Thorns in the Flesh: Physical Ailments

“And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

                The Apostle Paul is known as the greatest missionary of all time. God entrusted him with the task of bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles. Though blessed by God and certainly bearing much fruit, Paul also had his shares of misery and pain. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul claims that he was given a ‘thorn in the flesh’. This ‘thorn’ was a nagging problem in Paul’s side. It would not go away. He even begged God on three different occasions to take the ‘thorn’ away from him. Yet, the ‘thorn’ remained.

“We do not know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. The word translated thorn means “a sharp stake used for torturing or impaling someone.” It was a physical affliction of some kind that brought pain and distress to Paul. Some Bible students think that Paul had an eye affliction (see Gal. 6:11); but we cannot know for sure. It is a good thing that we do not know, because no matter what our sufferings may be, we are able to apply the lessons Paul learned and get encouragement.”[1] We all have thorns in our flesh. Whether, it be the thorn of physical ailments, the thorn of relationships, or even a thorn of sin; we all have these nagging issues that pierce into our very soul and brings much grief and pain.

We cannot expect these thorns to be completely removed from our lives. After all, Paul Himself got nowhere in his request to God to remove the thorn. God may not remove the thorns but, as we shall see, God gives us grace to endure the thorns.

As noted, it is probable that Paul’s thorn was some type of physical ailment. Some say it was his eyesight due to his Damascus-road experience. However, no one really knows for sure. The thing for us to consider is how we can endure the thorns in our lives. God never promises to take away the thorns in this life, but He does give us grace to endure the thorn.

When it comes to the thorn of physical ailments there are several ways in which we should respond to the thorn.

Pray for Healing. There is nothing wrong with praying for God to remove the thorn of physical ailments. Paul prayed earnestly on three separate occasions for God to heal him and remove the thorn. If you are suffering with sickness or some form of physical ailment, do you pray for healing? I am afraid that we tend to shy away from such prayers due to the extremes of the charismatic movement and modern day ‘faith healers.’ However, we cannot allow those who distort the truth to keep us from the truth. It is true that the gifts of healing were used as a sign to the Jewish people that Jesus truly is the Messiah. Those ‘sign’ gifts are of little use to us today due to the fact that we have been given the complete Word of God. Extraordinary signs and wonders may not be necessary today to point people to Christ, especially in our culture here in America. However, just because the gift of healing was primary a sign gift for the purpose of revealing Christ to the Jews, it does not mean that God does not have the power to heal or never chooses to heal. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is still in the healing business. He can heal you of your physical ailment in a miraculous way if He so chooses.

When it comes to praying for healing, we need to understand that prayer moves the hand of God. When we pray consistently and persistently and with a pure heart, God takes notice and is often compelled to act on our behalf. Look at Luke 11:5-13. In this passage Jesus gives an illustration of a man who persistently knocked on his neighbor’s door for help. Jesus equates the man’s persistence to prayer. God desires to do good things for us. He has a store house of blessings ready to poor upon us if we would just ask Him. It is when we are determined to never give up on praying that God makes His move. The problem is that too often we give up a moment too soon. We pray and pray and then we resign to the thought that God is not going to respond when perhaps it was in that very moment that God was about to do the miraculous. Never give up on praying for healing.

We are actually instructed to pray for those who are sick. Look at James 5:14-16. Here we find instructions concerning praying over those who are sick. The Bible is clear that we are to lay hands on the sick and pray for their healing. We should not shy away from this Biblical act of laying on of hands. It is not the actual laying on of hands that heals. No human being has the power to heal. Only God can do the miraculous. However, the laying on of hands is an affirmation. It is agreeing together in prayer specifically for the person that we are praying for. Laying on of hands communicates that “I am with you, and I care for you.” We need to practice such praying more. It is through the fervent prayers of the saints of God that healing takes place. Therefore, when it comes to the thorn of physical ailments, we should follow Paul’s example and begin by asking God to remove the thorn. Pray for healing.

One other note to consider when it comes to praying for healing: we must understand that the purpose for healing is not necessarily for our benefit but for the glory of God and the advancement of the Kingdom. When we pray for healing, we must pray with the right purpose in mind. If our desire to be healed is merely personal and selfish then we cannot expect to be healed. However, if we desire to be healed in order that others would be drawn to Christ and that God would be glorified, then healing is much more likely.

