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Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII



Part V: The Place of Handicaps in Human Achievement

Chapter 3

A Thorn in the Flesh
(2 Corinthians 12:7)

     IN SPITE OF the tremendous amount that has been written about the nature of Paul's "thorn," there is still no certainty as to what it really was; and it seems unlikely that we shall ever know until we meet Paul in heaven. Perhaps this was God's design -- to leave its nature uncertain that we might each take comfort individually by some degree of identification with Paul, in the knowledge that we are not unique in our feeling that if we could only be rid of some particular handicap we would be so much better able to serve the Lord acceptably. Probably not one of us is entirely free from frustration in this respect. Yet, if we are to be guided by Paul's remarks about his own particular burden and the anguish which at times seems to sink him almost into utter despair, we can seldom experience such distress as he experienced throughout most of his ministry and probably up to the time of his death. Although we do not need to know precisely what the cause of his distress was, it may help to examine briefly some of the thoughts of others in order that we may at least know on the one hand, what it was probably not, and on the other hand, how serious it was and therefore how wonderful it was that the Lord's grace was indeed sufficient in the presence of it. So we may usefully ask three questions. First of all, what was the identity of the ailment which thus burdened him so? Second, to what extent did the call of Luke, the beloved physician, hinge upon the severity of Paul's need? And thirdly, did it so disfigure him and so hinder his work that at times it almost undermined even his own sense of mission as an apostle and put a question mark in the minds of others as to whether in the presence of such a handicap he really had been called of God as an apostle in the first place?
     Although a great number of scholars from the Church Fathers to this day, especially those of Roman Catholic persuasion, have proposed that Paul's thorn was not physical but "spiritual," it seems to me in the light of a number of Paul's assertions about himself that this is not likely

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to be the case. Whether Jerome, when he produced the Latin version of the Scriptures in A.D. 385 (the Vulgate) was in any way guided by this particular stream of tradition or not, is hard to determine. But in translating 2 Corinthians 12:7 into Latin he may have contributed to the idea in the minds of Roman Catholic commentators that this thorn was an over-powering sexual desire. (21) He rendered the phrase, "a thorn in the flesh," by the Latin stimulus carnus meae. The word stimulus has the common meaning in classical Latin of "a goad," in the sense that the Lord had said to Paul, "It is hard for thee to kick against the goads" (Acts 9:5), where Jerome has used the same word. But in the context, followed as it is by the words "of my flesh," these commentators were inclined to think that it meant the promptings of the flesh, which in turn was equated with sexual desire. This opinion seems to have been reflected in the writings of Jerome, of Augustine, Gregory the Great, and it was repeated by Bede, Aquinas, Bellarime, and others, and it has become almost a stereotyped element in Roman Catholic exegesis. But I do not feel that this really meets the requirements of the case since, no matter how strongly Paul may have been tempted in this respect, it could hardly account for the aversion at his appearance which others seem to have been expressing, if we are to judge by such passages as Galatians 4:14, for example.
     A second possibility that has been suggested is that he suffered from epilepsy. In favour of this possibility is the fact that it may be painful, recurrent, and opposes strenuous exertion. Moreover, it may cause temporary suspension of intelligent ministry and certainly at such times is repellent to being a witness. A number of famous individuals are known to have been subject to epilepsy, and in some ways both the strengths and the weaknesses of these individuals reflect something of Paul's character. Among those who suffered in this way, it is common to list Caesar, St. Bernard, St. Francis, Peter the Great, and Napoleon. According to Farrar it was referred to by the Welsh people as "the rod of Christ"; and there is a curious Celtic tradition which seems to have preserved this association with Paul by epilepsy being called "galar Poil. "
(22) In the Middle East it was associated with or

21. Some indications that this is an erroneous interpretation may perhaps be provided coincidentally, in the wording of Galatians 5:17 ff. For here Paul wrote to the Galatians: "For the flesh lusteth against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh: and these are the contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things ye would." It seems unlikely that Paul would write in the second person here if he were suffering from the same kind of inward conflict. He would rather have said, "so that we cannot do the things we would." In verses 25 and 26 he falls back into the use of the first person plural, thereby including himself in such a way one should perhaps assume he has deliberately excluded himself up to that point.
22. Farrar, F. W., The Life and Work of St. Paul, Cassells, Petter, and Galpin, London, no date, vol.1, p.658 footnote.

