Thank you, dear reader, for staying with us through this series. This is the penultimate article to this series and I hope thus far, you have been edified. Today’s piece answers what Paul’s thorn was, Paul’s initial response to his suffering, God’s response to Paul’s suffering, and Paul’s radical change of heart with a special call to action not to waste your thorn! Have a read.

What is the thorn?

When Paul tells us that a thorn is given to him in the flesh, it most likely isn’t to be understood literally as a thorn in his body because he goes on to describe it as a messenger of Satan. So what exactly is this thorn?

The flesh is often used in Scripture to refer to our physical bodies. But it’s also used to refer to fallen human nature that is opposed to God apart from the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.

So what exactly is this thorn? Is it a physical illness or disease that afflicts Paul’s body? Or is it something internal, like a dark cloud of depression or distress or psychological struggle? Or is it something else altogether?

The passage doesn’t explicitly tell us what this thorn is and I think the specific reason is that the thorn represents all forms of suffering that God gives to His people. Be it something external like a physical illness or something internal like depression or distress.

Textual Proof

After the specific mention of this thorn in verse 7, Paul concludes his line of thought in this section with a general statement in verse 10.

“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

2 Corinthians 12:10

This is the main point of verses 7-10. It’s not just about a thorn. The thorn is a specific example that fits into a broader category of suffering. This passage is about any form of suffering, whether weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. 

Paul’s detailed list of his suffering as seen in 2 Corinthians 11:24–28 includes physical suffering and non-physical suffering. And the point of the thorn in chapter 12 is that it represents all of it and more.

So, first, we saw that the thorn was given to Paul to break him of his pride because it’s only when he’s broken that Paul remains humble rather than exalting himself in pride.

Second, we saw that it’s God who gave the thorn to Paul because God is the one who wants Paul to be humble.

Third, we’ve seen that the thorn represents suffering in general, whether internal or external.

God gives suffering to His people in order to break us of our pride.

When we put it all together, here’s the main takeaway once again from verse 7: God gives suffering to His people in order to break us of our pride.

Let’s face it. You and I are proud. We’re sinners. It’s been said that the root of every sin is pride because pride is everything that is opposed to God and humble dependence on Him. Pride led not only to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden but also the fall of Satan from heaven before that. We’re going to need suffering to break down our pride until the day we die because we’re going to struggle with sin until the day we die!

If it was true of the apostle Paul, what makes us think that it wouldn’t be true of us? The irony is that only pride would make us believe that this doesn’t apply to us.

But breaking us down into humble people isn’t an end in itself. God has a greater goal in that, which is to give us Jesus. Not just a little bit of Jesus, but the fullness of Jesus. And what we see in verses 8-10 is that Jesus only makes His home in broken people.

We’re going to need suffering to break down our pride until the day we die because we’re going to struggle with sin until the day we die!

Paul’s initial response to his suffering

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.”

2 Corinthians 12:8

Paul’s initial response to the suffering produced by the thorn is to do what all of us would instinctively do: he asks for God to take it away. As I mentioned earlier, every single one of us is naturally averse to suffering. We avoid it. And when it comes, we want it taken away as soon as possible. So, in one sense, there’s nothing Christian in simply praying for God to take away your suffering. Even non-Christians will pray to God to take away their suffering even though they don’t pray to God for any other reason.

Not once, no twice, but three times Paul begs God to take away the thorn. And then, in verse 9, we see God’s response:

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

2 Corinthians 12:9a

God’s response to Paul’s suffering

The English translation of this text hides something important about the significance of this response as it’s recorded in Scripture. An important thing to know about Bible translations (and translations in general) is that one thing that gets changed in going from one language to another is the order in which the words appear. If you were to translate the Greek without changing the original word order it would read something like this: “Sufficient for you is my grace, for my power in weakness is made perfect.”

Why do I mention this? The way the words are written in the original Greek uses a pattern called a chiasm. A chiasm is a literary technique used to arrange words in matching pairs where the emphasis is usually on the pair of words found in the center of the chiasm.

Sufficient (A)

for you (B)

is my grace (C)

for my power (C)

in weakness (B)

is made perfect (A)

Paul wrote God’s answer to his prayer in verse 8 in the form of a chiasm because he wanted us to see something specific about what God was emphasizing: His grace and His power.

Paul’s initial response to the thorn was to focus on the thorn. What does he pray for? “Remove the thorn, remove the thorn, remove the thorn.” Where’s the focus? The thorn. Isn’t that usually the case for us when we find ourselves experiencing suffering? We’re focused on whatever that thorn is and our desire for it to be gone.

Paul wrote God’s answer to his prayer in verse 8 in the form of a chiasm because he wanted us to see something specific about what God was emphasizing: His grace and His power.

But then God responds to Paul’s prayer with a different focus. “My grace, my power.” Where’s the focus. God. In other words, God’s response to Paul is to say: “This thorn is my unique way of giving you more of myself.”

Paul’s radical change of heart

This becomes even more clear as we continue reading in verse 9:

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

2 Corinthians 12:9b

The transition from verse 7 to verse 9 has always been jarring to me. In verse 7, Paul seems to be in agony as this thorn is tormenting him and he’s praying for God to take it away. Then in verse 9, after God responds to his prayer, he writes about gladly boasting in his weaknesses. The word that we have translated as “gladly” is “hedeos” and the noun form of the word is “hedone.” The only reason I mention it is because it’s where we get the word hedonism. A hedonist is someone who is consumed with the pursuit of pleasure.

