Providence Theology Proper

Who gave Paul his thorn in the flesh?

Last fall, I spent a couple of hours at our church one evening, speaking about the tough chestnut of “God and evil.” If God is almighty and good, why is there so much evil in the world? About 100 people showed up, because this is a subject that troubles many, and it comes close to home at some point in almost everyone’s life, when we ourselves are suffering greatly and none of our earnest cries to God bring relief.

In our session, I made mention of the involvement of Satan and his forces in the evil of the world, but we did not have time to do that justice. So, shortly after that session was finished, I volunteered to do another one in our church’s next “Going Deeper” series in the fall, to talk about “Angels and Demons.” There is a great deal of interest in the supernatural, in our otherwise materialistic and pragmatically atheistic society, and this has fostered many unbiblical ideas which creep into the church. So I look forward to an opportunity to examine what the Bible tells us about the angelic beings, good and evil, including who they are, what they do, and how we should relate to them.

With this on my mind, I was pleased with what I read today in a post by Andrew Wilson, so I commend it to you (HT: Jerry Shepherd).

Andrew Wilson jpeg

Wilson comes at the issue of the respective roles of God and Satan in the affairs of the world by a close look at 2 Cor 12:1-10, to discern who gave Paul his thorn in the flesh. He observes that the text doesn’t tell us either exactly what the thorn was, nor who gave it to Paul, but he sums up “what we know.”

1. The thorn was “a messenger of Satan.”
2. It was given “to keep me from being too conceited” (hina mê huperairômai).
3. It was painful, to the point that Paul pleaded with the Lord to take it away.
4. In response, Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness.”
5. Paul concludes, after talking about this thorn, by boasting in his weaknesses and being content with infirmities.

If we only had #1 and # 3, we would conclude that Satan alone gave the thorn, and if we only had numbers 2, 4, and 5, we would believe that God alone was the thorn’s origin. But, since we have all five of them and they cohere, Wilson concludes that

we should answer the question “Who gave Paul his thorn?” as most commentators do: God, through Satan. Unless we are to see Satan’s purpose as humility in Paul—which beggars belief—it is hard to reach any other conclusion.

I certainly agree, and I see this passage as one of the very helpful instances within Scripture where we see both God and Satan at work, each with very different purposes, and it is clear that God is ultimately in control, although Satan is actively bringing about evil, even in the lives of God’s faithful children. Wilson critiques erroneous teaching by proponents of the health-and-wealth perspective, and by some Pentecostal preaches, who deny that God was any way instrumental in Paul’s affliction. To counter their errors, Wilson presents sound exegesis, and I think you’ll find it helpful if this is an issue of interest to you right now.

I say “Amen” to Wilson’s conclusion:

So who gave Paul his thorn? God, and Satan, but with thoroughly different agendas. Satan, we may surmise, wanted to destroy him. God wanted to humble him, and throw him back onto divine grace. And God won.

If you are in the midst of one of these troubling experiences, I pray that God will give you the assurance he gave to Paul, that his grace is sufficient for you, and that his strength will be “made perfect” in your weakness (2 Cor 12:10), for however long God deems this trial beneficial. I also hope, however, that, in your case, God will soon decide that you have had enough and give you blessed relief.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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