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confused with demon possession, and it may be worth noting that Paul speaks of his "thorn" as being "an angel of Satan" (2 Corinthians 12:7), a phrase which appears in the King James Version as "a messenger of Satan." When the people of Palestine found themselves in the presence of epilepsy they customarily protected themselves by spitting. And it is sometimes pointed out by those who favour this diagnosis that Paul expresses his gratefulness to the Galatians in that they did not "reject" him, a word which in the Greek actually means "to spit out" (Galatians 4:14). In view of the fact that Paul seems to have been a high-strung individual, it seems possible that he might have been predisposed to epilepsy, and that he may have been attacked very severely on three occasions, each time crying out to the Lord to deliver him from it. However, my own feeling is that putting all the evidence together, epilepsy is perhaps not the most likely diagnosis, there being an even better one to be considered later.
     There is another possibility: that Paul suffered periodically from malaria. Some commentators have suggested that it was an attack of malarial fever which compelled Barnabas and Paul to seek relief in the bracing air of the uplands of Asia Minor. It is supposed that the Galatians in the Epistle are the South Galatians of Antioch and Iconium to which Paul went to recover, and thus his reference in Galatians 4:13 in which he reminds the Galatians how in a time of illness ("infirmity of the flesh") he had first preached to them. Nevertheless, it still does not account for the aversion which his appearance seems to have created, an aversion of which Paul was very much aware.
     There have been other suggestions. One, that he had a wife who did not share in his conversion and proved a sore burden to him afterward. Another suggestion appears in a footnote to 2 Corinthians 12:7 in the Jerusalem Bible, which proposes that it was the intense hostility of his own Jewish brethren according to the flesh. There is also the possibility that when Paul spoke of his fight with wild beasts in Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:32), he was not speaking metaphorically but of a real arena experience. He may have been injured at that time and disfigured severely, and yet for some miraculous reason have survived the ordeal.
     We have only one supposedly authentic description of Paul's appearance in the flesh. We are told that he was "bald-headed (unusual for a Jew of his age), bow-legged, strongly built: a man small in stature with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose."
(23) It is generally

23. This description is found in the so-called "Acts of Paul and Thecla," chap.I, v.7, in The Lost Books of the Bible, World Publishing Co., New York, 1963.

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believed that this description goes back to a document of the first century. It will be observed that he is not described as actually deformed in any way. This is of some interest only because the presumed revulsion at his appearance has from time to time been attributed to some congenital deformity. Whether this was true or not seems to throw little light on the nature of his "thorn," since this thorn was, in Paul's own words, "given" to him (2 Corinthians 12:7), a statement which, seems to me to preclude his having been born with it. I think there is much to be said for a diagnosis which has been suggested a number of times, namely, that Paul suffered from acute opthalmia, a disease common in the Middle East and generally referred to more specifically as Egyptian Opthalmia. Today, in the West, it is referred to more often as trachoma. This is a contagious disease of the eyes that causes severe inflammation of the mucous membrane lining the eyelid and in contact with the surface of the eyeball. It is marked by the formation of minute, grayish or yellowish, translucent granules of adenoid tissue, tissue that is gland-like or lymphoid. In time there is a general increase in tissue bulk and adhesion between the lid and the eyeball. The tissue itself develops follicles which when they heal leave scar tissue on the underside of the lid, which may in due course cause the eyelid to shrink and be exceedingly painful. The entire cornea may become involved with a reduction in vision, which is likely to be permanent. The tear ducts and glands may also be obstructed so that the eye is not adequately lubricated, and the chances of further infection are increased. Reduction in vision is likely to result from an increase in the opacity of the cornea, which due to the scarcity of tears becomes dull and thickened in its large surface cells.
     Immediately after his conversion, Paul seems to have gone into the Arabian desert for three years (Galatians 1:11-17), where in all probability he was chiefly occupied in study and reflection, preparing himself for the great work to which he was being called. It is generally held that this region was notorious for the prevalence of this disease. He may therefore have contracted it almost at the beginning of his ministry. And although the disease may have been only a source of mild irritation at first, it seems as though it became acute on three successive occasions, so acute in fact as seemingly to be putting an end to his active ministry. It may well have been upon these three occasions that the Lord sent to Paul a man who became to the very end his keeper, in terms of his physical well-being. This brings us to the part which Luke the beloved physician may have played in Paul's life.
    Three times Paul was brought to a state of desperation by his illness; three times Luke seems to have joined Paul's party, the last time

