Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
February 28, 2002


The Thorn in the Flesh
Dr. John M. Mulder

President and Professor of Historical Theology
Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Louisville, Kentucky

(This sermon is also available in audio.)

Psalm 27; II Corinthians 12:1-10

This is a sermon about the power of God and human suffering. Our text comes from II Corinthians, the 12th chapter. It contains one of the most eloquent statements of the Christian faith and yet one of the most puzzling and complicated passages in all of Paul's writings. It describes a mystical, heavenly vision that appears nowhere else in Paul's writings, but it also includes his famous and mysterious reference to his persistent suffering--a "thorn in the flesh."

The context of this Corinthian passage is crucial to understand what Paul is trying to say. The 12th chapter is part of a longer unit, chapters 10-13, which may have been written earlier than the rest of II Corinthians and then added to the first nine chapters.

Chapters 10-13 represent Paul's defense of his ministry in Corinth and his authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ. After he left Corinth, other teachers assumed power in Corinth, questioning and attacking Paul's status and the truth of his testimony. Angry and hardpressed by his critics, Paul assembles several arguments for why he should be believed and why his preaching is true.

To make his case, Paul uses, grudgingly, one of the standard debating devices of his age--boasting. He is reluctant to boast. "It is necessary to boast," he declares, but "nothing is to be gained by it." And the basis of his boast is his own magnificent, mystical vision of God. He begins by initially saying the vision came to someone he knows--a typical method used by preachers then and now. We don't want to reveal too much of ourselves, so we attribute stories and experiences to others. But Paul slips, and eventually we see that he is talking about himself. Listen to his description carefully:

I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know someone in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught-up to the third heaven--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows--was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told that no mortal is permitted t6 repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in mc or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me [notice now how he has shifted from talking about the person to talking about himself] from being too elated a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."

What is going on here? Fourteen years before he wrote this letter, Paul had a vision. That means it came to him during his so-called "silent period," a time after his conversion and before his active missionary activity. We know next to nothing about this segment of Paul's life. In this vision, Paul ascended to the third heaven--the highest level of heaven according to Jewish thought of his time. Paul does not know whether he was in the body or out of the body. Only God knows, and Paul apparently thinks this issue is unimportant.

In the third heaven he heard things that no one should repeat, but he is certain that it was Paradise. He had seen God. But like an ancient prophet, he will not, indeed he cannot, describe God. Words would only limit and distort the sheer magnificence and mystery of his encounter.

Nearly 2,000 years later we are tantalized by Paul's engimatic reference. He has seen God! Why won't he say more? Surely this was also the reaction of his Corinthians readers. Yet Paul wants to use this vision to make a larger point: My authority, he says, rests not on my visions of God. That is not what makes me strong. You don't know me. It is God who is strong. I am weak. In fact, I have a thorn in the flesh--a Satanic defect that I asked God three times to remove. And God told me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."

A "thorn in the flesh"--another mystery--yet one so intriguing that it has fascinated interpreters of the Bible from ancient times until today. The nineteenth century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard complained, "This passage seems to have afforded an uncommonly favorable opportunity for everyone to become an interpreter of the Bible." Kierkegaard was right. In Biblical studies, there seems to be a law of inversion--the less evidence there is, the more interpretation there will be. One modern commentator counted more than 200 different interpretations of this "thorn in the flesh," and that was several years ago!

The explanations can be grouped into three major categories. For some, Paul's affliction was some kind of personal anxiety or spiritual torment. For others, the "thorn in the flesh" was the persecution that Paul experienced. Most scholars agree that it was a physical ailment or a type of mental illness, but they disagree about what it might have been.

Several scholars believe the thorn was epilepsy, and for our purposes this morning, let us assume that Paul was an epileptic. We'll never know for sure, but epilepsy may help explain Paul's vision on the road to Damascus and his temporary blindness as well as his vision here in II Corinthians. But even more importantly, epilepsy as a fact or as a metaphor illumines what Paul is telling us about suffering and the power of God.

