Thursday, November 15, 2012

Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh – An Interactive Discussion

by Dina Sleiman

Well, The Message Version of the Bible has done it again. It’s made me look at a scripture with whole new eyes. It’s brought new light to something I thought I understood, and made me realize how much I’d missed. This time it's II Corinthians 12:7-10. Most of you will know this passage as the famous one about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Paul had pride, so he was given some sort of thorn in the flesh. Okay, I guess that makes sense, kind of.

But the Message Version drives it to a new level that sort of blows my mind. “I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations.” That makes more sense to me than a "thorn in the flesh."And I had never thought of a handicap as a “gift.” That sort of flies in the face of the theology I was taught growing up. Who is this gift from? We know that God only gives good and perfect gifts, so there must be something I’m not understanding here.
But wait!!! Now it says here that “Satan’s angels did their best to get me down.” So is this handicap a gift, or a curse from Satan. Now I’m really confused?
But what this thing--this handicap, gift or not--ended up accomplishing was certainly good. “What he in fact did was push me to my knees.” Maybe what I need to do is stop trying to figure out where this thing came from. It seems like whether it’s good or bad, blessing or curse, has more to do with the response of the recipient. In Paul’s case, it drove him to his knees, brought him closer to God, which is a good thing. “No danger then of walking around high and mighty!” So it caused him to be humble and rely on God, which is also good.
Paul goes on to say at first he didn’t see it as a gift (no wonder I’m confused), and he asked three times for God to take it away from him. Boy do I relate. I have things I’ve asked God to remove from me. You’d think he’d want to do that. It would make my life easier, and make it easier for me to be good and keep his commands and accomplish things for his kingdom. But God’s ways aren’t always my ways. Instead he says, “My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.”
Then Paul continues, “Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”

That leaves me with a number of questions:
-Why does God do this?
-What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?
-Was it a physical handicap or something more spiritual or emotional?
-At the end of the day, is it a gift from God, or is he just turning something bad for his good?
-What am I supposed to be learning in all of this?
-I understand that I can’t do much about accidents and bad breaks, but what about abuse? In Paul’s society he was being abused by the government, but what about my society in which abuse is illegal? In which I have rights and recourses against opposition?

I’d love to chat with you throughout the day. Take a look at this scripture and let me know what you think ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dina Sleiman writes lyrical stories that dance with light. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. She was the Overall Winner in the 2009 Touched by Love contest for unpublished authors. Her debut novel, Dance of the Dandelion with Whitefire Publishing, won an honorable mention in the 2012 Selah Awards. Her latest novel, Love in Three-Quarter Time, is the launch title for the new Zondervan First imprint. Dina is a contributing author at Inkwell InspirationsColonial, a part-time acquistions editor for WhiteFire Publishing, and she is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Agency. Join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace. For more info visit her at


  1. As all good things come from God, maybe this is a result of Satan or the presence of sin in the world. Obviously we all suffer and much of it is not due to a particular sin we did and are now getting punished for... case in point - a child with cancer. But sin, free in the world, manifests itself in the negative things we have to deal with (Much of that is definitely due to the selfishness and pride of people).

    So God allows a portion of the negative to affect us because He knows it can be used for good. A condition that makes us aware of our limitations is probably pretty good for us!

    We know God allowed Satan to blast Job with bad things. Job's sufferings were for good (not for him but for us)

    I won't have internet all day so I'm looking forward to checking in tonight.
    I think the whole thing of humans facing trial makes sense until we get to the suffering of innocents such as those things that befall children - poverty,disease, abuse. Don't we all ask why God allows it? What good can come of it? I have to remind myself that we are eternal creatures and sadly, our lives here are short. I have to trust that God is God and I'll never comprehend the whys.

  2. Good thoughts, Deb. I'm still waking up but I'll try to add something intelligent. In the theology I grew up with, they would say that now that we're in the new covenant and God has given us authority through Christ, it is we as believers who are allowing these bad things more so than God. But I'd have to say that while there must be some truth to that, this passage seems to undermine that sort of thinking.

  3. Well my entire comment disappeared. I'll try again. ...

  4. Wow Dina, you sure gave me a lot to ponder on a Thursday morning! Billy and I were talking about something similar on the way home from church last Sunday. He asked what I thought about predestination... if everything that happens to us is because God planned it out and wants it to happen. My answer was no, I don't believe everything is predestined. I believe God KNOWS everything that will happen, but if He planned it all out ahead of time and set it out in some kind of unchangable map, then we've just kissed free will goodbye. God can, and does, use everything in our lives for His glory. So even when we veer off the path that He wants for us, there is redemption.