So Paul goes from seeing the thorn primarily as a source of pain in verse 7 to seeing the thorn primarily as a source of pleasure in verse 9. How in the world is that possible? The thorn didn’t go away. So what changed as a result of the answer from God to his initial prayer? I had read this verse countless times, but about two months ago God opened my eyes to see that the key is in the last part of verse 9.

“ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

—2 Corinthians 12:9

“Rest Upon”

The phrase “rest upon” can also be translated as “dwell within.” Dwell. Take up residence. That’s the same root term that refers to what happened when God became a man 2,000 years ago.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

John 1:14

The apostle John tells us in John 1:14 that 2,000 years ago the eternal Son of God was born as a human being named Jesus the Christ to make His dwelling on earth.

And what Paul is saying here in 2 Corinthians 12:9 is that Jesus the Christ makes His dwelling inside of men … IF we embrace the brokenness and weakness that God brings into our lives through various kinds of thorns.

Do you see that? Paul boasts with pleasure in his weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell within him. The first half of the sentence is the cause: Paul gladly boasting in the weakness from his thorn. The second half is the effect: the power of Christ dwells in Paul.

Christ and His power dwell in Paul as a result of Paul’s weakness. God only makes His dwelling within those who are made humble through brokenness and weakness. This has always been the case.

“For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.

Isaiah 57:15

I gave you a picture earlier of the way the thorn works in Paul’s life. As Paul receives revelations of the Lord, he becomes tempted to exalt himself in pride. And the thorn is designed to beat him down to a place of brokenness so that his spirit is kept low in humility instead of exalted in pride. This verse in Isaiah 57 makes explicit the connection between brokenness and humility. To be contrite is to be broken or crushed. To be lowly is to be humble. The God who is high and lifted up will not make His home with those who in pride seek to exalt themselves to His throne. He only makes His dwelling with those who are humbled and broken.

Paul knows his Old Testament. And I think something clicks for him when God answers his prayer. He realizes that if he doesn’t embrace weakness, He doesn’t get Christ. 

Christ, Paul’s greatest treasure

So how in the world does Paul go from seeing the thorn primarily as a source of pain in verse 7 to seeing the thorn primarily as a source of pleasure in verse 9? It’s not because he loves pain. It’s because he loves Christ and his greatest pleasure is found in fellowship with Christ. So the thorn goes from being something that causes him to lose comfort to being something that causes him to get more of Christ. And whatever gives Paul more of Christ is primarily a source of pleasure for Paul because Christ is his greatest treasure.

Paul is saying: “All I want is Christ. All I want is Christ. Whatever it takes. And if the thorn leads to more of Christ, then there’s no way I’m going to pray for it to be taken away. I’m going to boast in it, to glory in it, to rejoice in it.”

But Paul could have chosen a different response to the thorn, as we often do. So often our response to the suffering God brings into our lives is to complain, to grumble, to give in to self-pity, and end up spending far too much time and energy feeling sorry for ourselves. And by doing this we move farther away from Jesus rather than closer to him.

Remember that picture I’ve mentioned a couple of times where the revelations from the Lord tempt him to exalt himself in pride and the thorn is meant to beat him down? Let’s now talk about it with respect to us.

The reason for the thorn in our lives

Our sinful nature is constantly pushing us in the direction of exalting ourselves to the place of God. Every sin is really just our attempt to be God. We want to control our lives and the world around us. And God sends the thorn, His design is for it to push us down to the place of humility and brokenness where we take our rightful place beneath Him. If those thorns come and we grow bitter, complain, grumble or feel sorry for ourselves, that’s really just our sinful nature continuing to push ourselves back in the upward direction of exalting ourselves to the place of God. It’s our way of trying to continue to protect ourselves from suffering rather than to embrace suffering by taking the lowly place as Jesus did in becoming a man and dying on a cross.

Jesus lives in the high and holy place as God and in the broken and lowly place as a crucified man. We can’t live with Him by exalting ourselves to the high and holy place. We don’t have access to Him that way. We can only live with Him by embracing the lowly place just like He did in His incarnation and death. So for us to continue to push ourselves upward is to move away from Jesus. If we choose this path, we’re going to waste our thorns because we don’t get more of Jesus; we just have more of our prideful selves.

Jesus lives in the high and holy place as God and in the broken and lowly place as a crucified man.

And you know what else I’ve noticed in my own experience? It comes from that saying the higher they are, the harder they fall. So often most of our pain when we suffer comes because in the pride of exalting ourselves, whether we are aware of it or not, we’re filled with a sense of self-entitlement, like feeling entitled to a certain standard of living, just to name one example. So when the thorn comes that takes it away, it’s the same thing as if we’re falling down from a high cliff. And it’s unbearably painful. But what about the guy who doesn’t think he’s entitled to very much. When the thorn comes, how hard is his fall? Nowhere near as hard as the fall of the guy who lives way up there. And the pain is far less.

Take some time to examine your heart by asking: “What do I think I’m entitled to?” And think about Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

Listen to me, brothers and sisters, God is the only one in the universe who is entitled to anything. He’s entitled to everything. As sinful creatures, we are entitled to nothing but His wrath. And even as redeemed creatures, we are entitled to nothing. Everything is a gift and will continue to be even in the ages to come in the new heaven and earth.

Paul got this. He imitated Christ. So he boasted in, gloried in, rejoiced in his thorn because he knew that to do anything else would be to lose out on more of Christ and thus would be a waste of his thorn. So let’s learn from him, brothers and sisters, and let’s not waste our thorns.