Thorns and Grace

Bible Book: 2 Corinthians  12 : 7-10
Subject: Problems, Grace in; Thorn in the Flesh; Grace in Trials

In the early part of 2 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul told of a rare, wonderful, mind-boggling experience that he had more than fourteen years prior to writing this letter. For some reason he spoke of it as it were someone else--he said, in verse 2, “I knew a man in Christ”--but it becomes clear that he was speaking of himself. He says that he isn’t sure whether what he experienced was “out of the body” or “in the body,” but one way or the other he was “caught up to the third heaven”, which he also refers to as “paradise,” where he heard things too sacred to be repeated.

Then, after relating that remarkable experience, he tells what came next.


He says, in verse 7, “And 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.”


Obviously what Paul called his “thorn in the flesh” was some kind of physical problem that caused him great distress. So far as the precise nature of that affliction, Paul doesn’t say. Based on a few references here and there in the New Testament, some believe that it was some type of rare eye disease, which not only caused Paul to suffer, but also caused his appearance to be grotesque and repulsive. But that’s inconclusive; the fact is that the details simply aren’t revealed to us.

But whatever it was, it must have hurt terribly. The Greek word for “thorn” refers to a pointed stake for impaling victims. Paul is using the word as a metaphor to say that his affliction was so excruciating that it was like an ongoing crucifixion.

He refers to it as “the messenger of Satan.” He could be saying that God was allowing Satan to afflict him with that thorn, whatever it was, just as God allowed Satan to afflict Job in the Old Testament. Or, he could be saying that, regardless of the origin of the thorn, Satan nevertheless used it to try to throw Paul off-track spiritually and cause him to have a wrong attitude. Paul said that Satan used it to “buffet” him. That Greek word for “buffet” means “to beat, to strike with the fist,” which indicates that the pain was brutal and intense.

Many people can identify with Paul at that point--such as people who were in near-fatal accidents and sustained horrible injuries both internal and external, or people afflicted with some debilitating disease, such as cancer in its worst stages, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or multiple sclerosis. I have known, and still know, people who live with pain on a daily basis--in some cases, pain that is extreme and almost unbearable.

Many other folks live every day with a different kind of pain: the pain of a crushed spirit, or a broken heart--in some cases because of a relationship being torn asunder, or because of being betrayed by someone they trusted, or because of seeing someone they love throwing their life away, making foolish, God-dishonoring, destructive choices--and the list could go on. Pain and suffering can be mental and emotional, as well as physical.

Possibly someone under the sound of my voice today is hurting terribly--perhaps physically, or maybe emotionally, or possibly you’re hurting both ways. If so, my heart goes out to you, and I want to encourage you to “hang in there,” because--on the authority of God’s Word--help is available.


Paul tells us in verse 7 that he knows why he was given his “thorn in the flesh.” Paul’s personality and makeup were such that in light of those marvelous revelations he had been privileged to receive, there was the danger of his getting puffed up and full of pride--so to keep him humble God allowed him to suffer. The Phillips paraphrase renders the key part of verse 7 as follows: “in order to prevent my becoming absurdly conceited, I was given a physical handicap.” Paul Powell said, “Troubles knock a lot of nonsense out of us.”

But most folks who suffer don’t know the purpose of their suffering. I’m not referring to situations in which the cause of the suffering is obvious, such as when a person gets drunk, wrecks his car, and sustains horrible, painful injuries--many cases of that general type could be cited. But when it comes to most suffering--especially the types of suffering over which we have little or no control--in most of those cases people don’t know why they are being allowed to suffer.

Indeed, throughout history people have struggled and agonized over the question of why God allows suffering. He is all-powerful and could, in one split second, totally eliminate suffering from the world if he so chose. So why does he permit people to suffer?

The broad, overall explanation is that we live in a fallen world; ever since sin entered the world, there has been chaos and suffering. Also, the Bible gives us some further general observations about suffering, and--as we noted--in a few cases such as Paul’s, God has revealed the exact reason for a person’s suffering; but to a large degree the issue of suffering is shrouded in mystery, and we should never jump to conclusions--about others, or even about ourselves. Sometimes a person will say, “What did I do to cause God to let me hurt like this?”--when in reality it might have nothing whatsoever to do with your conduct. It could be related to your conduct, because God does sometimes send chastisement--but the point is that we should not just assume that it’s because of something we’ve done or left undone.

