The attempt to figure out specifically what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was will continue on until Jesus returns. I’m not here to resolve that mystery. I do want to focus on its purpose which is easy to understand. Whatever thorn Paul had or you and I have while following Jesus, has the same purpose and we need to understand that in order to endure this wilderness like time as we await the consummation of the age!
Maybe it will help if I begin with the last sentence of that paragraph: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). I suppose everyone wants to be strong…seen as strong…considered strong. However, the path to being able to say “I am strong” is altogether different than the world’s path to being strong. That last sentence of this section does not say, “For when I am strong, then I am weak” though that is what worldly strength is. What appears to be strong and mighty is actually weak and powerless.
Paul had much to say about weaknesses. Indeed, those are the very things he boasts about. That’s odd, isn’t it? If we are honest, we have plenty of weaknesses to go around. Those weaknesses cause us to be needy. If hunger causes us to eat to keep us alive then being needy will cause us to remain connected to Jesus. And if we remain connected to Jesus we shall live! I think that is the cycle and purpose of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. It keeps him!
Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger (this is the word for angel) of Satan to torment me– to keep me from exalting myself!(2 Cor. 12:7) NASB
This makes me think of the plea in the song, Come, Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing…
How is it that we are prone to wander? How is that Paul was tempted to exalt himself after seeing surpassing greatness? If you make it (and we are promised that we will) to the end and you still have your gaze set on Jesus, it will not have been according to your strength that you did. The Lord himself is keeping you in need of him so that you remain in him…connected to him. An anchor can come loose when the rope is slack…a kite will not fly if the string is not tight. But our hope is firmly anchored because Jesus keeps the chain tight and secure.
How do we participate in this process? Do we have a responsibility in this? First, we should know that “thorns in the flesh” have good purpose in our lives. Paul prayed three times for the Lord to take it away. He responded by saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). This is grace! The grace of God to keep you from exalting yourself and belittling the Lord is necessary and good. When you know that grace is sufficient then gladly boast in your weaknesses.
But for what purpose? “…so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9). If you exalt yourself, which would appear that you are strong then the power/strength of Christ will not dwell in you. What seems to be strength is actually weakness.
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.(Phil. 3:7-11)
Knowing Jesus and the power of his resurrection cannot be separated from the fellowship of his sufferings. There’s no other way! Our thorns are like his nails. In our thorns we are being conformed to his death. That’s why Paul can conclude: “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). And I think that’s what Paul was getting at when he said, “For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you” (2 Cor. 13:4).
In light of these surpassing truths, how might we respond? Paul has a task for us, now. Here it is: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you– unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5). Let’s look at the evidence of our lives. What does it say? So many claim to be “saved” yet there is no evidence of God’s grace in their lives.
One of the best ways is to ask ourselves what do we love most? Where do you spend your free time? What do you spend your money on beyond the things you need? What does your schedule look like? What evidence would suggest that you love something other than Jesus ultimately?
I was sharing the gospel with someone one day, here in the Bible Belt. He quickly claimed to have been saved. As the conversation continued, I asked him what he loved most. He had no clue this had anything to do with his relationship with Jesus. He said that he loves money. He had described to me why he no longer attended church because he worked every hour he could get, which fit well with his love of money. I suggested that the evidence of his life says he wasn’t in the faith. I quoted this: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24). He did not approve of my suggestion.
What does your examination say?