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Thorn in the flesh

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"Thorn in the flesh" is an expression for something that is painful and long-lasting.

The source of this expression is Paul of Tarsus, who uses it in 2 Cor. 12:7-10:

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. (NIV)

Many interpretations have been given of Paul's meaning:

  1. Some Roman Catholic writers think that it denotes suggestions to impiety.
  2. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Reformers interpret the expression as denoting temptation to unbelief.
  3. Others suppose the expression refers to "a pain in the ear or head," epileptic fits, or, in general, to some severe physical infirmity, which was a hindrance to the apostle in his work (comp. 1 Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 10:10; 11:30; Gal. 4:13, 14; 6:17). It has been suggested that his malady was a defect of sight caused the dazzling light which shone around him at his conversion. This would account for the statements in Gal. 4:14; 2 Cor. 10:10; also Acts 23:5, and for his generally making use of the help of an amanuensis (comp. Rom. 16:22, etc.).
  4. Another view which has been maintained is that this "thorn" consisted in an infirmity of temper, to which he occasionally gave way, and which interfered with his success (comp. Acts 15:39; 23:2-5). If we consider the fact, "which the experience of God's saints in all ages has conclusively established, of the difficulty of subduing an infirmity of temper, as well as the pain, remorse, and humiliation such an infirmity is wont to cause to those who groan under it, we may be inclined to believe that not the least probable hypothesis concerning the 'thorn' or 'stake' in the flesh is that the loving heart of the apostle bewailed as his sorest trial the misfortune that, by impatience in word, he had often wounded those for whom he would willingly have given his life" (Lias's Second Cor., Introd.).
  5. A highly controversial theory has been proposed by Bishop Spong in his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (ISBN 0-06-067518-7) which suggests that it refers to homosexual desires. Paul strongly condemned acting on such desires in his other writings. (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10)
  6. A meaning accepted by many christians was that Paul had a person in his life that annoyed him. Paul would then sin (in what way it is unknown, probably acting out in anger). This would show him he is man and fallible, still in need of Christ. It kept him from getting a big head from being shown by God God's mysteries.

This entry incorporates text from the public domain Easton's Bible Dictionary, originally published in 1897.

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