I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say,or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
One of the most helpful things, I might even say beauties of this most down to earth passage is that the specific thorn in the flesh sent to torment Paul, even a messenger from Satan, which the Lord not only allowed, but at least used to keep Paul humble- is unknown. Yes, there are suggestions given by interpreters with reasoning from scripture. I tend to think it may have been Paul’s poor eyesight which got in the way of things he both wanted and needed to do. Others have suggested it was enemies in active opposition to Paul, citing scripture from Deuteronomy (or one of the books in the Pentateuch) which compares the enemies of God’s people to thorns. If it was obvious from this text, then everyone would agree. We just don’t know for sure. And that’s good, I think, because the thorn any one of us may and likely along the way will experience will be different at least in its details from what others experience.
Learning to embrace the thorns which come our way is no small lesson to learn. I say the great Apostle Paul, great because he was a suffering servant himself in our Lord for the gospel, but Paul himself didn’t learn this easily, as we see from this passage. The three times he pleaded with the Lord to take the thorn away I would guess did not happen overnight. It took some time for him to learn this, but he came to learn in that process that it was for his good in keeping him humble. And through it, whatever else might come his way, he could embrace since this standard was not set in his life. And that the Lord’s grace would be sufficient for him, with the axiom that when he is weak in himself, then he is strong in the Lord.
Thankfully the thorns we experience now won’t last forever. However the character the Lord shapes through them will. One can see how such suffering can at best help us to be merciful to others in their suffering, as well as patient with those who have yet to learn this important, but most difficult lesson.
For me it’s an ongoing discipline, the embracing of thorns which come my way. If I don’t do it, then I end up on my own, losing my footing spiritually speaking. The thorn which comes our way will be painful, but the lessons learned from it will be good. Perhaps the greatest lesson of all is learning to rest in the Lord and in the weakness we experience due to the troubles which come our way. Notice that what Paul learned ended up not being confined in his application just to the thorn itself, but to other like problems or thorns that would come his way. Not an easy truth. But one for us in this life, as we seek together to follow our Lord as his witnesses in this world.