Epilepsy is not a specific disease. The term refers to a broad range of symptoms--ranging from staring episodes and brief moments in which a person loses consciousness, to violent and involuntary seizures in which the body jerks spasmodically. We knew practically nothing about epilepsy until the middle of the nineteenth century. People in the ancient world referred to it as "the falling sickness" or "the sacred disease," presumably because it was mysterious and impossible to treat.

Today we know that some forms of epilepsy come from scar tissue on the brain; other types seem to arise simply from defective brain waves. Fortunately, today wonderful drugs are able to help most epileptics to control and manage their seizures and live practically normal lives.

Epileptics sometimes have auras or anticipations of their seizures coming on, and visions are sometimes part of the seizure itself. Throughout history there have been geniuses who have been epileptics--musicians such as Handel, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky; political leaders such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and William Pitt; writers including Dante, Lord Byron, Dostoevski, and Charles Dickens; artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent Van Gogh.

Today we have much more accurate information about epilepsy and the variety of seizures it brings. Seizures frequently come because of lack of sleep. They often arise in periods of stress. A good diet is extremely important. In most cases, epileptics should not drive, and travel is often dangerous.

And here is Paul--unmarried and without family support, traveling constantly, embattled by rivals and attacked by enemies. Listen to his description of his ministry in Corinthians:

Are they ministers of Christ? I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

That is not the kind of life for someone with epilepsy. For there are two central realities in the life of everyone suffering from epilepsy. First, the seizures are sudden, unpredictable, and frightening. Second, there is nothing anyone can do about a seizure when it occurs, and there is little or nothing others should do until it has passed. In other words, people who have seizures and those around them are powerless.

Is it any wonder, then, that Paul implored God three times to remove this thorn from him? Why, O Lord, should I, Paul, suffer this way? If there ever was a candidate for divine and miraculous healing, I nominate Paul. But God's word to Paul is this: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." My love is enough. It is enough for you, for power becomes perfect, not in strength but in weakness. And then Paul realizes: "So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell within me…For whenever I am weak, then I am strong."

This is the simplest and yet the most profound statement of the Christian faith: God's power came to us as a child, born in poverty, crucified unto death. But the power of God did not end in death, for God raised Jesus from the dead. In that paradox, that contradiction of weakness becoming strength, we see suffering transformed into power.

Now what can this mean for you and me? What can this story of miraculous visions and a "thorn in the flesh" mean for late twentieth century Christians? Simply this. Each of us knows our weaknesses--defects of character, deficiencies of mind or personality, disabilities in our bodies. To us Paul is saying, Even though those limitations will not go away, God will always be with you. You will never be alone. You are bound to God by Jesus Christ, and that relationship will never be broken. In fact, even your defects can be used by God as an asset. Power can be made perfect in weakness. Someday you will realize, like me, that when you are weak, then you are strong.

Is this possible? Does God use our weaknesses and our strengths? Consider the words of Mary, a nine-year-old girl interviewed by Robert Coles in his book The Spiritual Life of Children. Mary lives in what Coles calls "a backward part" of our country. This is what she told him:

When you're put here, it's for a reason. The Lord wants you to do something. If you don't know what, then you've got to try hard to find out what. It may take time. You may make mistakes. But if you pray, God will lead you to your direction. He won't hand you a piece of paper with a map on it, no sir. God will whisper something, and at first you may not even hear, but if you have trust in God and you keep turning to Him', it will be all right. (The Spiritual Life of Children by Robert Coles, Houghton Mifflin Co, 1990)

Or, consider the beautiful words of that spiritual written in the midst of slavery and human suffering:

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin sick soul.

If you cannot preach like Peter,
If you cannot pray like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus,
And say He died for all.

Men and women, if God could choose an epileptic like Paul and send him all over the Mediterranean world to proclaim the love of Jesus, God can use you, even you.

God's grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.

Copyright 2002 Dr. John M. Mulder

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