“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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 12:7-10
This piece of Scripture often gets discussed because of the “thorn” Paul mentions. Bible readers are interested in understanding what exactly this “thorn” was. There are all sorts of theories, but they’re all speculative. The truth is we have no idea what exactly it was that God sent to Paul to keep him humble.
More important than the exact identity of the “thorn” is the fact that God sends it. He sent something to Paul which he perceived as difficult, as an adversity. God had a purpose behind it, but Paul experienced it as something that he would rather do without. Believers have no difficulty believing that God sends the things we experience as delightful and good. The challenge is believing that God also sends hardship. Yet Scripture teaches that, not just once, but repeatedly: Isaiah 45:7, Lam. 3:28, Psalm 60:1-4, Psalm 66:10-12, Psalm 71:20, Psalm 102:10 and many more places.
In this case, Paul struggled with why he had to deal with this adversity. So he prayed. Interestingly, he says that he prayed “to the Lord” about this. From what follows in verses 9 and 10, it’s clear that this is a reference to Christ. Paul prayed to Christ, not just once, but three times about his “thorn.” There are those who continue to argue that believers may not pray to Jesus. Instead, they say, we must only pray to God the Father (the first person of the Trinity). That argument is based on a misunderstanding of the address of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who is in heaven…” It misunderstands “Father” there to be a reference to the first person of the Trinity. Instead, “Father” is used there in the Old Testament manner of speaking as a reference to God. If Christians are only supposed to pray to the first person of the Trinity, then, to be consistent, one must conclude that Paul sinned here in 2 Corinthians 12. However, the fact that the Lord Jesus heard him and answered him would indicate that there was nothing inappropriate in Paul’s prayer. It was acceptable for him to pray to the Lord Jesus — and so it is for believers today as well.
The answer Paul received from Jesus is also worth pondering: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Surprisingly, weakness is the way God has often worked. In the Old Testament, he takes the runt and makes him a leader. You can think of Gideon or David. In the New Testament, this principle is exemplified at the cross. What could be weaker than a naked dying man on a Roman instrument of torture reserved for criminals? Christ himself exemplified the principle of power made perfect in weakness. Now he speaks to one united to him and says that he is experiencing the same. Just as with the cross, there is a goal in the weakness. There is a purpose in the thorn. And there is enough divine grace from the Saviour to see it properly and endure it contentedly.
Does it really matter, then, what the “thorn” was? Obviously it was something difficult. Yet the Spirit, in his wisdom, hid it from our view. The situation is comparable to many of the Psalms. Many of the Psalms are laments — they feature the psalmist singing the blues. Some of the lament Psalms are tied to concrete historical situations, but many are not. There too, the Spirit has hid the circumstances from view, reminding us that there is a timeless quality to these words. The words of Scripture in these cases can and should be easily “universalized.” As we suffer adversities and hardships, these passages of Scripture can help us with the right perspective. We too can learn contentment in the midst of difficulty, knowing that God’s strength comes in weakness.