What do you think the thorn in Paul's side was?

Email Received:

I wonder if you have contemplated the thorn in Paul's side and what that must mean. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Ted's Response:

Yes, I have thought about it, and I have read and heard many different speculations about it. Nothing has seemed absolutely credible to me, to the point where I have embraced any particular view.

For instance, some have suggested that when Paul said he was writing large letters with his own hand (Galatians 6:11), this indicated that he had a problem with his vision, so he had to write big to see what he was recording. He also said to the Galatians, "I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me" (4:15), which may have indicated that, if they could have, they would have given him their functioning eyes to replace his malfunctioning eyes. Paul's eyes very well may have been problematic, but I feel it is a stretch to assume that poor vision was the "thorn in his flesh."

We do know that Paul admitted to struggling with, and being a slave to, sin (Romans 7:14-25). Specifically, he noted that sin lived in him (7:17,20) and that the members of his body waged war against the law (of God) in his mind (7:23). That is, just like with everyone else, there was an ongoing war between Paul's mind and his flesh.

Also, Paul was specific that the thorn in his flesh or side was a messenger from Satan (2 Corinthians 12:7), presumably a demon. Some suggest that this was a physical ailment of some type, as demons can produce physical ailments. Another suggestion has been that Paul was tempted to reveal things that he was not permitted to tell after being caught up to the third heaven (12:2-4). Although either of these is a possibility, I think there is a more likely explanation.

I lean toward thinking that a demon was sent to incite or trigger some fleshly sin that Paul had, which he knew was wrong but which his mind constantly had to fight to overcome. It makes sense to me that Paul would have asked the Lord to take it away from him (2 Corinthians 12:8) so that he didn't have to continue struggling against it. But the Lord did not do this—mainly, it would seem, to keep Paul humble.

Jesus was the only sinless person ever to live. If the Lord removed Paul's main sin, perhaps it would have given Paul a sense that he was more like Jesus than other people were. He could have acquired a sense of superiority, preventing him from being the type of witness that the Lord wanted him to be. He also could have developed a spirit of judgmentalism against others, which would have made his ministry much less successful. I believe that the most efficient and effective advocates for the Lord are those who witness about him from a position of great humility, and Paul certainly would have fit into that category.

If my speculations are correct, and Paul had a significant sin which he was unable to overcome, it is irrelevant to me what that sin might have been. I simply do not have a great curiosity to know what it was. One day, when Jesus' Kingdom comes to earth, I believe that we all will be informed what Paul's "thorn" was—as our own hidden sin natures, presumably, will be revealed to others as well—and I am willing to wait until then to find out. Until then, I will be glad that Paul was one of the greatest advocates for the Lord Jesus who ever lived.

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