Job’s so-called friends felt sure that they knew why Job was suffering, and told him so; they were convinced that it was because he was guilty of some grossly immoral act, but they were dead wrong. In John 9 we read of Jesus and his disciples encountering a man who had been born blind. Let’s look at verses 2-4:

And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should made manifest in him. I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. Jesus went on, then, to heal the blind man.

If God chooses to reveal the purpose for a person’s affliction, that’s fine, because he is God; but you and I must never judge as to why people have handicaps or diseases--that isn’t our prerogative.

Parenthetically, let me say that God gets the dubious “credit” for a lot of things that he doesn’t have one solitary thing to do with so far as initiating them. Of course everything that happens has to first pass through the filter of God’s permissive will--but God permits a lot of things that break his heart; he has created man as a free moral agent--and rather than cancel out our power to choose, or deleting the law of cause and effect from the constitution of his universe, with a sad heart he allows us to make foolish choices that sometimes bring ruination and suffering. That certainly doesn’t explain all of the suffering in the world by any means, but it is one part of the total equation.

The bottom line is this: even though we’re not able to understand much of the suffering that takes place in this world, we who are followers of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior simply have to walk by faith, confident that God never makes mistakes, that all of his dealings with us are in love, even when we can’t make any sense of what’s happening, and that one day he’s going to make it all come out like it’s supposed to.


In verse 8 Paul says, “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.”

From what we know of Paul, it is reasonable to think that he probably agonized for hours on each of those occasions.

It’s only natural that when we are hurting, we ask for deliverance from the pain and from the condition causing it. Whether we get the answer we want or not, prayer always makes a positive difference, so whatever our problem--whether it’s disease, or pain, or a broken heart, or a loved one in distress, or personal failure, we need to pray. Luke 18:1 says: “And he [Jesus] spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint.” A familiar hymn contains this admonition: “ when life seems dark and dreary, don’t forget to pray.”


Then in the first part of verse 9, Paul tells us of God’s answer to his prayer: “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”


So far as Paul’s plea for the removal of his thorn, God’s answer was “No.” Paul was one of the most faithful, on-fire, effective Christians who ever lived, yet God said “No,” because allowing that thorn to remain was for Paul’s ultimate good and God’s glory. So when he says “No” to some of your requests, don’t just automatically assume that it’s because you’re not praying in the right way, or that your spiritual life is out of kilter. Examine yourself, certainly, to be sure that you’re not “out of line” spiritually--but if you honestly are walking in daily fellowship with the Lord and still God says “No,” then realize that there is a valid purpose for his refusal.


But even though God didn’t answer Paul’s prayer in the way Paul had hoped, and didn’t remove the “thorn,” the answer he did give amounts to one of the grandest promises in the entire Bible. It was originally given to the apostle Paul as an individual, but Biblical teaching as a whole makes it very clear that that marvelous promise is intended for all people of all generations: “My grace is sufficient for thee....” Grace has often been defined as “the unmerited favor of God”--and the Scriptures make it wonderfully clear that his grace is sufficient and available to meet the whole range of human needs.

1. His grace is sufficient for salvation, regardless of how steeped in sin a person might be or regardless of how long he’s been in that bondage. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” The Scriptures teach us that the faith spoken of here is accompanied by repentance, and involves not simply head belief but a total commitment of one’s life to Jesus as Lord and Savior. But once a person has thus yielded his life to Christ, he is forgiven of his sins, his life is changed, he has access to God’s resources for spiritual growth, and he is heaven bound--and nothing can ever change his status as a child of God.

