There are few things that are physically more uncomfortable than a thorn in one’s flesh. Yet St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians uses the metaphor of a ‘thorn in the flesh’ for his spiritual weakness(es): “That I, Paul, might not become too elated, because of the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated,” (2. Cor. 12:7).
So disconcerting was Paul’s ‘thorn’ that he begged the Lord, not once, not twice, but three times for it to leave him. God’s response is as astounding as it is paradoxical. He who is all good, all loving and all merciful, declines Paul’s prayer stating, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Paul then concludes, “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
How long did it take Paul to arrive at this conclusion? It probably took him quite a while. It certainly was after begging all the three times. But he finally got there. He must have been quite patient, resilient and trusting. Patient to wait for a response as he begged, and to wait for understanding from God; resilient to keep praying and yearning; and trusting to accept God’s answer even though it was not in the affirmative. It perhaps took him days, maybe weeks, possibly months to get the answer and then ponder over it to get the understanding.
I wonder how difficult it must have been for Paul, who happened to be one of the most powerful apostles. The Acts of the Apostles portrays him as possessing great healing power. Acts 19:11-12 reports that “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured, and the evil spirits left them.” The fact that he could not rid himself of the ‘thorn in his flesh’ manifests that it was God, not him, that was healing, and that God has a reason for everything. Moreover, his willingness to accept God’s decision, despite his discomfort and in spite of God’s work through him to heal others, evinces his astounding humility.
God’s grace is sufficient for us in our weaknesses, in our struggles, in our frustrations. Even knowing this though, or perhaps because we know this, questions may linger. If ‘a thorn in the flesh’ is given to us, to what extent should we struggle with it? Should we feel justified to indulge in whatever our ‘thorn’ is? What would be the consequences of such a move? Should we keep struggling even though we know it’s always going to be there with us? Or should we throw in the towel and do as we will? The answer to these questions may lie in the sufficiency of God’s grace – when is it going to work for us, is it as we struggle with our ‘thorn’ or as we indulge in it?