    Now, when it comes to our friend Paul... I have no idea where his thorn came from. LOL You made such a good point, Dina, about our reaction and response to adversity. It's rarely as important to know why something happened as it is to respond in a way that honors God. This is SO hard, at least for me, because my first instinct when things go wrong is to rail against them. But I hope I'm getting better.

  5. Jennifer,

    I can't say I believe in predestination either. God isn't just a puppetmaster in the sky. These issues are so complex. I think it's hard to wrap our finite minds around these infinite concepts.

  6. Amen, Dina. There are some things we just cannot understand. That's where faith comes in.

  7. I think the church has spent entirely too much time worrying about where that thorn came from and what exactly it was and missed Paul's whole point. The solution to those chronic, nagging problems that plague us all is the grace of God. Not "sloppy grace" that people try to use to get away with stuff they shouldn't be doing, and not just some nice, fluffy feeling, but grace as the actual power and presence of God working in and through us to make the best of every situation and bring glory to Him.

    Predestination reminds me of a crazy algebra equation where God is the only constant and we, and everything else in life, are variable, but the end result remains the same. Ack. Now I need more coffee.

  8. Okay, I'm trying this again!

    I really do believe it's our response to the thorn or handicap that guides the direction we go - or grow.

    We know God is holding our hand throughout. He's shining down on us. If we remember that, if we're open to Him and don't lose our focus, He'll undoubtedly see us through. The "bad thing" might not necessarily disappear, but I do believe God will help us find the blessing and take our focus off whatever it is.

    I often think, how would I have grown and changed had certain unpleasant and often unhappy things never happened to me? Would I be the same person? I don't think so. In fact, I don't think I'd much like the person I would be had I not learned and grown through the tough times.

    Great post, Dina.

    Niki, I'm with you. Predestination and algebra - both concepts make my head hurt...

  9. Niki, predestination and algebra, wow! I'll be thinking about that one for a while. I actually liked algebra.

  10. Suzie, I think the fact that the bad thing doesn't always go away is what mystifies me. I mean, here's Paul, this dynamic man of God. Wouldn't you think he'd be better off without something to hold him back? I can't help but wonder if it might have gone away if he could have conquered his pride.

  11. i had a friend who really struggled with how bad things happen to good people. if God is a loving God...WHY?

    i told him that sometimes the things happen so we can learn and grow. the fact that innocents sometimes are hurt is part of how Satan is the Destroyer - not a lack of power on God's part. The biggest factor is that free will thing. God is going to honor that, since it was His gift to us.

    That answer didn't satisfy my friend. He wanted God to not allow bad things to happen to innocents or good people. He couldn't believe a loving God would allow such things - therefore God really wasn't a loving God.

    I moved away not long after our discussion. I attempted to find him a couple years ago and found out he'd died from cancer just nine months before I tried looking him up.

    He was a research doctor, and from his obit, a truly good man who did much good in his work and community. My heart hopes he reconciled with the Lord, but I just don't know.

    I think God allows things in our lives to enable us to grow closer to Him. I'm sure He would prefer we don't suffer, but He set the laws in motion (like the wages of sin) and most of the time we have to deal with the consequences of our free will. He did provide a way of escape and He does touch people with the miraculous - but how many times have you been uniquely blessed by someone who is suffering but is an inspriation?

    i know i've been extremely blessed by a down syndrome lady in our church. she always has a hug for everyone and is bold in sharing her love for Christ. she is very inspirational and a blessing.

    i know lots of people struggle with this. someone once told me trials were a way to have: Less of me, more of Him.

  12. Good thoughts, Deb. Downs syndrome is a great example of something we mmight see as negative that often turns into a huge blessing. I definitely agree with you about the free will and about satan being the destroyer. That's really sad about your friend. I hope he found God somehow by the end.

  13. LOL. I liked algebra as well! Probably why that analogy is the one that came to me. :)

    I wonder if in fact Paul did find a way past that thorn. 2 Corinthians was written fairly early in his ministry (AD 55ish). The only letters that are older are Galatians and the letters to the Thessalonians. There's so much victory in his subsequent letters it makes me wonder if, indeed, he figured it out!

  14. Hmm...interesting, Niki. That is certainly possible.

    Personally, maybe this is just my take, I always felt like "the thorn" was a temptation to a sin more so than a physical handicap or ailment. Of course, it could easily be either, but there's no mention anywhere else of Paul having any physical ailments. I've even heard the theory that the pride itself might have been the thorn.

  15. I appreciate the fact that we don't know what Paul's thorn was. We all have our thorns, and that verse applies to all of us. I know for me, there are certain things in my life that I've prayed for God to heal for years--but I truly believe He allows these things to stay in my life because they keep me closer to Him.

