of miraculous event caused by Jesus whom he had been fighting against.
Paul cried out, “Jesus, what do you want me to do?” Jesus told him that God had great things for Paul to do but that he would suffer much in carrying out God’s plan.
Paul’s life was changed immediately. This was Paul’s conversion, and he would spend the rest of his life following Christ and promoting the Kingdom.
After a while, (nobody knows how long) Paul did begin suffering as a servant of Christ. It was a terrible type of suffering. Again, nobody knows exactly how Paul’s suffering manifested itself. There are many speculations from scholars from early on until now, trying to guess what Paul’s suffering was. But as per specifics, the Bible is silent about exactly what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was and how it affected him.
Paul himself gives us more hints at what was wrong with him than anyone else. Once Paul said it was an angel (or messenger) from Satan himself who had come to buffet (torment) him. Paul said he knew it was to prevent him from being exhausted above measure over the abundance of revelations God had given him.
I’m sure Paul had more insight into his sufferings than anyone else did. Paul knew that God did not want him to have the big-head about the revelations that God had given him. God can not fully capitalize on a person’s servanthood to Him if such a person is conceited, arrogant, or thinks he has all those talents himself. God knows how to keep us humble.
Even though, Paul, being a human, did not like suffering. Do you like to suffer? Can you do your best work while suffering? I can’t. And most people I know admit that, too. So what did Paul do about his painful suffering?
We don’t know everything he did to find relief. Maybe he went to the best doctors he knew. And maybe the best psychologists, too. Maybe he found and used the best medicines possible to find relief. But at various points in Paul’s life, we do know what he did to find help. He prayed for God to heal him. Wouldn’t you do that too? I have done so many times.
I’m sure Paul’s prayers for healing were not just out of selfishness. He wanted to be able to be more productive for God. Again, it’s hard to do one’s best work while suffering. But God knew what he was doing with Paul and God knows what He’s doing with you, too.
Over some time, and nobody knows what period or what intervals of time between Paul’s suffering, he prayed to God for healing. But he did pray seeking relief. Don’t we all do that? But God told Paul, “I have heard your prayers, but my grace is sufficient for you.” We don’t know whether Paul ever prayed such a prayer again, nor do we know whether God ever healed Paul. As I mentioned earlier, God knew what he was doing and was preparing Paul for his life as a missionary and evangelist.
How could Paul (or anyone else) know how to adequately deal with other people’s problems had he not had similar problems in his own life? He couldn’t.
I’ll never forget eighteen years ago when our oldest son, Spencer Jr., died unexpectedly. A few weeks after his death, I was telling an acquaintance about Sandra and me losing our son. I know the man meant well, but he really insulted me when he told me he knew how I felt. How could he possibly know? He had never lost a child in sudden death. Please, never insult anyone by saying you know how they feel unless you have personally experienced the same thing.
This brings us back to Paul. In his lifetime he suffered much. He could be compassionate and loving. God certainly used Paul to the utmost.
Eventually, Paul became so effective in converting people into Christians that the Romans turned on him and tried to kill him in so many ways; from stoning to whatever means possible. Once the Romans locked Paul in prison for two years. The best estimate is between A.D. 60-62. But that did not stifle Paul’s work as a missionary. Paul wrote four of his best works from prison. They are known as Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. They are known as his prison epistles.
We learn in God’s Word that when we are weak, we can still be strong if we allow Christ to strengthen us and help us in achieving the work we have been called to do.
Paul had a “thorn in the flesh.” Maybe you do too. I bet that most people do at random times in their lives. The best way to overcome “a thorn in the flesh” is to turn your life over completely to God.
I want to close with a quote that is one of my favorites. It has helped to mold my life ever since I became a pastor over 50 years ago.
“A man must go through a long and great conflict in himself before he can learn fully to overcome himself, and draw his whole affection towards God. When a man stands upon himself he is easily drawn aside after human comforts. But a true lover of Christ, and a diligent pursuer of virtue, does not hunt after comforts, nor seek sensible sweetnesses, but is rather willing to bear strong trials and hard labors for Christ.” – Thomas a’ Kempis.
Does that quote sound like you?