A painting of St. Paul in St. Severin Church in Paris. Shutterstock

‘When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong’

Understanding St. Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’

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When people ask about St. Paul, a common question among the faithful involves his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7). That’s not surprising, because we almost always are curious about any weakness an important person exhibits. We want to see how others deal with adversity, especially those who have achieved greatness in spite of it.

This study will mention several possible meanings of the phrase, then examine in some detail the actual words Paul uses and the context in which he brings it up. Then we can make a guess at exactly what he is referring to. Finally, and more importantly, we’ll see if we can take away from what he says something that might enhance our own quest for greatness, for “living for God” as Paul calls it (Rom 6:11; Gal 2:19).
 

Some Possible Meanings

Over the centuries, this phrase has been interpreted with a variety of meanings, as Paul obviously is using the image of a painful irritant in a figurative sense and not merely complaining about a slight injury. The “thorn” has been identified by some as a code name for some weakness of Paul’s character that embarrasses him and impedes his mission, but Paul doesn’t present himself as a person with an inferiority problem. On the contrary, he is quite sure of himself and unapologetic about his rectitude in spiritual matters. Yes, he does admit that his appearance and speaking style leave something to be desired (see 2 Cor 10:10), but he is quite OK with that. In fact, he even boasts about it: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence” (1 Cor 1:17). He considers his deficiency as an orator an actual asset, as it serves to spotlight the paradoxical truth of the Gospel, as he says, “so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning” (1 Cor 1:17).

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Pope Benedict XVI on Paul’s ‘Thorn’

“First of all, what are the weaknesses that the apostle is talking about? What is this ‘thorn’ in the flesh? We do not know, and he does not tell us, but his attitude enables us to realize that every difficulty in following Christ and witnessing to his Gospel may be overcome by opening oneself with trust to the Lord’s action. … Of course, Paul would have preferred to be freed from this ‘thorn,’ from this affliction; but God says: ‘No, you are in need of it. You will have sufficient grace to resist it and to do what must be done.’ This also applies to us. The Lord does not free us from evils, but helps us to mature in sufferings, difficulties and persecutions. Faith, therefore, tells us that if we abide in God, ‘though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day,’ in trials (2 Cor 4:16).”

— General audience, June 13, 2012

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Paul could be speaking about the irritation he experienced from the opposition he faced from those whom he dubbed “superapostles” (2 Cor 11:5) and their like in Galatia and Philippi. They constantly were criticizing his preaching of the Gospel as not being Jewish enough, because it did not emphasize the importance of the Mosaic Law. Paul, however, was convinced that God’s covenant has been completely renewed in Christ. He proclaims that it has now been opened up to include the gentiles (see Rom 5:20-21). Gentiles shouldn’t keep every ethnic wrinkle of the Jewish Law, precisely because they are not Jewish. Paul writes off those “teachers” as the ministers of Satan, “false apostles, deceitful workers who masquerade as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor 11:13-14). It is unlikely that he let them bother him at any deep level, for when his mission companion, Barnabbas, caved in to the same pressure at Antioch, Paul simply abandoned him there and seems to have had nothing more to do with him.

In several places, Paul brings up the fact that he was a strong persecutor of the Church in his earlier days (see Gal 1:13-14, 23; Phil 3:6). We might imagine that the specter of his complicity in Stephen’s death might have gnawed at him and caused him constant remorse, but, again, Paul does not exhibit this trait. Part of his greatness is his profound conviction that he has received “the forgiveness of sins previously committed,” just as all of us do, who count on “the forbearance of God … to justify the one who has faith in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:25-26). Paul does not show signs of lingering guilt. On the contrary, he even can boast of his weaknesses.
 