    I don't believe God is a big puppetmaster in the sky, either. He could be, but he's given us free will. Yes, He can use all things for His glory and He does act in our hearts and our circumstances. I'm studying Genesis in BSF and we're only to the Tower of Babel, but one thing I've rediscovered in every chapter is 1) people forget His goodness and make their own way; and 2) He is patient and loving, but He means what He says.

  16. Yes, Susie, we definitely do all have our own thorns. I guess it's good that it's vague so we can all relate.

  17. Niki, I hate algebra but still like you even though mentioned it.

    Last week I was on FB and I saw someone's post, "Election over. God has spoken." Well, that theology goes touches on predestination. Whatever happens is God's will. *sigh*

    If that were true, then where does free will work in? Aren't we then chess pieces?

    Let me clarify I am NOT saying the results of the election were God's will. Maybe. Maybe they were God's judgment on our nation. I don't know. I don't care to try to analyze which is the case. Maybe both are. Maybe neither.

    I merely think there's faulty theology in thinking anything that happens has to be God's will. That's like an alcoholic going into a bar and getting drunk and saying it was God's will because God could have closed the door to the bar or not let the bartender serve me a drink but He didn't.

    We can excuse away a bunch of sin using that theology.

    So when I think about Paul's thorn (his "gift"), I wonder not so much what it was, but at what point did he start viewing his thorn as a blessing because it pushed him closer to Jesus? How long did he suffer with resentment and anger at God for "allowing it to happen" in light of the fact he KNEW God had the power to heal/cure him?

    In his book Sailing Between the Stars, Steven James wrote, "If you are more in love with the idea of being wounded than with the hope of being healed, you'll stay away from your Father's arms. If you feel like the whole world owes you a favor, then you won't run into the arms of the one who has hurt you. You'll curse him instead. Everytime we are wounded in this brutal and beautiful world, we have a choice which direction to run. We can run toward our Father or away from him."

    Peter warned us not to be surprised at the fiery trials (and I think we can include thorns in the flesh) as if they were something strange. He said we ought to EXPECT trials, temptations, and thorns.

    Since my MIL's funeral last year (1 year anniversary this TKSG) I've been dealing with a thorn of my own. The pain reached an unbearable point a couple weeks ago. Talk about falling before the throne of grace and begging for it to be removed. Felt like my heart was being ripped out of my chest.

    Jesus responded with, "it's going to be okay."

    Really, I'm hurting here and that's the best you can offer--"it's going to be okay?"

    "Yep, it's going to be okay."

    Did my thorn leave? No. Still there even though it doesn't pinch so much. Most days. But when the pain wells up, I again run to Jesus and let him know I can't handle it. I can't can't can't.

    He consistently holds me and says it's going to be okay.

    One day it will.

    Until then, I'm going to keep running to Jesus everytime that thorn (or any other one) hurts.

    Seems to me, Believers ought to start living with the expectation of trials, tribulations, and thorn. Then we will be better prepared when they hit.

  18. Gina, I do believe that comment was longer than my post ;) So many good thoughts there. I hope people take time to read it.

    BTW, my thorn is still there too, so we'll just have to cling to that "my grace is sufficient" thing.

  19. Gina, I think I need to read that book you mentioned. What's the title?

  20. Niki, it's Sailing Between the Stars by Steven James. One of my favorites books. It's an older book, but available on amazon.

  21. You guys have made great, deeply theological responses so I don't think I have anything to add in that regard. But when I've studied this in the past most of the commentors seemed to think that Paul's thorn was poor eyesight. What we might think of as being legally blind. They point to some of his letters, how he uses a scribe most of the time, and when he does write something he mentions how large the letters are and that's how the reader will know it's from him. There were a couple of other proofs offered that I don't remember now.

    I think he didn't specify because the trust he was sharing was so much larger than his personal issue. If it were too narrowly defined people would try to box that truth in and apply it only in a special set of circumstances.

  22. You guys have made great, deeply theological responses so I don't think I have anything to add in that regard. But when I've studied this in the past most of the commentors seemed to think that Paul's thorn was poor eyesight. What we might think of as being legally blind. They point to some of his letters, how he uses a scribe most of the time, and when he does write something he mentions how large the letters are and that's how the reader will know it's from him. There were a couple of other proofs offered that I don't remember now.

    I think he didn't specify because the trust he was sharing was so much larger than his personal issue. If it were too narrowly defined people would try to box that truth in and apply it only in a special set of circumstances.

  23. That makes sense, Lisa. And it could possibly go back to the time of his conversion. Intersting.


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