Most of us know that the Apostle Paul suffered from a flesh thorn, a messenger of Satan that served to work God's purpose in his life (see II Corinthians 12:7-10). Whether that thorn was persecution, tribulation, or some physical malady, it served a potent purpose: to pop his pride bubble and keep him humble.
It kept him dependent on Christ and His strength. And that's what flesh thorns can do for believers today.
IF we know how to work them.
Sadly it seems that the term "thorn in the flesh" is often misconstrued in terms of meaning, purpose, and proper usage as a teaching tool. As for meaning, it is frequently referred in terms of a lingering handicap or illness. The purpose of such a thorn is of course is as a tool to teach the believer something - namely to passively accept their illness and/or handicap.
But is this view of flesh thorns scriptural?
Looking at Paul's life in light of other scriptures, let's consider first of all the meaning of the word "flesh thorn" (or "thorn in the flesh"). According to Paul, his flesh thorn was a messenger of Satan, sent to buffet him. According to Genesis 3:17-18, thorns are a curse that came about as a result of man's sin (or fall from grace). The cause of that sin was Satan's message, delivered by the serpent, accepted by Eve and passed on to Adam (who failed to exercising the spiritual authority God gave him and who also, though not deceived, accepted the fruit of knowledge - which causes a man to be "puffed up," i.e. "proud.") In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus refers to "thorns" as being the "cares and riches and pleasures of this life" which choke God's Word, the gospel message, out of the lives of believers (see Luke 8:14).
In other words, flesh thorns are Satan's message, not God's message, to the believer. So whether they come in the form of persecution (through those who disagree with God's Word), tribulation (natural disasters such as the sort God allowed Satan to inflict on Job and his family), or illness (like the sort Satan inflicted on Job), they are in effect Satan's message, not God's.
So why does God allow them?
Well, in Paul's instance, the reason for the thorn was clear: God was using it as a puncturing tool to pop his pride bubble, to keep him from being puffed up by all the multitude of revelations he had received. The purpose of puncturing Paul's pride was to keep him from relying on himself and on his own human wisdom. It was so that he could experience the truth of God's all-sufficient grace, as he so aptly expressed in Ephesians 2:8-9:
"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast."
In other words, the purpose of the thorn was to lead him into a deeper relationship with Christ, just as Job's affliction led him to that deeper understanding of God aptly expressed in his statement, "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now my eye sees thee. Wherefore I do abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes." (Job 42:5-6). During the course of his suffering, he makes the statement, "For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth" (Job 19:25).
Though not specifically stated at the end of the book, it seems clear that Job was healed of all the disease Satan placed upon him. This happened after He finally met God personally. And so we see that the flesh thorn served its purpose: to lead him to a deeper relationship with Christ.
Yet much of the book revolves around Job's complaint over his situation and his wounded pride. People used to think well of him, but once they saw his suffering, their attitudes changed - despite all the wonderful things Job did for them . Such attitudes seem to underscore the need for God's grace, which when finally understood, results in healing - not only for Job's body but also for his soul.
It is the revelation of God's Word that counteracts the message of despair sent to him through Satan. Such is that revelation that removes all doubt and gives him the faith he needs for healing and restoration.
Such is the revelation God wants to give His saints, and to impart it He allows the devil to prick us with flesh thorns, in order to pop the rock-hard pride that keeps His healing Word from taking root in our hearts and which prevents us from receiving His healing grace.
Nowhere do we see Job passively accepting his "flesh thorn." Rather, throughout all his sufferings we see him waging war against this message of Satan, and at the end humbly submitting to the power of His healer. In the end he learns to make his boast in God, which is a great way to defeat the devil and receive healing power from on high (see Psalm 8:2, 50:23, and Psalm 107:19-20)
For all throughout God's Word we see His willingness to save, deliver and heal. But we can only understand that Word if we will according to James 4:6-7 humbly submit ourselves to God and resist the devil. Once he flees, we'll have the victory!
(All verses in this passage are taken from the King James Version of the Bible)
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