Thorn in the flesh

For several years now, and more recently on Facebook, I have been hearing Christians say that Paul had a thorn in the flesh given to him by God that was some sort of agonizingly painful sickness or infirmity, and so we can’t always expect healing from God if the apostle experienced this. Every time I hear this it really disturbs me. I feel as though Christians are saying that God gives sickness to his children, and to me I feel like God is being falsely represented, and blamed, and that the faith of believers are being weakened and tainted. However, many similar comments have been made by very prominent preachers and pastors over the years from my observation. It is no wonder to me that many believers don’t believe that they can be healed in a real way and many give up very easily when they get sick. I want to look at this, and really get to the heart of the matter.

What they say it is

Typically, I often hear this “thorn in the flesh” reference comes up when we talk about healing and sickness. Every time someone brings up the possibility through scripture of receiving (extraordinary) healing today, someone will throw in this “thorn in the flesh” issue that undermines any confident hope of healing being applied to a situation. If you search for Paul’s thorn in the flesh online, one of the first sites that pop up will be gotquestions.org. They ask and answer the question about what Paul’s thorn was, but I find that their answer is very much open to interpretation and inclusive of all possibilities. In their very first paragraph, they give the following response:

Many explanations have been put forward, but whether Paul is referring to a physical, spiritual, or emotional affliction—or something else entirely—has never been answered with satisfaction. Since he was not talking of a literal thorn, he must have been speaking metaphorically. Some of the more popular theories of the thorn’s interpretation include temptation, a chronic eye problem, malaria, migraines, epilepsy, and a speech disability

In the sentence just before this quote, they say that Paul’s thorn in the flesh had the “purpose of torment”, and in the last sentence of the first paragraph, they state that although no one can know for certain what the thorn was, it was the a “source of real pain” for the apostle Paul. In the remaining paragraphs in the article, the writer continues to speak of Paul’s “pain” and refers to the “thorn” as an “affliction” from the messenger of Satan, then goes on to equate it to the torment Job received from the illness the Satan attacked him with. The article focused primarily on “pain” that Paul experienced and concluded that God had a purpose in inflicting Paul with this pain.

If you read various Bible commentaries about this verse (2 Corinthians 12:7), you will find that many commentators also used words like “pain” and “torment”, and many of them also support the idea that we can never know exactly what the thorn in the flesh was. I find it very interesting, and disturbingly so, that most Christian commentators manipulate our understanding by adding these other meanings and descriptions that steer our minds into a particular direction then abruptly cut off that association by claiming that we can never know. I actually find it to be deceptive.

What it is not

What strikes me as deceptive is that the actual passage of 2 Corinthians 12 does not mention the word “pain” or the word “torment”. These words have been added to the text’s understanding through the multiple commentaries that advocate their application. Paul never said he was in pain or “afflicted” with anything. This meaning or idea that Paul was sick or given a sickness was inferred by commentators. We have bought this wholesale, and have automatically applied this to our thinking about the passage, while ignoring the actual text of the passage. However, if we are honest about what we read, we would say that the passage actually does not say anything about “pain” or “torment”, nor does it infer it by the use of the words “thorn” or by the use of any other word in that chapter.

So, what about the word, “infirmities”? That word is indeed used three times in that chapter. Surely, this word talks about sickness, which relates the idea of pain and torment. Well, translation is a curious thing. In my study of the scriptures, especially when I look at the Koine Greek, and the meanings of words outlined in the lexicons and the context of how the words are used in the passage, I often find that translators over the years have been way too liberal in their use of English words to substitute for the original Greek. I would even venture to say that I perceive that translators have been influenced greatly from their already accepted doctrines and beliefs when they translated a passage. I will show you what I mean with regards to this word “infirmities”.

The word “infirmities” is a noun and is used in three times in three verses in 2 Corinthians 12, but the Greek word from which it is translated, astheneia, is mention four times in three verses. Three times astheneia is translated as “infirmities” and one time it is translated as “weakness”. Its verb form, astheneo, is mentioned once and translated as “weak”. You may say that because it is translated more times as infirmities instead of weakness it surely must mean “infirmities”. However, I question if there is a difference between the words “weakness” and “infirmities”.

These two words may be viewed as synonyms. The word infirmity refers to a condition of being infirm, or weak, but it also adds the meaning of a bodily ailment or disease. The word weakness just means the state of being weak. By strict definition, an infirmity is a weakness. An infirmity, however, is almost always associated with sickness or disease. A weakness is not necessarily an infirmity, but an infirmity is always characterized by a weakness. They are not exactly the same, but a related in meaning. The most important component of using words is to convey meaning through our perception. When people hear “infirmity” they think “sickness, disease or lack of health”, but when people hear “weakness” they think “lack of strength or ability”.

2 Corinthians 12: 5-10 reads:
5 Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.
6 For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me.
7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

When we look at the passage, we see that the translators favor the use of “infirmities” instead of weakness. However, if you look at verse 9 and 10, you will see, “my strength is made perfect in weakness” (verse 9), and “when I am weak, then am I strong” (verse 10). It is clear that the context of the passage related contrasting weakness and strength, not infirmity and strength. Comparing infirmity and strength makes absolutely no sense in the passage at all. I personally think that the translators were taught and already believed that Paul was sickly, and they preferred to use “infirmities” there to infer this idea, because they knew that “astheneia” meaning weakness, but could also mean infirmities by implication.