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perhaps staying with him to the very end. Such appears to have been God's answer to Paul's plea. He was not to be freed of his burden by miraculous healing; he was to be carried through it by being cared for by a physician. It seems to me this is an important lesson for those who insist that healing is for everyone.
     The three occasions when Luke became Paul's companion were as follows. The first was at Troas when Luke joined Paul and travelled with him to Philippi as a member of his party (Acts 16:10). There is a change in the form of the personal pronoun. It should be remembered that Luke was the author. In verses 7 and 8 Luke says: "After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not. And they passing by Mysia came down to Troas." And then in verse 10: "And after he had seen the vision (the vision of a man of Macedonia beseeching Paul to go there to help them) immediately we endeavored to go into Macedonia." In due course they all came to Philippi. Here after a number of days (verse 18), Paul and Silas were both thrown into prison. When they were released it does not seem that Luke was still with them, since he thereafter refers to Paul's party as "they" (verses 30 95., and on to Acts 20:5).
     In Acts 20:6, as Paul for the second time leaves Philippi, however, Luke is again with his party, and "they" becomes "we." Luke remains with Paul until he finally went up to Jerusalem, where once again he was taken into custody (Acts 23:10 95.), and was later removed under special guard to Caesarea. It seems that Luke was excluded from the party during this transfer. However, at Caesarea Luke once more joined him (Acts 27), and in the end went with Paul to Rome after he had made his appeal to Caesar.
     With respect to the first meeting at Troas, it may be noted that Paul had just spent some time in Galatia. And it is in his letter to the Galatians that he seems to have made more particular references to his own bodily illness than he did in any subsequent epistle. If this were his first encounter with the disease, it may well have burdened him more acutely on this occasion and perhaps he went to the Lord about it in anguish at that time. At any rate, it seems clear that the visit in Galatia was a particularly trying time for him in terms of sickness. It is reasonable, therefore, to surmise that when he moved on to Troas Luke may have come to his help. This is often how God answers our desperate prayers -- in a less dramatic way than we expect. And yet it is a good thing to remember that Luke may have been the only Christian physician in the Roman Empire at that time. But Luke was not able actually to heal him, only to ameliorate his sufferings sufficiently, and he remained behind at Philippi when Paul went on. Perhaps the disease

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had been arrested and Paul felt able to carry on as before.
     His missionary travels occupied several years before he found himself once again in Troas (2 Corinthians 2:12), from which he moved on to Philippi. Perhaps by now the infection had again become severe. At any rate, Luke seems still to have been practicing at Philippi, and Paul once more placed himself under his care, remaining there for a while convalescing. Then they moved to Jerusalem, Paul no doubt feeling that he could once again continue his labours.
     We know from the second epistle to the Corinthians, written during the journey to Greece that the apostle had suffered a recurrence of his illness while on the way to Troas. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 he refers to this circumstance and is thankful that the Lord carried him through, though it had very nearly terminated his mission, so severe had been the attack (verses 8-10). It had been suggested by some that the reference here is to his experience at Ephesus. But others have pointed out that this is unlikely, because Paul was never greatly distressed by trials brought upon him as a result of the hostility of men. Moreover, his words, "we utterly despaired even of life," seem to reflect not so much a fear of dying as a fear lest, while living, he could not be used as he would in the Lord's service. It was not the fear of danger but of enforced inactivity, a cry of despondency, not of cowardice. I scarcely think Paul feared the death of martyrdom, but he may have cried out against disablement and death brought about prematurely by disease, especially a disease which was both painful and disfiguring. He speaks much of the frailty of his body (2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9), and it is here that he reveals how earnestly he had gone to the Lord desiring to be healed. But he never spoke in this way of any desire to be saved from martyrdom.
     In a way, this all reflects a fear that many of us have. We are willing enough perhaps to be martyrs, if this is God's will for us; but we find it more difficult to accept the possibility of dying from some disease. Death by disease is worse than martyrdom, for it seems to lack the drama. Yet it is well to remember that although the Lord did not free Paul of his disease, He did not allow it to prevent the fulfillment of his ministry nor was it the cause of his death in the end. At any rate, Paul on this second occasion again places himself in the hands of the beloved physician.
     On the third occasion, Paul's imprisonment and loss of liberty must have almost inevitably aggravated his disease. Luke tells us, writing as a physician, that Paul was given rather special privileges by his guardian, both while he was on the way to Rome (Acts 27:3) and when he reached there (Acts 28:16). The Lord saw to it that he was