Repent of sin. No matter how you look at it, sin is either directly or indirectly tied to all our sicknesses. We suffer with physical ailments because we live in a world that is cursed by sin. Therefore, we are constantly exposed to all types of possible disease and physical problems. However, in a lot of cases, our suffering comes from our own sinful actions. Read what the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. As a believer in Christ, your body belongs to Jesus. You are the temple of the Holy Ghost. Therefore, we are to honor and glorify God not just in our spirit but also with our bodies. The principle here is that we are to take care of the body that God has given us. It is in taking proper care of our bodies that we are given the energy and strength to be the ambassadors of Jesus Christ to this world that God has called us to be. Most of the sicknesses and diseases that we endure comes from the lack of caring properly for our bodies. When we fail to care properly for our bodies with the right food and exercise, we are sinning against God and limiting our ability to serve Him faithfully. Therefore, if we want to have the thorn of physical ailment removed or at least avoid such thorns in the first place, then we need to repent of the sin of not caring for our bodies and get back on the road to better over all health.

Accept the reality of the thorn. Often times God chooses not to heal. Why is this? One possible explanation is that such a miraculous event is not that necessary today in order to draw someone to Christ because we have the complete written Word of God and the Gospel of which we preach. Therefore, it is true that what we think of as being healed is not as common today. In many cases it is better for God to leave the thorn of physical ailment in us in order to open the door for others to come to know Christ. It is through the manner in which the believer endures the thorn that is much more compelling to an unbeliever than what a miraculous healing may be. Let us consider three possible reasons why God often chooses to leave the thorns of physical ailment within us.

First of all, the thorns remain in order to humble us. Paul had an amazing personal experience. He had a first-hand glimpse of Heaven. There were things revealed to Paul that he was not permitted to share with others. The thorn that Paul had served as a constant reminder that he was still human, and he was still on earth. Without the thorn, Paul would have been too Heavenly minded that he would be of no earthly good. Therefore, God chose to not remove the thorn from Paul in order to keep him humble and focused on his calling. In some ways I can personally relate to Paul. I have some physical thorns that I have prayed to be removed and have taken steps to resolve them, but, yet they remain. If those thorns were not there I would have too much confidence in myself and my own ability. It is those thorns that make me more self-conscious and less prideful. The thorns that I have causes me to focus more on giving glory to God rather than drawing attention to myself.

Secondly, the thorns remain in order to teach us. Some thorns seem to be more permanent while others are temporary. Those temporary thorns are often there for the purpose of teaching us a valuable lesson. There are times in my own life where I was so busy that God had to allow sickness to enter my body in order to slow me down and force me to listen to Him. Sometimes, God allows us to get sick because He wants our attention. There is something He wants to show us or to teach us. Therefore, when we are sick, we should ask ourselves, “what is God trying to teach me?”

Finally, the thorns remain in order to reach others. We have a lady in our church that is in poor health and goes to dialysis several times a week. She told me once that she was thankful for her physical problems. She was thankful because there was an open door for her to be a witness to others who were in the same situation as herself and to be a witness to the doctors and nurses. This is so true. People tend to respond better to people that can relate to them. Her sickness allows for a much greater witness than a preacher going into the hospital preaching to the sick. The purpose of the thorns always involves bringing others to Christ. Sometimes God allows suffering in our lives in order to put us in a better position to reach others with the Gospel.

Praise God for the thorn. Paul gave glory to God for the thorn in his life. The thorn of physical ailments has a two-fold purpose. One, to draw others to Christ and secondly, to bring glory to God. These two purposes is truly the essence of the Christian life. It is all about bringing others to Christ and giving God glory. Therefore, if the thorn of physical ailment is necessary for those purposes to be accomplished then we should welcome the thorn and thank God for it.

None of us enjoy being sick. However, the thorns of physical ailments can be a blessing in disguise. May God help us to embrace whatever difficulty He may allow so that others may know Him, and that Christ may be glorified!


[1] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 674). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

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