What was Paul’s ailment?

by Rev. Dr. Jerald C. Joersz

Q: In 2 Cor. 12:7, Paul mentions that he was given a “thorn in the flesh,” a“messenger of Satan” sent to “torment” him. Do we know what Paul’s ailment was?

A: Stretching all the way back to the second-century church father Tertullian—who thought Paul suffered from headaches— there has been no end to the guesswork on this question. Some interpreters have speculated that Paul’s personal adversaries were his so-called “thorn in the flesh.” Most scholars have theorized some kind of physical ailment, perhaps resulting from the rigors and stress of missionary work. The proposals are numerous, such as epilepsy, hysteria, depression, severe eye trouble, malaria, leprosy, a speech impediment and rheumatism. The sheer number and variety of these speculations suggest that we probably will never be able to identify with certainty what Paul’s problem was.

On the basis of what Paul does say in the passage, however, we can be reasonably certain about this: His weakness was likely physical, for it afflicted his “flesh.” The attacks (suggested by the Greek word for “torment” or “harass”) were chronic—prompting Paul’s repeated requests to his Lord Jesus that they go away. And, Paul’s choice of the word thorn (in the original Greek, something “pointed”) seems to describe the annoyance as something intensely painful.

But what if all this discussion and curiosity about the what of Paul’s problem is actually a bit off track? The apostle’s original audience no doubt knew about his ailment, but his hesitation specifically to identify it for us was likely quite deliberate. He has kept us in the dark because he wants the focus to be on the why, not the what. Paul is very clear about the why: “So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations [the vision and revelations related to his being “caught up into paradise” in verses 1–6], a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated” (v. 7).

In other words, to keep Paul from having an undue sense of self-importance, God said “no” to his repeated requests (no less than three times) to remove the thorn. God taught him that His grace was sufficient and His power is “made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). Similar to the case of Job, God permitted Satan to afflict the great apostle so that the power of Christ could take up residence in his life.

So it is with us Christians too. We can wholeheartedly believe that God’s “no” to remove suffering from our lives may actually be an expression of His grace. God’s “no” becomes His “yes” to His good purposes for us. Perhaps that is what Paul means when God promises “my power is made perfect in weakness.” Beyond our expectations or any outward appearance, God’s desired ends are graciously accomplished in and through human weakness. Thus we can say with Paul, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

Send your questions to “Q&A,” c/o The Lutheran Witness, 1333 S. Kirkwood Road, St. Louis, MO 63122-7295. Please include your name and address. All questions will be considered, but none can be answered individually. 

About the Author: Rev. Dr. Jerald C. Joersz was formerly the associate executive director of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations.

April 2011

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