‘The Thorn in the Flesh’

Now to examine the phrase itself as Paul uses it. The Greek word for “thorn” (skolops) is used for “a pointed stake,” but also for “a thorn or splinter” — some kind of “injurious foreign body,” as the big New Testament Greek lexicon says. This object is modified by the phrase “in the flesh” — grammatically a simple dative (sarki), without any preposition that just forms part of the meaning of the noun. What kind of a thorn? The kind that you want to get rid of because it noticeably irritates your skin and is a constant annoyance.

As a parallel to this usage, one might adduce 1 Corinthians 7:28, where Paul speaks of “affliction of the flesh” (thlipsis sarki), using the dative of “flesh” in the same way. But here he is talking about something different: being “anxious about the things of the world, how one may please his wife” (7:32) — a dissimilar idea using a different noun, “affliction.” Here Paul has in mind what he considers, perhaps based on his own past life, to be the common experience of married people. His point is that celibate people do not suffer the same difficulties as married people do, and so he would not see himself as a celibate (see 1 Cor 7:7), as suffering the same “affliction of the flesh” as a married man. In fact, here he is advocating celibacy because, “I should like you to be free of anxieties” (7:32). This must not be the same as the “thorn in the flesh” that he was undergoing.

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Pope St. John Paul II on Suffering

In 1984, during the Jubilee Year of Redemption, the Vatican released Salvifici Doloris, Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter on redemptive suffering. The following is an excerpt:

Suffering is certainly part of the mystery of man. … The Second Vatican Council expressed this truth that “only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. In fact … Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” If these words refer to everything that concerns the mystery of man, then they certainly refer in a very special way to human suffering. Precisely at this point the “revealing of man to himself and making his supreme vocation clear” is particularly indispensable. It also happens as experience proves — that this can be particularly dramatic. But when it is completely accomplished and becomes the light of human life, it is particularly blessed (No. 31).

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A more apposite parallel to our phrase “thorn in the flesh” (although it uses sarx in the genitive case) is the phrase, “a weakness of the flesh.” We should note here that Paul mentions this word “weakness” four times in the context of our question about the “thorn” in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. The “weakness of the flesh” in Galatians 4:13 is what Paul says caused the fortuitous interruption of his travels at Galatia that was the occasion of his evangelization of the people there.

We recall that Paul preached to the Galatians not by choice, but by accident — if there is such a thing as the accidental in God’s mysterious plan for the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul met the Galatians when he fell ill in his travels, and he was surprised and gratified when they did not write him off (see Gal 4:12 — this verb, “adikeo,” literally means “to show dishonor”) because of “the trial caused by my physical condition” (Gal 4:14 — en to sarki mou literally means “in my flesh,” using the dative with a preposition).

Paul uses strong language to describe how they might have reacted to him in Galatians 4:14, using verbs of great disgust: “you did not show disdain or contempt” (the first verb, “exoutheneo,” comes from ek + outhen = ouden, or “nothing”; Paul uses this verb also in 2 Corinthians 10:10 and 1 Thessalonians 5:20 to mean “disdain; count for nothing”; the second verb, “ekptuo,” literally means “to spit out,” often used as a disencantation of an evil spell). He remarks that, on the contrary, their hearts went out to him and they received him “as an angel of God.”
 

A Startling Appearence

Now, we have some good clues for deciphering what Paul means when he speaks of a “thorn in the flesh … an angel of Satan, to beat me” (2 Cor 12:7). I think he may be talking about the repeated flare-ups of a skin condition, one that, evidently, had been plaguing him for at least 14 years (see 12:2). Though undifferentiated by ancient physicians, such recurring inflammations such as shingles (herpes zoster, called simply “herpes” by medical writer Hippocrates), lupus vulgaris (a chronic tubercular infection of the skin) and erysipelas (bacterial reddening inflammation of the skin) were well known. In another text, Paul says, “I bear the marks (stigmata, the brand marks of a slave) of Jesus on my body” (Gal 6:17; slaves in the ancient world often were branded on the face and arms to identify their status). Was he referring to some visible marks of his suffering?

