“A thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me” 2 Corinthians 12:7
Scholars have spent untold hours speculating on the nature of Paul’s problem. What was the affliction he was referring to? Some have suggested that Paul had developed eye problems, since we know that he began to dictate his letters to others. Another theory is that Paul was suffering from epileptic seizures. Sir William Ramsey even suggested that Paul had some recurring strain of malaria. You could fill a medical encyclopedia with other ideas that have been advanced: hysteria, hypochondria, gallstones, gout, rheumatism, sciatica, gastritis, leprosy, lice, deafness, dental infection, or remorse. Remorse? Don’t forget that Paul had persecuted and tortured many Christians prior to his conversion.
Although we cannot be sure about Paul’s “thorn,” we can say this: The word used for thorn carries the literal meaning of stake. So what Paul wants to suggest to us is that he’d had a stake driven into his flesh—quite a disruptive moment, wouldn’t you agree?
We’re not told the specific nature of Paul’s suffering, so we must conclude that the details are beside the point. What matters is that Paul did suffer in such a way that he compared it to the pain of a stake being pounded through his flesh. If we’d been told the exact nature of his affliction, this passage might have just seemed to be a story about Paul. We wouldn’t be able to fill in the blank with our own personal afflictions, and our own “thorns” might seem outside the reach of God’s grace. Instead, we’re invited by 2 Corinthians 12:7–10 to identify with Paul’s suffering. We’re given the opportunity to realize that if God’s grace was sufficient for him—whatever the nature of his suffering—it is sufficient for us as well.