The Purpose of the Thorn

Most people I have met over the years have experienced some sort of “thorn in the flesh.” Over lunch recently with another pastor, he revealed how much he struggles with self-doubt in his abilities. He feels inadequate as a preacher, as a leader, as a husband and father, and admitted it is a real struggle for him. He knows people around him would tell him—and do tell him—that those things are not true, but it doesn’t stop him from feeling it or, at times, believing it. 


As a pastor, I’ve counseled with countless church members who are dealing with their own versions of “the thorn.” Some deal with self-doubt, others struggle with pride, jealousy, or greed. I know many mothers who feel like they fail more days than they succeed. Many wrestle with fleshly desires such as substance abuse, lust and pornography, or having a quick temper. No matter how hard they pray or fight against it, it doesn’t seem to go away. These ongoing sins and strongholds can remain with them for years and decades. 


However, it isn’t always an internal battle. Sometimes our troubles emerge from the outside. These external fights can include the death of a loved one, lingering health issues, a bad marriage, financial strain, a bad boss who doesn’t see your contributions or value them, or any other number of things. These external struggles may not be things we are able to shake or quickly change. Sometimes, like our internal struggles, they don’t go away. 


What are we to make of these situations? How should we as Christians see and understand these internal and external battles that possess such power to cripple us?


We find an answer to this in 2 Corinthians 12. Look at what Paul reveals about his own life and struggles: 


Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 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 12:6-10, ESV)


This passage is important for Christians in teaching us about living with troubles. The apostle Paul had experienced unbelievable difficulties in his travels to spread the gospel. Those are captured in detail throughout 2 Corinthians 11. He outlines being shipwrecked, cold and naked, hungry, nearly stoned to death, whipped and beaten with rods.  Yet, despite all of these afflictions, he expresses his great love for the church. We never hear about or see Paul waver from his mission. There is never a glimpse of a man angry at God and questioning why God would allow all these troubles. Yet when we arrive at 2 Corinthians 12, Paul describes a “thorn in my flesh” and “messenger of Satan” that tormented him. However, he never explicitly defines that thorn. I believe, in the providence of God, it is for our benefit he didn’t. It allows us to apply the lesson in even greater ways. 


This thorn in his flesh must have been awful. It was so straining and difficult for him that he prays three times for the Lord Jesus to remove it from him. Yet, we never read of the previously mentioned trials or Paul asking to be spared. This is because he viewed suffering as a part and parcel of the Christian life. This “thorn” was of such trouble and anguish that he pleaded in prayer for Jesus to take it away. How did Jesus respond? He doesn’t give Paul what he wants. He gives him what he needs. His answer to Paul is, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Jesus assures Paul that He is enough for his needs. His presence and help are what Paul needs. Jesus promises him, “My power is perfected in weakness.” Paul doesn’t get a promise of relief, but he does receive a promise to endure it. Jesus is going to help him in his weakness. 


This is important to grasp as a Christian. Jesus has the power and authority to remove that thorn. God can do anything he pleases. With a single word, Paul’s messenger of Satan could have been vanquished. He could have displayed his power by rescuing him from the trial, but instead he shows Paul the power of his grace in the trial. 


Why does Jesus do this? We don’t get an answer. It is enough for us to conclude that if Jesus doesn’t rescue him from the pain, then he must have a purpose in the pain. God is under no obligation to share those reasons for us. What is left for us is to trust in both Christ’s wisdom and provision in enduring our thorn.  God is always at work in our lives even when we don’t see how. This includes those internal struggles and battles we face. Our longing may be to experience liberation from them, but we must hear Jesus’ words to us that His grace is sufficient. The external struggles we endure require the same recognition. Jesus may not change our circumstances, so we must lean into his grace each day and let Him sustain us.


The conversation with my pastor friend brought this reality to light. I told him that God may not ever give him reprieve from these battles of self-doubt. However, he can rest confident in Jesus’ promise to give him the grace he needs. Jesus’ power is made perfect in his doubts and insecurities. If he hasn’t taken it away yet, then he undoubtedly has purposes for it. So keep clinging to him, and trust that the promise of His Grace is indeed sufficient for all of life’s thorns.


Erik is the Lead Pastor of The Journey Church in Lebanon. He also founded Knowing Jesus Ministries, a non-profit organization which exists to proclaim timeless truth for everyday life. He is married to Katrina, and has three children: Kaleb (who went to be with the Lord), Kaleigh Grace, and Kyra Piper.

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