John Newton was a seaman who lived in the 18th century. He was a profane man, a drunkard, an infidel, a slave trader, and a constant trouble-maker. Once when in a drunken stupor, he went overboard, but was rescued by fellow seamen, and God began to work in his heart. He was finally converted on May 10,1748, and God set him free from his wicked lifestyle and made a new man out of him. He came to see the horrible wrong of the slave trade, and became a passionate abolitionist, as well as a zealous soul-winner. He wrote what has become perhaps the best known and best loved of all hymns, and those who knew him said that it was, in reality, his personal testimony. The first verse goes like this:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.

2. Then, as God made so clear to Paul, his grace is also sufficient for whatever trials and tribulations life might bring our way. Some troubles we may be delivered from, but others we must bear--as was true in Paul’s case--but God makes available grace to bear them. To all Christians, God gives this great promise in Hebrews 4:15-16: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”

I love that third verse of John Newton’s great hymn:

Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come;

‘Tis grace hath bro’t me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.

3. In verse 9 God said, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” The Greek word for “made perfect” literally means “brought to completion” or “is made fully present.”


Now let’s look at Paul’s response to God’s refusal linked with his promise of grace: in the latter part of verse 9 Paul said, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”


Because of that “thorn” Paul realized that, in himself, he was woefully inadequate, and was utterly dependent on the Lord--and when a person finally understands that, and looks to the Lord to supply his need, he is in a position for God’s power to be poured into his life. So, Paul “gloried” in his infirmities, not because he preferred pain rather than health, but because he preferred the power of God in his life rather than ineffectiveness--and since in his case it took that thorn to bring him to the necessary point of humility and surrender so as to receive that power, he said, in effect, “Praise God for my thorn!”

Some time ago I was in Baptist Hospital, Memphis, where I had just made a visit, and was on the elevator on my way down to the lobby. There was also a lady on the elevator, and I asked her if she had someone in the hospital. She told me their 36 year old son was there receiving chemo treatment for liver cancer and was looking forward to going home to remain there until the next scheduled chemo treatment. She began talking about her son. She said that for years he lived a self-destructive lifestyle, in spite of the fact that they did not raise him that way, but that since he has been found to have cancer he has been open to the Holy Spirit, and two weeks ago got right with God. She said that he has called everyone who has been praying for him and has thanked them. She was so grateful and relieved that he has now turned to the Lord. She said, “There is a positive side to everything.” Then, with tears, she went on to say, “These last two weeks have been the happiest two weeks we’ve had in the last 20 years!” Would that lady have chosen cancer for her son? Of course not. Was she glad that he had cancer? Certainly not. But she was rejoicing in the fact that, even though it took the horrible ordeal of cancer to bring it about, he had finally come to know the Lord.


Paul realized, further, that if his “thorn” could be a means of God’s power being demonstrated in his life, then so could all of life’s adversities be used in that way; so he went on to say in verse 10: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

When Paul said that he “took pleasure” in all of those hurtful things, he didn’t mean that he enjoyed pain or persecution--of course not; Paul was not psychologically unbalanced. The “pleasure” he took in those negative experiences was in the fact that each such experience would remind him afresh of his weakness and his utter dependence upon the Lord, and by realizing that and turning to the Lord for help, he would experience a fresh inflow of God’s power into his life. To Paul, the pleasure of experiencing God’s mighty power more than offset whatever suffering he had to endure. Warren Wiersbe quotes the 18th century French mystic, Madam Guyon, who said, “Ah, if you knew what power there is in an accepted sorrow.” One poet put it like this: “Bles’t the sorrow, kind the storm, that drives us nearer home.”

Billy Graham said that in olden times when a ship’s carpenter needed timber to make a mast for a sailing vessel he did not cut down a tree in the valley, but he went up on the mountainside where the trees had been pelted by wind, rain, snow, and sleet. He knew that those trees were strong from having withstood the fierce elements. Heartache and suffering are not our choices; but if we’ll allow him to, God will use the storms of life to strengthen us--so that we not only will be blessed ourselves, but so that we can also be a blessing to others.

If you’ve never done so, repent and commit yourself in faith to the Son of God, and you’ll find God’s grace sufficient to change your life. If you’re already a believer, go boldly to the throne of grace to find grace to help for whatever hurts and challenges you’re facing--his grace is sufficient to enable you to have victory in spite of everything.