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allowed to receive the care and attention that his condition evidently demanded. In his book, The Medical Language of St. Luke, (24) Hobart points out that Luke here carefully chooses words which were commonly used by physicians in treating their patients. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that Luke ministered to Paul by specific permission, both on the journey and upon arrival in Rome. He remained with Paul at least for the period of his first imprisonment and is mentioned as so doing by Paul in his epistle to the Colossians (Colossians 4:14). It seems not unlikely that Luke may have stayed with him to the very end, a circumstance which is possibly reflected in the fact that Luke's record in Acts has been terminated at about the supposed time of Paul's martyrdom.
     This then was God's answer to Paul's need, and one may therefore wonder why it was necessary for Paul to suffer so when, without this handicap, he might have been so much more effective. Thus we may ask two further questions: How severe was the effect of this disease upon Paul himself as a man? and, Do we have any indications from Scripture that this restraint was really necessary?
    If the problem was diseased eyes -- and we believe it was -- the effect on Paul himself seems to have been very great. At times it overwhelmed him with the sense of disfigurement and of abhorrence in his own appearance. It prompted in him a spirit of self-defense of his calling, as though his apostleship were really questionable, since no one would be so handicapped if God had really called him to such an exalted position. It robbed him of any self-assurance in his own sense of command, so that he tended at times to exaggerate the grounds of his authority. It rendered him often dependent on others in a way which he found most distressing, since he had almost certainly known wealth and therefore independence as he grew up. The fact that his father was a Roman citizen and that he himself had been given a first rate education and that he should evidently feel at ease and poised subsequently in the presence of some of the highest dignitaries of the empire -- all these combined to suggest that he belonged to the upper classes of Roman society. That he should have been a tentmaker by trade does not tell against this view because it was required by law of every orthodox Jew -- and his father must certainly have been one to insist that his son be so rigidly educated in orthodox Judaism -- that a son was taught a trade, no matter how independent he might be financially. It is evident by remarks in his letters that such

24. Hobart, W. K., The Medical Language of St. Luke, Longmans Green, London, 1882, p 292 ff. Hobart has an interesting excursus on Luke's three meetings with Paul.

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independence was peculiarly important to Paul, and on a number of occasions he showed how anxious he was not to be chargeable to anyone.|
     One senses in his letters moments of deep despondency. Then these are followed suddenly by periods in which he climbs triumphantly over his despondency and gives praise to God for His sufficiency. No one can read Paul's letters without observing that he was constantly aware of something in his appearance or his performance that distressed him with an agony of humiliation, something which seems to force him, against every other natural instinct of his disposition, into language which sounds to himself like a boastfulness -- abhorrent to him and yet forced from his pen by his very critics. Farrar put it this way:

     Whenever he has ceased to be carried away by the current of some powerful argument, whenever his sorrow at the insidious encroachment of errors against which he had flung the whole force of his character has spent itself in words of immeasurable indignation -- whenever he drops the high language of apostolic authority and inspired conviction -- we hear a sort of wailing, pleading, appealing tone in his personal addresses to his converts, which would be almost impossible in one whose pride of manhood had not been abashed by some external defects, to which he might indeed appeal as marks at once of the service and the protection of his Savior, but which made him less able to cope with the insults of opponents or the ingratitude of friends.

     His very language reveals one whose sensitiveness has been aggravated by a meanness of appearance which his friends overlook though sometimes too deliberately perhaps, and which prejudices strangers in their first meeting -- and which tends to belittle him and more importantly, his message and his authority. The very loyalty of his friends sometimes overcomes him in the face of these so strongly felt handicaps, so that his excess of gratitude make his speech at times almost idiotic (2 Corinthians 11:6), as the Greek has actually put it.
     The jibes of his enemies are at times stinging beyond bearing by reason of their very plausibility. When we first hear of him, he was quite able to obtain special authority to prosecute and hale into prison all whom he considered to be a threat to Judaism. But as the disease came progressively to disfigure his appearance, this sense of dignity and presence is gradually undermined until he becomes weak and sickly in appearance and contemptible in speech (2 Corinthians 10:10).
     Soon he has even to defend himself against the insinuation that his self-abasement is needless and excessive
(1 Corinthians 11:7), or is being only assumed as a cloak for ulterior motives (2 Corinthians 12:16). It seems

