Is the Apostle Paul the Patron Saint of the Suffering?

“Because of these surpassingly great revelations, lest I should be exalted above measure, I was given a thorn in my flesh, an “angel” (ἄγγελος) of Satan to buffet (κολαφίζῃ) me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7)

Others might read something else into this verse, but as a sailor and a person who sometimes gets the big head, the fact that God blessed Paul with great revelations points to a good God — one who blesses — not one who brings sickness and affliction.

It’s clear from the way many twist Paul’s words that they wish to paint God’s chosen servant to the Gentiles as the Patron Saint of Suffering. Paul knew and understood the Old Testament better than many who read the Bible today. So when Paul speaks of a “thorn in my flesh” those who heard would have recalled passages in Numbers, Joshua and Judges.

“If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become BARBS IN YOUR EYES AND THORNS IN YOUR SIDES. They will give you trouble!” (Numbers 33:55)

“You may be sure that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become SNARES and TRAPS for you, whips on your backs and THORNS IN YOUR EYES.” (Joshua 23:13)

“I have also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you.’” (Judges 2:3)

Jesus warns:

“In this world you will have trouble, but be brave! I have defeated the world (John 16:33).”

You’ll note that Jesus does not say, you will be blessed by my Father and then be given affliction to keep you humble. A God who blesses with the right hand and slaps us down with the left would be defined by today’s standards as an abusive father.

Instead Jesus says:

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Healing is a gift. Health is a gift. Life is a gift. Our daily provision is a gift. Contentment is a gift. Which of us would wish chronic pain, suffering, sickness, or death upon our child? If we, though we are evil would not wish these things upon our children, why would we think God would wish them upon us?

What Paul experienced is what all can anticipate when they seek to do God’s work: retribution from the enemy.

Prompted by Paul’s great revelation a demon-angle sent from Satan attacked Paul the way winds might buffet a boat. Buffet means to “strike sharply, especially with the hand, strike with telling force, strike repeatedly, to drive, force, move, or attack relentlessly.” This word indicates an outward action of one force against another, not an inner force beating to get out.

Paul goes on to say that he boasts in this weakness. He views his weakness as beneficial “so that Christ’s power may rest on me. I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Nothing in verses 9 and 10 suggests a disease or affliction. Rather weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties all reflect external circumstances coming against Paul.

In Scripture the Greek word ἀσθενείᾳ can mean “ill” (as in John 5:5) or “sickness” (as in John 11:4), or “weakness” (as in Romans 8:26). When we are weak, He is strong. Weak does not mean sick. Weak can simply mean worn down, extremely tired, malnourished, or recovering from an injury.

This messenger from Satan attacked Paul wherever he went and constantly stirred up trouble against him. Paul pleaded with God to remove this individual, but God declined. We get hints in Paul’s writings of others who buffeted him or turned on him. Demetrius the craftsman, and Alexander the Coppersmith are two. There were others in Jerusalem who conspired to kill him. All such individuals did the work of the enemy.

Paul may have endured sickness sometimes, but this passage regarding Paul’s thorn in the flesh isn’t that. At least not the way I read it. I leave you with these words from Jesus. Decide for yourself who you wish to believe.

“If you remain in my and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish — and do not doubt — and it will be given to you.” (John 15:7)

“If you believe and do not doubt, you can say . . . and it will be done.” (Matthew 21:21)

“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:22)

“If you have faith as small as a seed, nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20-21)

“My Father in heaven desires to give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)

“My Father desires to give you the Holy Spirit, so ask for my Spirit.” (Luke 11:11-13)

“As you believed it would be, so it will be done for you.” (Matthew 8:13)

“Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

“I am willing to heal you.” (Matthew 8:3)