by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

March, 2007

Several weeks ago I decided to break a habit. The details aren’t important and anyway it’s really kind of silly. I put a large rubber band around my right wrist and snapped the rubber band whenever I caught myself doing the thing I didn’t want to do. The idea is to associate the habit with pain, as a reminder not to do it. After a few days, my wrist was red and sore but I hadn’t made any progress breaking the habit at all. I eventually managed to “minimize” my habit to the point that it only rears its head if I’m bored or frustrated.

I don’t know if Paul had any habits but he did have a “reminder” in the form of “. . . a thorn . . . in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me,” (2 Cor. 12:7b ESV). There have been numerous theories about what Paul’s “thorn” might have been: temptation (Rom. 7:15); physical illnesses like “chronic ophthalmia” (inflammation of the eyeball), malaria, migraines, or epilepsy (Gal. 4:13-14); a speech impediment or an inability to speak well rhetorically (2 Cor. 10:10); difficulty controlling his temper; human opponents; and a demon which caused imprisonments, stonings, beatings, shipwrecks, and attacks by angry mobs. I’ve also heard people say jokingly that it was Paul’s wife, apparently having forgotten he wasn’t married (1 Cor. 7:7).

Personally, I find it likely that Paul’s affliction was physical, and there is scriptural evidence for at least some theories. After his experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9), he was blind for three days (Acts 9:9). When he regained his sight, it may not have been restored completely (Acts 9:17-18a). At the end of his letter to the Galatians, he writes, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” (Gal. 6:11 ESV). A man who couldn’t see very well might have large handwriting. In his second epistle to the Thessalonians, he makes another reference to his distinctive handwriting: “This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.” (2 Thes. 3:17b ESV). While I was writing this, my wife, Charlotte, reminded me that exposure to brilliant light (Acts 9:3) can cause cataracts. Then too, the Damascus road experience itself may have been an epileptic seizure, the first of many.

Paul refers to his affliction in the context of “. . . visions and revelations of the Lord . . . things that cannot be told, which man may not utter . . . surpassing greatness of the revelations, . . .” (2 Cor. 12:1b, 4b, 7b ESV). It seems plausible to me that the affliction might be related to the revelations in some way, which strengthens the case for vision problems of epilepsy. To an extent, where you come down on the nature of Paul’s “thorn” depends on your other leanings: conservatives are more likely to identify it as a demon or human opponents, while liberals are more likely to identify it as a medical condition. Contrary to some self-proclaimed “experts,” I don’t think there’s necessarily an “obvious” answer.

But in the end it doesn’t matter. The important thing is how Paul responded. He prayed that God would take away his affliction three times (2Cor. 12:8). And when God didn’t take it away, Paul accepted his situation. He became convinced that God’s “‘. . . power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Cor. 12:9b ESV). He chose to glory in the hardships he suffered for the gospel, rather than the great things God had done for him.

By his response, Paul turned his affliction into a witness. Problems are a universal part of life. Everyone has them, whether major or minor. My little habit isn’t a life-changing affliction by any stretching of the imagination. It isn’t even a “real” problem. But how I deal with it or other minor things could be as revealing as how I might deal with a truly serious issue. Former congressman, ordained minister, and professional athlete J.C. Watts once remarked that “Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.” There’s always someone looking at each one of us. I pray that they might see Christ when they look at me—and at you.

“So to keep me from being too elated by 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 being too elated. 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 Cor. 12:7-10 ESV.)

Copyright © 2007 by David Phelps