Three Benefits of Paul’s “Thorn in the Flesh”
What were God’s reasons for bringing a thorn of suffering into Paul’s life? The apostle reveals three benefits that he experienced.
Suffering Prevents Conceit
First, God gave the apostle his affliction in order to cultivate an increase in humility: “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me.” The revelations Paul received were so great that the uniqueness of his experience was sure to produce an arrogance that would hinder his usefulness. To keep him from raising himself up, God introduced an instrument for the production of humility. Why would God do this? Because “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). God takes no pleasure in opposing his servants, but he will do so if it is necessary.
Physical disability was given to the apostle to prevent pride from taking a deeper hold of his heart, resulting in a more limited usefulness to God. God had prepared a large, broad ministry for Paul, and his thorn in the flesh was given to prepare him to glorify God in that ministry.
Suffering Portrays the Sufficiency of God’s Empowering Grace
Second, God gave Paul his physical trial to demonstrate the power of grace: “he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you’” (12:9). God’s grace and kindness would continue to be enough to help him endure his physical weakness so that God could continue to use him for his purposes. Paul wrote of this empowering grace in his first letter to the church at Corinth: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain [futile, useless]. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Paul understood that God’s grace not only saved him from the eternal punishment of his sin, but also empowered him for the Christian life and ministry. Each time Paul came to the point where he thought he couldn’t go on, God’s grace energized him. Through Paul’s affliction, God painted a portrait of his sufficiency. This means that if Paul had not been given this affliction, undue attention would have been drawn to the apostle instead of to the God whom he served.
Suffering Perfects the Power of Christ
The third reason why God gave the apostle his affliction was to perfect the power of Christ within him. The term “made perfect” means to fulfill or bring to completion. “My power is made perfect in weakness” means that the power of Christ is fulfilled, or brought to its intended end, through weakness, not strength. God designed it this way.
The contrast of our weakness with God’s power brings God the glory he deserves. Without Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the glory of Christ would have been minimized in Paul’s life. That’s the opposite of how we naturally think. We think physical or intellectual disabilities equal limitations. Not a chance in God’s program! Instead they actually lead to greater glory, because the vessel appears inadequate. Thus God receives more glory.
Physical suffering is a larger platform for greater grace. That is at least partly what God has in mind for you. If your child, spouse, or other family member has disabilities, then his or her suffering and your daily weakness become a platform for the display of greater grace. If you are the one with a disability, then God’s grace is sufficient for you, too. From God’s perspective, the only limitations that exist are the ones we create. This is why the apostle could so boldly proclaim: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:9–10).
- My new book with Joni Eareckson Tada, When Disability Hits Home: How God Magnifies His Grace in Our Weakness and Suffering]
- Help! I Live with Chronic Pain – a new mini-book by Brad Brandt