25. Farrar, F. W., ref.22, p.215.

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that he even felt it necessary to defend himself against charges that he was pretending, using guile and dishonesty to gain a hearing (1 Thessalonians 2:3-5). He was charged with using worldly methods to bolster his authority (2 Corinthians 10:2).
     It is always easy to satirize and misrepresent a depression of spirits or an attitude of genuine humility which has been caused by bodily affliction. He explains to the Corinthians why he had been in their company with fear and trembling -- because of his physical debility (1 Corinthians 2:2,3). But even this leaves the impression that he is "protesting too much." He reminds the Galatians that his very coming to them in the first place had been due to a severe illness (Galatians 4:13), and he speaks of life as being a burden indeed, one long agony (2 Corinthians 5:4) from which he would fain escape. He feels much of the time more like one who is dying than one who is living (2 Corinthians 4:8-10), a perpetual exhibition of the tyranny of sickness and death in terms of his physical being (2 Corinthians 4:11). Again and again he seems to die, being as it were "killed all the day long," so constant is his physical suffering (Romans 8: 36).
     His frequent state of near exhaustion seemed to him a poor validation of his unique call as an apostle to the Gentiles. Yet at other times he was perfectly sure that it was entirely reasonable, for only so could the glory be God's and not his own (2 Corinthians 4:7). The hypersensitive balance of his own inner convictions as to the greatness of his calling sometimes leads him into language of excessive assertion of the authority by which he laboured (1 Corinthians 15:10), and yet he could give expression to an almost morbid humility in being less than the least of all the saints (Ephesians 3:8). There are occasions when even the meaning of his appeals seems uncertain (Galatians 4:12).
     In one or two passages he speaks with a tinge of irony, if not of outright irritation, about those who were held up as pillars of the church and yet who, had they been apostles ten times over, would have contributed nothing to his message (Galatians 2:6). Elsewhere, he almost sarcastically depreciates himself entirely (1 Corinthians 4:10; 2 Corinthians 11:16-19; 12:11) But always the storm passes and he returns to his plea that his children will go on with the Lord, will apprehend their apprehension in Christ. He is sorry for even the most necessary and just severity, and ends all with expressions of tenderness and almost, as it were, a burst of tears
(2 Corinthians 2:4; Galatians 4:19, 20).
     The change from Saul of Tarsus with his authoritative manner and his sense of Pharisaical mission to suppress all who opposed the faith of Judaism into Paul the Apostle who apologizes for his presence and profoundly distrusts his own powers of persuasion, is something which has struck every student of his life. The successfulness of his

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ministry in building up the Gentile church in the faith appears to have so far exceeded the success with which he had previously sought to tear it down and to destroy it that one cannot help but feel he must in his heart have been tremendously encouraged, indeed spiritually elated. Yet for this very reason God so very severely afflicted his servant, lest his qualifications and his successes should together have ruined him. Physical humiliation, especially if it takes the form of disfigurement, and even more especially if the disfigurement is in the face, makes the bold to shrink from confrontation, the arrogant to be humble, the self-confident to be timid, and he who once loved publicity to seek to hide himself in obscurity. In Paul's case also, it seems to have done all these things. It even turned the scholar into one whose eyes would scarcely permit him to read, who evidently failed even to recognize who it was that was speaking to him in a Jewish court (Acts 23:4, 5), who having used a secretary to write his letters for him could see his own signature only by using large letters (Galatians 6:11), and whose dearest friends would have plucked out their very eyes to have given them to him had such a transplant been possible (Galatians 4:15). If one may misquote Scripture, how mighty are the fallen when they fall into the hands of the Lord!
     Perhaps the reader may think that this picture is based on insufficient evidence and depends upon reading somewhat between the lines. I do not really think so. All Scripture is written for each child of God individually, and this story of God's dealings with one who achieved so much provides this lesson, if in nothing else: that in the final analysis we do indeed have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency may be of God and not of ourselves.
     For one reason or another we cannot all "go to the front lines" for the Lord, achieve great and heroic deeds, and slay Goliaths. There were those who "stayed by the stuff" (1 Samuel 25:13), and yet they shared equally in the triumphs of those who were in the thick of the battle (1 Samuel 30:24): "As his part is that goeth down to the battle, so shall his part be that tarrieth by the stuff: they shall part alike." Yet when we are left out of the battle, we are apt to feel we have been robbed somehow of service, handicapped unfairly and sometimes for no reason of our own.
     Perhaps we forget, too, that when the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds who kept their flocks by night (Luke 2:8, 9) not all those shepherds can have gone to see this great thing that the Lord had brought to pass. That would have been a dereliction of duty. Some must have stayed to keep the sheep -- and to feel "left out." Were they not equally dong the Lord's good pleasure?

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     Like Mary, who sat still in the house (John 11:20) while Martha, the eager one, went out to anticipate the Lord, such lack of activity may often be a testimony to patient strength of faith, not inability or unwillingness to be busy. Yet it must still be said that there is no virtue per se in staying behind and not doing anything. There is a time to go, and there is a time to stay. When Moses had continued too long in prayer over something that he should no longer be praying about but rather engaged in, the Lord said to him, "Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak to the children of Israel, that they go forward" (Exodus 14:15).
     Sometimes our handicaps are excuses, sometimes they are challenges, sometimes they are blessings in disguise, and sometimes they are totally inexplicable. Whatever they are, they need never be a curse in the life of the child of God, for it is true that all things work together for good to them that love God (Romans 8:28) if we can only have patience and trust in His love. After all, we did not choose Him. He chose us

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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