What if Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh Was This?

What If Paul's Thorn in the Flesh Was This?

“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7, NIV)

There has been much speculation on what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was. Some have speculated that it was a chronic medical condition, a human adversary or some sort of temptation to sin. The speculation is wide ranging, and likely will always be so. Not knowing exactly what it is can actually be helpful to us—Paul’s point here is that God used something undesirable to keep Paul from sinning by becoming prideful. But I want to add one possibility to the speculation that I’ve not heard suggested as of yet.

Two things are worth noting in Paul’s discussion of this “thorn in the flesh.” First, is the fact that it is, literally, an “angel of Satan.” Whether this is a demon, an evil angel (as angels most often have a physical form in Scripture, whereas demons do not), a physical manifestation of Satan himself, or a human agent on Satan’s behalf, is unclear. But if it were one of the first two options, it is likely that we can rule out temptation. In Scripture, we see evil spirits entering people in the Old Testament, and demons entering people in the New Testament. But one thing is interesting about their work—they seldom (if ever) directly entice people to sin.

When we watch Saul with an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16), it doesn’t appear that it is enticing Saul to sin. It’s said that it is “tormenting” Saul. Though Saul sins during these times, trying to kill David, it is likely more of an effect of the mental or physical affliction that he is suffering. Most people don’t try to hurt someone else when they are feeling well and in good mental health. We see this throughout the New Testament as well. Those who are afflicted by demons are most often in some sort of mental or physical distress.

Demons cause people to be unable to speak (Matt. 9:33), unable to hear (Matt. 12:22), have seizures (Matt. 17:14), and cause physical issues such as back problems (Luke 13:11). Their most often seen actions are those which afflict people with amoral ailments. These obviously have effects on the actions of those afflicted, but aren’t necessarily direct enticement to sin.

The second thing we should note is the purpose for Paul’s thorn—“to keep [Paul] from becoming conceited.” We see a similar idea in Job 33:12-18:

“But I tell you, in this you are not right,

for God is greater than any mortal.

13 Why do you complain to him

that he responds to no one’s words?

14 For God does speak—now one way, now another—

though no one perceives it.

15 In a dream, in a vision of the night,

when deep sleep falls on people

as they slumber in their beds,

16 he may speak in their ears

and terrify them with warnings,

17 to turn them from wrongdoing

and keep them from pride,

18 to preserve them from the pit,

their lives from perishing by the sword.

This is spoken by Elihu, an observer of Job and his friends. Elihu is the only individual in the book of Job who is not rebuked for his speech. But Elihu seems to be offering the option that God speaks to individuals through nightmares, in order to keep them from sin. One sin Elihu names specifically in v. 17 is pride. Paul tells us that this happened to him in order to keep him from becoming conceited, which is language that is similar to what Elihu describes. Elihu says that God may “terrify them with warning, to turn them from wrongdoing and keep them from pride,” Paul says that God sent an “angel of Satan” to “torment” him, in order that he may not “become conceited”.

Furthermore, considering the fact that Paul’s “thorn” was given to him because of the visions he was having, it would also make sense if Paul’s “thorn” was something comparable in nature to that which would have inevitably caused his pride. Dreams are also recognized to be caused by the body, though most often used by God upon their remembrance, which would fit Paul’s classification of this “thorn” as “in the flesh.”

Though we may never know what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was, this seems to be a reasonable explanation for it, since it would find similarity with the work of evil spirits, is comparable to the cause of his pride, and is specifically taught to be a means used by God to ward off pride in the Old testament.

But the debate continues!

This article originally appeared here.

Previous articleAre You Forgetting the People in the Pews While Growing Your Church?
Next articleCharacter Over Talent
Mike Leake
Mike Leake serves as an associate pastor at the First Baptist Church of Jasper, Indiana, and is pursuing a Master of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Nikki, have two young children. Mike’s writing home is mikeleake.net. Mike is also the author of Torn to Heal:God's Good Purpose in Suffering.

Get the ChurchLeaders Daily Sent to Your Inbox