The Apostle Paul’s description of a thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12.7b-10) holds meaning for many of us who struggle with chronic illnesses. In my case, Still’s Disease robs me of many former activities and confines me within disciplined life of rest, light exercise, contemplation, and limited work. Many people, of course, deal with conditions that leave them bedridden with the prospect of death on the horizon. I count myself fortunate and blessed.
The thorn in the flesh seems to have been a debilitating and recurrent affliction that was unpredictable, painful, and humiliating. I am attracted to the suggestion of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg (The First Paul) that the apostle had contracted a form of chronic malaria as a youth in Tarsus. The fevers and headaches can leave a person drained of all strength. There is a striking paradox embedded in this section of Paul’s letter. The thorn in the flesh is presented as both a gift of God (note the passive verb “was given”) and a messenger of Satan. Undoubtedly the condition imposed limitations on Paul’s apostolic mission. It is possible that his opponents mocked him as a sick healer that God refused to cure. Yet it is also a strange gift that has passed through the hands of God who loves him.
Paul states that on three specific occasions he had pleaded for God’s healing intervention to permanently remove the thorn in his flesh. The response to his prayer was a message: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect (reaches its goal) in weakness.” These words represent both an affirmation and an explanation. Paul will be given grace to cope with the pain, embarrassment, and shame of his condition. Furthermore, he is told that God’s power to transform human lives reaches its goal in the midst of human weakness (Greek en astheneia). There is no room for arrogance, false bravado, and misguided ideas of self sufficiency.
Paul goes on to cite other situations in which his weak social position and inability to defend himself are publicly evident. His commitment to Christ forces him to deal with insults, hardships, persecution, and calamities. He neither plays it safe nor retreats into leading a small life. Paul writes about the power of Christ pitching a tent beside him in troubled times. He concludes with a statement that is important for all of us who live with limitations and follow the Spirit’s leading into difficult places of service. “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
Paul’s words help me to understand how I experience Still’s Disease as a gift from God that has required me to depend on his grace and develop a quiet life of prayer. Simultaneously, I have been embarrassed by commitments that I have been unable to complete and my requirements for rest that restrict ministry. We find ourselves in Paul’s company when we understand that Christ pitches a tent beside us in difficult times and that his power is revealed in the midst of our weakness.