This is a remarkable passage to attempt to explore in the space of a few paragraphs. So much so, that I’ve been sat here with an empty Word document, typing and deleting opening paragraphs, trying to do it justice. Lord, breathe life into these words.
Let’s start with the thorn. Not that this is an easy place to start. We don’t know what it is, we struggle to comprehend why it’s there, and we are at risk of being outraged as to how it got there. If God is a loving God, why does Paul have a thorn?
What is the thorn? Many have speculated, but nobody knows for certain – and that’s no bad thing. As Jon Bloom (desiringgod.org) writes, not knowing what the thorn is means that we can relate to Paul’s suffering. But more importantly, not knowing what the thorn is means that we focus not on the what, but on the why.
So why does Paul have a thorn? Paul tells us that his thorn was sent to keep him “from becoming conceited” because of what God had revealed to him. Conceit is a form of pride. And God hates pride, (Proverbs 3:34, James 4:6, and so on); God cannot stand sin. He’d rather someone lose an eye than for their whole body to be cast into hell, (Matthew 5:29). People often say that the Holy Spirit is ‘a gentleman’. Sometimes, he’s more like a bodyguard, diving into the road and dragging you away from the oncoming traffic.
How did Paul end up with a thorn? This is even more remarkable. Although Paul uses the passive tense (“a thorn was given me”), it’s clear that this is God’s doing. And not only is it God’s doing, but the chosen instrument is a “messenger of Satan”. Yet God is ultimately glorified. John Piper writes, “God uses Satan to defeat the purposes of Satan. This is not exceptional. He did it with Job. He did it with Judas. And he did it with Paul.”
So this passage outlines a tension between the thorn’s fallen nature and its divine purpose. The thorn is a messenger of Satan. There were no thorns in Eden, and there will be no thorns in heaven. But the thorn was also used to God’s glory in Paul’s life. (If Paul had become conceited, what would have happened next? Would he have made his fortune selling stories of his visions of paradise? Would he have had women flocking to his feet?)
Likewise, there’s a tension in Paul’s desires. He wants rid of the thorn. He pleads three times (probably many more times) for the thorn to be gone. He longs to live without it. But at the same time, he rejoices, because he knows that Jesus is being glorified through him. God’s ways are higher than Paul’s ways, and God’s thoughts higher than Paul’s, Isaiah 55:9. Ultimately, Paul comes to a place of contentment in his circumstances.
In terms of my own life, this passage is of great comfort. My eldest daughter, Isobel, is autistic. This means that a new term, full of changes and new expectations and new social interactions, is fraught with worry for her. She’s often emotionally exhausted and at risk of behaving inappropriately in school. When she started nursery, we would receive phone calls most days because she’d lashed out at another child, or she’d thrown a chair, or she’d had a meltdown because she’d not been able to express herself adequately. She’s learnt remarkably to cope with her symptoms, but it’s still a tough time of year for us as a family.
Is her autism a thorn? I don’t know. I don’t know why it’s there, but I know there’ll be no autism in heaven. Did we plead with God? Yes, we pleaded so hard. We wept over her, praying that her condition wouldn’t be life-long. Did God do this to stop us becoming conceited?! I have no idea. But I know that all His ways are just. Are we at peace with her diagnosis? It’s hard. Sometimes when she’s had a ‘red’ day at school or is in floods of frustrated tears because of an unexpected change of circumstance, it’s difficult to feel that same sense of contentment that Paul felt. But I look at her, and I just know God is at work in her, for His glory. I know God is good; I know God is in control; and therefore I can come to a place of acceptance over the things I don’t understand.