I have no speculation to add in regard to that which already exists as to the nature of the apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Suffice it to say that it was something of a torment to him, something that caused personal discomfort and embarrassment. Might even have been painful. Definitely something limiting and something that he wanted removed from his life.
In the first ten verses of I Corinthians 12, he describes the background and cryptically calls it a “messenger from Satan.” He also says that its purpose was “to torment me.”
Interestingly, he notes that the reason this affliction was given was to prevent him from developing excessive pride. Paul claims that he had experienced visions of a surpassing nature, revelations of such grandeur that he was not permitted to even speak of them. In another place he described being “caught up into the third heaven” in a state so rapturous that he was not sure whether he was there physically or only in the spirit.
It appears clear—at least to my current thinking—that Christ granted Paul understanding and witness of heavenly secrets and mysteries beyond those allowed any other apostle, at least at that time. How his experience compared to the revelation later granted to the Isle of Patmos’ most famous resident shall remain shrouded a while longer.
It is reasonable that someone given such an experience of glory, a privilege apparently exceeding that given even unto Peter, might develop an inflated ego. Might get the notion that he was, indeed, someone special.
Enter the thorn. Welcome to your affliction, Paul. Still human, after all.
And so, he cried out to God. And so, he begged for deliverance. And so, he asked, and asked again, and yet again, to be freed of this abasement.
And was told “No.”
And so, we cry out to God, asking for relief. Asking for deliverance. Asking to be free of our pain, our affliction, our torment. And sometimes are told “No.” Sometimes, we are not given such a clear answer but rather reach that conclusion based on deduction instead of revelation.
Paul says that God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you.” He also said that God’s strength is perfected in weakness and that therefore he had learned to find joy and fulfillment in weakness. You see, our strength glorifies us. Our strength often leads us to pride. Our strength deceives us into believing in self, trusting in self, and honoring self. Our weakness? Not so much.
In pain, in torment, in desperation, in humiliation, even in agony, we cry out to God for deliverance. Yet, in his infinite wisdom and inscrutable purpose, he may respond differently than we desire. Sometimes, we are granted the mercy that we seek. Other times, there is a different answer.
We are not called to ease nor granted leisure. We are called to obedience, to honor him rather than ourselves. Grace is the answer and humility the lesson. The teaching continues until we are brought to perfection in Jesus Christ. Quite the goal, really.
Let us remember another admonition from the bearer of the thorn. In his letter to the believers in Rome (8:18), he assures us, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”