Note also that, in his mind, Paul’s sorry state at his arrival in Galatia was that of “Jesus Christ … publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal 3:1). Perhaps he was thinking of the disease’s lesions that were like the lacerations of the scourge and crown of thorns of Jesus! Such “weakness” portrays quite graphically the “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles” that Paul describes as the theology of the cross (1 Cor 1:23). Here in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul writes that his only boast will be such weakness (v. 5) because his mystical experience revealed to him that “power is made perfect in weakness … so that Christ may dwell with me … for when I am weak, then I am strong” (vv. 9-10).
 

Paul’s Mystical Experience

Indeed, Paul recalls a mystical experience that he had in which he beheld “paradise” and “heard ineffable things, which no one may utter” (2 Cor 12:4), but he sees no need to boast about his own heightened religious experiences. He mentions some of these, his own extraordinary occurrences, only because they were true and were needed to refute the claims of superiority of those who would dilute the power of the Gospel. When such teachers fixated on the unimportant — the flashy experience, the emotional high of their praying — they undermined the fundamental basis of Christian living: absolute reliance on God in a cruciform life that imitates Jesus Christ. Paul maintains that he does not need to justify his apostleship, and he candidly writes of his weakness, not “that we are defending ourselves before you. In the sight of God we are speaking in Christ, and all for building you up, beloved” (12:19).

‘To get there we must suffer’
“How I thirst for heaven — that blessed
habitation where our love for Jesus will
have no limit! But to get there we must
suffer … we must weep. … Well, I wish to
suffer all that shall please my Beloved.”

 

— St. Thérèse of Lisieux

As he so frequently writes, all spiritual gifts are for this building up of the community (oikodomo — some 16 times in his letters to Corinth), and never to make any individual stand out, “so that there may be no division in the Body [of Christ]” (1 Cor 12:25). To this end, the “more excellent way” is still the way of love (1 Cor 12:31; see Paul’s famous love poem that follows in Chapter 13).

What appears to the world as powerlessness in the death of Jesus is God’s absolute dominance over evil: Goodness consumes evil by absorbing it. In his passive (but total) resistance of evil on the cross, Jesus swallowed up all the death-dealing evil borne against him.

When God raised Jesus up again in resurrection, the risen Lord received the vindication and glorification of his whole life and death. Paul puts it very succinctly: “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54). Death and all its power over life is absorbed and destroyed by the giving of self in the power of God.
 

Paul’s Understanding

Paul knew that he was a great man, but he also knew the reason why! He had been privileged beyond measure when God “was pleased to reveal his Son to me so that I might proclaim him to the gentiles” (Gal 1:15-16). He understood that the power of the Gospel he preached came from the evil-consuming engine of the cross — that epitome of the “weakness” that alone can rectify a world broken by sin.

Paul knew that he had received God’s creative light as a gift, and that it “has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). Yet he also knew that, “we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us” (4:7). This is the apparent weakness of every authentic Christian, “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus” (4:10).

In fact, truth be told, Paul’s own heightened mystical experience only resulted in a denial of his request to be rid of his “thorn in the flesh” (12:7). Evidently, for Paul, listening in prayer was far more important than any unusual occurrences in it; for in listening, Paul was able to understand and make his own the most profound knowledge of the Lord.
 

‘Content with Weakness’

Perhaps Paul’s ambiguity about the exact nature of his discomfort is fortuitous, as commentators have pointed out, because we, the faithful, can apply the lesson to whatever condition or pain is a constant bother to us. We learn that God does not always answer our prayers the way we want, but, as Paul learned, we need to be “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).

The takeaway regarding our own earthly condition is the same as Paul learned in prayer: Because we are members of the Body of Christ, Christ says to us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

BROTHER ELLIOTT MALONEY, OSB, is a monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and a professor of sacred Scripture at Saint Vincent Seminary. His book “Saint Paul, Master of the Spiritual Life ‘in Christ’” is available from Liturgical Press ($24.95).