When Saul of Tarsus became the Apostle Paul, he encountered many obstacles in his Christian life. He was beaten, imprisoned, stoned, and chased from city to city. But perhaps his worst problem was the one he wrote about to the Christians at Corinth:

Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness [2 Cor. 12:7–9, KJV].

The exact nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” has been the subject of endless speculation and countless term papers. Even the translators are not quite sure what to do with the phrase. The King James interpreters gave it its literal meaning. The Today’s English Version reads, “I was given a painful physical ailment.…” This follows the common line of interpretation, that the thorn in the flesh of Paul probably was physical. The New English Version also follows this line: “I was given a sharp physical pain.…” But in the footnote, an alternative reading is given: “Or, a painful wound to my pride (literally a stake, or thorn, for the flesh.)” Here is another idea, that Paul’s thorn was not a physical ailment but rather a wound to his pride. Behind the uncertainty about the nature of Paul’s thorn lies a real message to every Christian: no matter what his own thorn, God’s grace is sufficient.

For many Christians, the thorn is literally in the flesh. The thing that seems to be a curse to their Christian life is blindness or deafness or some other serious physical ailment.

Not long ago I was visiting in the home of a young Christian family. Eventually the conversation turned to the most serious problem in the lives of this Christian couple: the woman suffered from recurring arthritic attacks in her leg and hip joints. At times she could not get up to care for their young children without terrible pain. She was only in her mid-twenties, and these attacks brought not only physical pain but also periods of depression.

For a long time, this couple and a prayer group they attended had been praying together that God would remove this ailment. But he had not done so. The couple was in deep spiritual distress, wondering why God would not cure her affliction. When I pointed out that he might be saying no and that they might be required simply to accept that, as Paul had, they were quite startled. But once they accepted the truth that God’s strength can be made perfect in our weakness, they were able to walk in a fuller trust of the wisdom of Christ.

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Another man I know lives in constant misery, with severe uncontrollable diabetes complicated by heart trouble. For the past several years he has been in the hospital as much as he has been at home. He has long been unable to work to support his family and is in constant pain. But when I go to visit this man, he cheers meup. Long ago he realized that God was not going to remove his thorn. He accepted the fact and is satisfied with the grace of God’s salvation.

It has been my observation that the spiritual thorn—the strong recurring temptation—is often more serious than the physical one. To get a clearer understanding of this problem let us look at what Paul wrote in his first letter to the believers at Corinth:

Surely you know that the wicked will not receive God’s Kingdom. Do not fool yourselves; people who are immoral, or worship idols, or are adulterers, or homosexual perverts, or who rob, or are greedy, or are drunkards, or who slander others, or are lawbreakers—none of these will receive God’s Kingdom. Some of you were like that. But you have been cleansed from sin; you have been dedicated to God; you have been put right with God through the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God [1 Cor. 6:9–11, TEV].

This passage gives an idea of the kinds of sins that the Corinthian saints had formerly been involved in. Now they had been cleansed from sin and dedicated to God. But had all these former temptations departed? The answer seems to be a definite no. Although they had been cleansed and their sins counted against them no more, the habits of their former lives still weighed heavily on them. These temptations became their thorns in the flesh, a burden in their Christian lives. And so it still is today. The habits and sins of a former life become the messengers of Satan to buffet the Christian in his new life.

Let us take a few examples from the list Paul wrote to the Corinthians. Paul said that some of the Christians had formerly been drunkards. Are we to think that after they became believers in Christ they no longer were tempted by alcoholic beverages? Anyone who has seen a former alcoholic come to Christ knows this is not so. The temptation is likely to remain, at times very difficult to bear, often requiring resistance to the end of his life on earth. For some it is a thorn in the flesh that God does not remove.

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Some of the Corinthian Christians had formerly been adulterers. Now they had been put right with God through Jesus Christ. But the temptation of lust does not disappear as if by magic. It still remains strongly implanted in many Christians, and becomes their thorn in the flesh.

In the past few years five ministers among my own acquaintances have become intimately involved with their secretaries or other women in their churches. Did this suddenly just happen? Or was it the result of some long-hidden thorn that the person could no longer restrain by himself? I incline toward the latter view.

