What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?
After the apostle Paul describes having an incredible vision of going to heaven, he writes, “…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” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
Verse 9 is one of the most quoted passages of Scripture in all of the Bible. Many people use this passage as a reason they shouldn’t receiving healing prayer for their illness. They assume Paul was given some physical illness by God to keep him from becoming conceited. So, they reason, God must have given me this illness, and I just need to let God’s grace be sufficient for me.
But is that what Paul is talking about here?
First, whatever this thorn is, it was given to him because of his “surpassingly great revelations.” So unless you’ve visited heaven recently and seen inexpressible things, you don’t fit this category.
Secondly, whatever this thorn is, it is a “messenger of Satan.” That word “messenger” is the same word in the Greek for angel. So whatever this thorn is for Paul, it is functioning as a demonic fallen angel bringing the lies and deception of Satan. To say that this is “from God” is a stretch. So even if a person contends that this thorn is a physical ailment, then this passage indicates that it is a physical ailment from Satan, not God.
Thirdly, I do not believe this thorn for Paul is a physical sickness or disease because every other time in the Old Testament where it mentions a thorn, it does so in reference to people, not sickness.
Numbers 33:55 references how people with false beliefs still living in the Promised Land would become a thorn in the flesh of the people of Israel:
“But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live.”
Joshua 23:13 warns Israel that if they associate with and intermarry with the Canaanite people who stay in the land, then they will become thorns:
“then you may be sure that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you.”
Judges 2:3 once again warns Israel against the previous inhabitants of the Promised Land: “Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they will become as thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.’” (NASB)
Paul, being a Pharisee in his former life, would have know these references to thorns really well. So when Paul talks about his own “thorn in the flesh,” he is most likely talking about people who’ve become a problem to his ministry. He’s saying that the false teachers who oppose his ministry are to him like the Canaanites were to Israel. This fits with the context of 2 Corinthians 12, since Paul has been addressing false apostles in Corinth for the last few chapters.
It also fits with his concluding statement, “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” (2 Corinthians 12:10). The weakness, the thorn, that Paul is dealing with are people who oppose his ministry with insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties. They are the so-called “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5 & 12:11) who send Paul’s churches into confusion and theological error.
So, no, that sickness you’re dealing with is not a “thorn in the flesh” from God meant to humble you. I do not believe God is the author of any kind of evil, including illness. I believe God wants you healed! While God can take awful things and redeem them, He is not the source of those awful things in this world.