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” (2 Cor. 12:7-9).
When Haley and I were on our honeymoon in St. Lucia, we decided to try out a free snorkeling trip. Whilst we were snorkeling, I decided (for some reason) to touch a rock that was underwater in the reef, and I found myself reflexively withdrawing my hand just as quickly as I had placed it upon the rock. I swam to the surface, looked at my left hand, and saw that one of my fingers was bleeding and had on it what appeared to be three black specks. Those specks were in fact imbedded splinters from whatever was on the rock that I touched. Being away from home and away from my “home surgery kit,” I had to deal with the splinters for the rest of our honeymoon, and they were quite painful.
After getting back to the States, one of the first things that I did when I got home was attempt to remove the splinters from my aching finger. I successfully removed the first two, pulling out the entire splinter with a pin, a knife, and a set a tweezers. The last splinter proved to be more difficult, and it broke while I was trying to remove it. The small piece that remained in my finger imbedded itself further and finally proved itself impossible to remove. Two years later and after several bloody attempts to remove it, my honeymoon splinter is still with me. Since then the constant pain has subsided, and most times I forget that it is there. But every so often, I will grip something in particular way or push against something at the just the right angle, and I will feel an unbearably sharp pain travel from the tip of that finger and up my left arm, reminding me that my splinter friend is still with me after all this time.
For this reason, when I read Paul’s account of his thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12, I, either rightly or wrongly, think it comparable with the splinter in my own finger. In light of the context and my experience, I do not think Paul’s thorn was something that struck him with pain constantly, but that it was something that struck him with pain when he needed it. According to the text, the thorn was given to him solely to prevent him from becoming proud and conceited, and I can imagine Paul finding himself in torment, seemingly out of the blue, as with my splinter, at precisely the time that he thought more highly of himself than he ought to have had.
This symbolic thorn in Paul’s flesh is not reserved to Paul’s experience alone, for I believe that many Christians are given thorns like Paul’s to humble them. From the context, I believe Paul’s thorn was a particular, nagging sin that Paul could not completely overcome, and this I believe because of God’s response to Paul’s petition to remove it: “My grace is sufficient for you.” God’s grace was sufficient for Paul’s thorn. Then I asked myself this question, “What is the best way to humble a man who thinks himself righteous and holy on his own accord?” The answer: Let him fall into the sin that he believes that he has conquered.
Have you not found this to be the case in your own life? You find that you are living righteously before God and are loving him and obeying his commandments, and then, all of sudden and out of nowhere, your focus shifts off of God and his glory to you and your glory. You think to yourself that you have somehow arrived spiritually, that you get what others do not, and then a small, pride-filled grin smirks across the side of your face. And just as quickly as you found yourself boasting in yourself, you find yourself sinning in a way that did not even occur to you prior to your boasting. You immediately realize the folly of your thinking and remember quite clearly that without God you are nothing.
For this reason, the thorns of sin that torment us throughout our lives are sweet Providences in disguise. Yes, they cause us to groan for the redemption of our bodies and to yearn for that day when the jewels of sin will appear to be dung in the sight of God, but they are at present working together for God’s glory and our good. We, like Paul, will pray in our ignorance and weakness that these things would be removed from us, and the Spirit will be there interceding for us with inexpressible groanings according to perfect will of our Father (cf. Romans 8:26, 27). Rest well, child of God, knowing that God will discipline you and that his grace is more than sufficient to cover your failings.