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2 Corinthians 12:7-9--Thorn in the Flesh

Years ago when Arsenio Hall hosted a late night talk show, he had a segment that looked closer at those things that make us go “hmmm.” When biblical scholars consider what affliction Paul might have had, it has surely made many of them go “hmmm.”

The popular theory is that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was some type of eye affliction. This is based on such verses as Galatians 6:11 that says, “Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand.” It’s thought that Paul’s eyesight might have been so poor that he had to write large letters in order to see what he was writing. It’s a good theory and it’s quite possible that was Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

Several years ago my husband, Charlie, and I were talking about this verse and Charlie expressed an opposite opinion about Paul’s ailment. Though he didn’t really have a theory as to what the ailment might be, he had a strong opinion about what it was NOT. He personally didn’t think Paul’s thorn in the flesh had anything to do with his eyes. Charlie’s reasoning goes back to Paul’s first encounter with Jesus when he lost his eyesight for three days. In obedience to the Lord, Ananias found Saul and placed his hands on him. While doing so, Ananias told Saul that he had been sent of the Lord so that Saul might receive his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Acts 9:18 says “immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales; and he received sight, and arose and was baptized.” Because Paul’s eyesight was restored supernaturally, Charlie’s opinion is that Paul’s eyesight would most likely have been restored perfectly. When God does something, He does it thoroughly, even better than 20/20. Most likely, this would have been the one part of Paul’s physical body he wouldn’t have problems with....ever! I like that. I know by personal experience that when the Lord’s hand is in something, it is always better than anything I could do. He’s the master craftsman, not to mention the great physician!

So, let’s assume that poor eyesight wasn’t Paul’s affliction. Hmmm, then what could it have been? What else would have caused Paul to specifically talk about the size of his letters? What was the significance of his sometimes bragging that he had written the letter with his own hand, or other times needing to dictate the letters to someone else?

Considering Charlie’s opinion and asking myself the above questions, I thought back over what is known about Paul’s life after his conversion and I came up with a theory of my own. If I say so myself, it’s a pretty logical one and it has nothing to do with eyes. Paul’s life was certainly not a bed of roses. It was filled with persecution, peril and pain. (Hmmm, those three “p’s” sound like a great three-point sermon!) In the chapter just prior to Paul’s statement about his thorn in the flesh, he unwillingly boasted to the church at Corinth about his qualifications and his right to exhort them. He was whipped, beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked and suffered numerous perils at the hands of Jews and Gentiles. He was often hungry, thirsty, cold and naked.

His body, literally, had taken quite a beating over the years. Who knows how many bones might have been broken and crushed. Who knows how much his exposure to the elements in the seas and in the cold nights might have settled into his joints. I’ve known a number of people who, after breaking an arm or a leg, could forecast rainy or cold weather because of the throbbing and discomfort they felt in the body part that was previously broken. As bad weather approached, their joints became achy, almost like having arthritis. Sometimes, too, those breaks became the very place arthritis would settle in later years.

My father, whose greatest love and pleasure in life was to be fishing in the Florida Keys, was stung in the hand on a couple of occasions when trying to unhook a catfish. For those of you only familiar with fresh water catfish, they’re pussycats compared with the saltwater type. Those “whisker” looking things on a saltwater catfish can pack quite a wallop. The second time he was stung, my dad’s hand swelled up so much he had to go to the emergency room of the Florida Keys hospital. (He learned the hard way to always keep a baseball bat and a thick work glove on the boat for such occasions. The baseball bat was to knock the catfish unconscious before even attempting to unhook it. The glove was to protect his hands, just in case the catfish regained consciousness and got frisky.) Arthritis eventually settled into the hand that had been stung by the catfish. For something that seemed so insignificant, my dad was plagued with pain for years afterwards.

Have you figured out my theory yet? Considering all the abuse Paul’s body took during his trials and persecutions, it’s quite reasonable that the thorn in Paul’s flesh was arthritis. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. My dad was a plasterer and his hands were a necessity to his trade. When he suffered with arthritis in that one hand, he had difficulty using his tools at times. If Paul had arthritis in, let’s say, his hands, he would probably have difficulty writing at times. I can just picture Paul sitting at a desk getting ready to write one of his letters. He might wait until later in the day to write after some of the morning stiffness wore off. After rubbing and massaging his hands to limber them up, he would grip the pen and try to force his fingers to make the delicate curves and strokes of his language. On the good days, maybe he was able to write, but maybe not so delicately. On those days he might brag about his accomplishment in the closing of his letter, “Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand.” On the bad days, maybe he needed to ask someone else to write as he dictated the words.

Regardless of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, we have been blessed beyond measure through his writings. So whether it was because of poor eyesight, arthritis, or some other affliction that his handwriting was bad, his life has certainly taught us that God’s “grace is sufficient” and that His “strength is made perfect in our weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Amen, and amen!

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