My Grace is Sufficient for You - Part 3

Theme: Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh and Ours

This week’s lessons talk about how God’s grace is sufficient for the individual and personal trials that come from our own weaknesses, limitations, and struggles.

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 12:9

At this point Paul must have been embarrassed that he had been forced to mention even this one vision, because it is against this background—all I have been describing—that he talks about his thorn in the flesh (v. 7).

What was it? No one knows exactly what it was, though there has been a great deal of speculation, as you might imagine. Since he mentions “flesh,” there are people who have supposed this to be a weakness in his moral nature. John Calvin took this view. William Ramsay, the great investigator of Paul's travels, suggested that the thorn was malaria that Paul had picked up in the mosquito-infested swamps of lower, coastal Asia Minor on his first or second missionary journey. Some have suggested epilepsy, which is certainly a physical infirmity. Some have suggested a speech defect, because of his admitting to the Corinthians that he did not speak with eloquence when he was among them (1 Cor. 2:1).

The explanation that has always appealed to me is that Paul may have had a serious eye infection or condition that restricted his ability to see and brought him personal embarrassment. It is because he seems to have signed his letters personally, after a scribe had taken them down by dictation, but with “large letters” (Gal. 6:11). This might mean that he could not see well and therefore awkwardly copied out the letters of his name. But, of course, it could also mean only that he had not been trained to use the fine, cultured letters of a professional writer.

Still others have imagined that Paul was afflicted by guilt over failure to convert his fellow Jews. And still others that his thorn was Jewish or Gentile persecution.

As I say, we do not know what this thorn was. But we can probably say that it was physical, the literal meaning of “in my flesh,” and that it must have caused Paul great physical torment and embarrassment. In other words, it was a substantial problem and not merely a minor irritation, at least to him. I say this because Paul was a man who willingly put up with all the serious setbacks and sufferings mentioned in chapter 12, not suggesting for a moment that he even asked for the removal of any of these things. Yet this thorn bothered him so much that in some substantial way he pleaded with the Lord on three separate occasions that it might be removed.

Let me say that I do not believe it was an oversight on God's part that we have not been told what Paul's affliction was. In my judgment it has been left indefinite so we can identify with him and learn from him whatever our individual, differing afflictions may be. If Paul's problem was bad eyes and we were told that this was his thorn, the fact might be comfort for those who have bad eyes. But others would not think about Paul's trouble or be helped by him in this way very much. Since we do not know what he experienced, we can imagine him hurting from what it is that hurts us. And people do have hurts, even the most triumphant-appearing, victorious Christians or Christian leaders.

Pastors have unusual opportunities to learn of these hurts, because the people in their churches often share them and ask for counsel. I have unusual opportunities myself, because in addition to being a pastor of a large inner-city church, I am also a radio pastor to thousands who tune in to “The Bible Study Hour” each week. A radio program is no substitute for regular worship in church. I encourage full church participation. But sometimes people are unable to get to church, they may attend a church where they are not free to share their burdens with others for one reason or another. Many write to me, and I and the staff of “The Bible Study Hour” pray for them regularly.

Here is a random sampling of things listeners have written to me about.

From a town in Iowa. A family writes that their daughter was diagnosed as having viral encephalitis when she was only twenty days old. She was expected to die quickly, because her body was not able to control her body's temperature. But the child lived, though she has been in and out of many hospitals. She is now about eleven years old. This is not all, however. The father suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which limits the amount of work he is able to do. He cleans offices part time. His wife helps, as well as working part time in a school cafeteria. They have other problems too.

Are they complaining? No. The wife writes, “Please ask God to strengthen us, to fill our hearts with love for him, for one another, for our fellow humans, and to meet these challenges with love, courage, strength, and wisdom.”

From a city in Virginia. A wife asks us to pray that God would work in the life of her husband to bring him back home. He has deserted her.

From Kansas. A widow who lives on a pension of less than $1,000 a month and who has lived in her own home for thirty years, writes that she is about to be evicted because of a lawsuit. “Please remember me,” she says. “I am so afraid.”

From Michigan. A visually handicapped Christian woman is about to be evicted from her residence. She cannot drive, because she cannot see. She has no family, and nowhere to go.

From a small town in California. A man writes that he is sixty-one years old and has just lost his job, a frightening thing at that age. He does not even ask for prayer specifically. His letter is a testimony. “I know things are going to be OK. God has supplied and does supply all my needs, and I know he always will.”

Many people write about their families, often about unsaved children who are ruining themselves but who will not recognize it, confess their sins, and turn to the Lord. They are a constant grief to their parents, who pray for them earnestly. Sometimes it is an unsaved wife or husband. Sometimes the wife or husband has died. Still other people write of physical suffering. A listener from Montana is dying of cancer and likes the radio because it is the one device she is able to control from her bed even though she cannot raise herself and is always lying down.

This is the kind of thing that I could extend indefinitely, but I have done it enough to make the point. Christians do suffer. God frequently leads even his choice people through deep waters. The Christian life has its thorns.

Study Questions:

  1. What are some of the ideas people have had concerning the nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”?
  2. What does Dr. Boice suggest is the reason for why we are not told exactly what Paul’s problem was?

Application: What “deep waters” or “thorns” is God calling you to go through at this moment? What is it teaching you about yourself, and about God?

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