Instead of using “infirmities”, if we substituted “weakness” in verses 5, 9 and 10, the passage actually make more sense. No one glories in sickness or disease. When people came to Jesus with their sicknesses, he didn’t tell them to glory in their sickness because God’s grace is sufficient. He healed them. Verse 9 even contrasts Paul’s weakness (or “infirmities” as used in the KJV) with the “power of Christ”. This same word used for “power” is also used for “strength” earlier in verse 9. So, if we put all these meanings together, astheneia should be translated “weaknesses”, not “infirmities”.

What it really is

Now that we have examined the only word that could convey the idea of sickness and have reasonably concluded that it should be translated “weakness”, let’s examine the word “thorn” in verse 7. As stated previously, many commentators talk about thorn in a figurative way to convey pain and torment. If you take the English word “thorn” by itself, you can think up all sorts of painful and tormenting references to justify this association, but the word is not by itself. It is used as part of an expression, “thorn in the flesh” and also used in a certain context. When I study the passage in 2 Corinthians 12, the context does not suggest that thorn refers to physical pain or torment. The scripture tells us plainly that Paul thought he was given “a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me”. The verse itself tells us plainly that the “thorn” was a messenger (aggelos in Greek… also translated as ‘angel’) of Satan who physically attacked (“buffet”) Paul. It was a person, not a sickness or disease.

This word (and expression) “thorn [of the flesh]” is used only once in the New Testament. This makes it hard to really confirm that “thorn” refers to a person. However, it [skolops in Greek, translated as “thorn” or “pricks” or “pricking brier”] is used three times in the Old Testament in the LXX, and each time it is used in the Old Testament, it always refers to people. In Numbers 33:55, it refers to the Canaanites that they were supposed to drive out the land:

But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks [skolops] in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.

In Ezekiel 28:24, it refers to the people of Zidon that God was going to deal with.

And there shall be no more a pricking brier [skolop] unto the house of Israel, nor any grieving thorn of all that are round about them, that despised them; and they shall know that I am the Lord GOD.

Lastly, in Hosea 2:6, I refers to persecution from other nations such that Israel won’t be able to get help from “her lovers” (verse 7).

Therefore, behold, I will hedge up thy way with thorns [skolops], and make a wall, that she shall not find her paths.

So, from what I read in the scriptures, thorn in the flesh could not refer to any kind of sickness or disease. It is figurative language to refer to people of the world who persecute others, typically in a physical or violent way. This is also in line what the idea that we who follow Christ will suffer persecution from the world.

John 15:18-19 says:
18 If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.
19 If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.

God in all of this

Jesus came that we might have life more abundantly (John 10:10). Death is our enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). Sin brings forth death (Romans 6:23; Romans 7:13). Jesus already took all our sickness and diseases on him and we were healed by his stripes (Isaiah 53:4-5). Being the children of God through Jesus Christ, healing is our bread for the taking (Matthew 15:26-28). Suffering is about persecution from the world (John 15:18-19; 2 Timothy 3:12). Jesus never told anyone who came to him for healing that they needed to endure the sickness as “suffer[ing] with him”. None of the apostles taught this either, including Paul.

We need to stop propagating this lie that being sick and destitute is what the apostles taught and that it glorifies God. It does not. The truth is that these ideas/doctrines have been propagated for centuries due to men’s tradition and philosophies, and underlying those is a total lack of faith in what the scripture actually says. This is the very thing that the apostle Paul told us not to do (Colossians 2:8).

Jesus is not a weak little sickly wimp, and God is not a Father who suffers from Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, where he has to make us sick and weak for him to get glory. For me, we as Christians are more than conquerors through Christ (Romans 8:37). Let’s believe like it and let’s act like it. Let’s never accept sickness and destitution and not be afraid (Luke 8:50; Mark 5:36). The question is what is Christ to us? Do we really have faith in him to have blessing in this life (Psalm 23; 3 John 1:2)? Or is he just a “get to heaven free ticket”? My encouragement to all believers is to exercise your faith in God in Jesus’ name for the impossible (Matthew 17:20).

The thing about Paul is that, unlike many of us, he acknowledged his weaknesses. By entreating the Lord about his weakness to handle his situation, he learned that to overcome by the power of Christ meant that his victory will not come from addressing his weakness, but by the power of Christ resting [fixing a tent on] him (verse 9). That is how Christ’s strength is made perfect in [our] weakness.

References:

  1. What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? – GotQuestions – Site: https://www.gotquestions.org/Paul-thorn-flesh.html
  2. 2 Corinthians 12:7 Commentaries – Biblehub – Site: https://biblehub.com/commentaries/2_corinthians/12-7.htm
  3. Lexicon :: Strong’s G769 – Astheneia – BLB – Site: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G769&t=KJV
  4. Infirmity – Oxford Learners Dictionaries – Site: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/infirmity
  5. Infirmity – Merriam Webster Online Dictionary – Site: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/infirmity
  6. Lexicon :: Strong’s G4647 – skolops – BLB – Site: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/Lexicon/Lexicon.cfm?strongs=G4647&t=KJV