Another type of person who became a Christian in Corinth was the thief. Undoubtedly several of these people had formerly made their living by stealing items and selling them in the thieves’ market in the city. On becoming Christians they had to find a new means of livelihood. But being cleansed from sin through Jesus Christ did not mean they were no longer tempted by the lure of easy money. The temptation may have remained and become to these persons a thorn in the flesh. To the end of their days, perhaps, when they saw some object of value lying unprotected, they had to fight the temptation to pick it up and carry it off. Although the temptation may have weakened as the years passed, it may have remained a hindrance in their spiritual lives.

A fourth type of person mentioned by the Apostle has been the object of a great deal of study recently. Paul noted that although some of the members of Christ’s body at Corinth had formerly been homosexuals, they had now been cleansed from sin, dedicated to God, and put right with God through Jesus Christ. A homosexual who becomes redeemed cannot continue to remain homosexual in his or her behavior, because practicing homosexuals cannot have any part in God’s kingdom. The sexual behavior must change.

Many psychologists say that homosexuality has its roots in a person’s past experiences, and that we cannot expect him to overcome his past. Indeed, the practice of homosexuality is like every other type of sin in being rooted in past experiences. The Christian who has been a homosexual will probably continue to have homosexual temptations, perhaps severely so. It is likely to be his thorn in the flesh. But temptation is not a sin. The sin is in succumbing to the temptation. It is no more of a sin for a former homosexual to be tempted with a homosexual urge than for a former alcoholic to be tempted to drunkenness. But to yield to the temptation would indeed be sin.

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“Why won’t you remove my thorn, God?” we ask. “I would certainly be a better servant for you without it.” The answer dawns on us slowly: the Lord knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what things can strengthen us spiritually. He knows what things will harm us.

Paul told why the Lord gave him a thorn in the first place: “to keep me from being puffed up with pride …” (2 Cor. 2:7). This is also obviously why the Lord would not remove it. The human memory is sometimes very short. The Lord knows that if the thorn is removed, we may soon forget that all our accomplishments are achieved through the indwelling of the Spirit of God; we may start being puffed up with pride in what we will soon consider to be our own accomplishments. If we begin to have pride in ourselves, we may soon stop trusting in Jesus Christ.

What can we, the people of God, members of Christ’s body, do about these problems that plague our Christian growth? First, we must recognize that we all have our thorns in the flesh and that the thorns of other Christians may be very different from our own. When we learn of a temptation that another Christian is subject to, we ought not to be shocked. Although the temptations of others may not tempt us at all, we must remember that no temptation has overtaken any Christian except those that are common to mankind.

A second thing to remember is that God will not allow us to be tempted more than we are able to resist. Sometimes he may remove a problem completely. Occasionally, a former drunkard who comes to Christ is never again tempted by alcohol. God may have removed the temptation because he knows this particular person could not bear it. But these cases are unusual; normally a thorn like alcoholism remains deeply imbedded in the flesh and requires special grace to resist throughout the Christian’s earthly life.

Third, let us note that God has not left the individual Christian at the mercy of these thorns without any relief. With every temptation God has provided a way of escape, perhaps through fasting, prayer and petitioning until the temptation has passed.

Sometimes we need help from a Christian brother or sister. In Galatians 6:2 Paul wrote, “Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” We may need to flee to others for counseling, encouragement, and prayer with and for us in order to overcome severe attacks by Satan.

For other Christians to help us they must know what our thorn is. They need to be aware of our deepest temptations and trials. The Scriptures say, “Confess your faults to one another” (James 5:16). We need to be aware of each other’s thorns so that we can help in times of greatest stress.

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Most Christians do not act toward fellow believers with the honest, selfless concern Christ intended in his admonition to love one another. Often when we hear of a Christian brother’s thorn in the flesh, instead of helping him we hurt him further by gossiping about his weakness. Yet listed with other sinners ineligible for God’s kingdom is the slanderer. It does not take a new Christian long to learn to keep his trials to himself and attempt to overcome them alone. Our thorns are hidden deep within each of us, and we are doubly plagued by them. We suffer both from the thorn itself and from the fear that our temptation will become known to our fellow believers.

Our responsibility is to help our brother, not to heap more hurt on him. We need to have more concern for the spiritual growth of our fellow believers. When we learn of the thorns of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we must simply accept both them and their thorns; and they must accept us and ours. Let us stand ready to help one another whenever we are needed.

The Church of Jesus Christ on this earth is composed not of perfect, spiritually mature people but of people striving in the Master’s strength toward perfection. In our striving we can gain assurance from God’s words, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

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