What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”?

Q.  What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh“?  I’ve heard some people say it was a disease he couldn’t recover from.  But I’ve heard other people say this isn’t right because Paul had the gift of healing and could have healed any sickness he had, so we need to take him literally when he calls it “a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”  In other words, these people say it was a demon that was harassing him that he couldn’t make go away.  Which is right?

I think the first understanding, that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a disease he couldn’t recover from, is more likely the correct one.

We know that Paul suffered from a disease at some point in his ministry because he wrote to the Galatians, “It was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.”  (“Illness” here is astheneia in Greek, literally “weakness.”) This was most likely some disease of the eyes, because Paul goes on to say, recalling the Galatians’ love and concern for him at this time, “If you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

There’s a further suggestion that Paul had eye trouble at the end of Galatians. Paul authenticates the letter, which he has been dictating to a scribe, by adding some things in his own handwriting, and he begins by saying, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand,” as if he had difficulty seeing.

Some have actually speculated that Paul suffered from chronic bacterial conjunctivitis, a recurring infection of the lining of the eye (a common ailment in the time when he lived) that would have made it difficult for him to see. It would also have affected his appearance, making his eyes red and causing them to discharge fluid or mucus.  Perhaps this is why Paul also told the Galatians, as he recalled their earlier care, “Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.”  There was something embarrassing about Paul’s condition that the Galatians overlooked in love.

All of this background helps make sense of what Paul says about his “thorn in the flesh” as he defends his credentials to the Corinthians, at the demand of the self-styled “super-apostles” who had infiltrated the church there.  Paul describes some amazing visions he had, but then explains he was given a “thorn in the flesh” to “keep me from becoming conceited” because of these “surpassingly great revelations.”  An unsightly disease of the eyes would be an ironically appropriate means of keeping a person from boasting about visions they’d had.

After explaining that he’d asked the Lord to take this “thorn” away from him, but that God had told him in response, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” Paul says, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest upon me.”  “Weakness” here is astheneia, the same word Paul used to describe his “illness” to the Galatians.

Paul also notes, earlier in this section, that the super-apostles were saying about him, “In person he is unimpressive,” literally “the appearance of his body is weak” (asthenos).  Such language about “weakness” seems more appropriate for describing the effects of a disease like chronic conjunctivitis than the frustrations of persistent spiritual harassment.

Even though Paul had the gift of healing, this didn’t mean that God always chose to heal everyone through him.  For example, Paul tells Timothy at the end of his second letter, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.”  The fact that Paul had to leave this valuable co-worker behind shows that he couldn’t heal everybody, and that would include himself.

And so when Paul describes his illness as a “messenger of Satan,” he most likely uses this language not because his “thorn in the flesh” was a harassing demon, but to indicate that God is not the creator or source of sickness and disease. These things are instead the result of sin and evil in the world.

We’re promised that when God renews the heavens and the earth, there will be no more sickness or pain.  But in the meantime, Paul’s experience with his “thorn in the flesh” shows us that God can redeem even these features of our fallen world to make our character more Christ-like and to lead us to rely more on the sufficiency of his grace.

(When I discuss Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, I ask, “Do you have a physical ‘weakness’ that you wish God would take away? If so, given what Paul writes here, could this weakness actually be protecting you from something and permitting God’s power to be seen more clearly in you?”  What would you say in response to that question?)

The apostle Paul, 5th-Century Ceiling mosaic, Archepiscopal Chapel of St. Andrew, Ravenna, Italy. (Do the large eyes reflect some ancient tradition about Paul’s appearance?)