You did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. What has happened to your joy? ... Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? (Galatians 4.14-16)
The Mysterious Thorn
Overall, Paul’s an up-front, no-holds-barred kind of guy. When he finds restraint useful, he typically says why that’s best. For instance, near the end of his second letter to Corinth, he explains, “This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not tearing you down.” (2 Corinthians 13.9-10) In other words, “Better we hash this out on paper now than get into arguments when we’re together.” The only subject Paul shows any reticence in writing about frankly is his mysterious “thorn,” a personal issue he refers to in 2 Corinthians 12 and Galatians 4. It’s fairly safe to say reliable knowledge of what troubled Paul so much died with the last individual who knew him personally.
Thus, we have centuries of scholarly theories, none more plausible than the next. The second-century writer Tertullian is convinced Paul’s vexed by chronic ear infections, which helps explain his mercurial personality. But others propose sexual desire, stuttering, malarial fever, and acute eye inflammation. The last supposition assumes Paul’s condition is secondary to his blinding conversion, a notion supported by a reference to his eyes in Galatians 4 (see below). In any case, accepting we’ll never conclusively identify Paul’s problem doesn’t impede our learning from how he deals with it.
The famous 2 Corinthians passage is Paul’s primer on the matter. He says his thorn is given to keep him humble, which would set off intense conflicts in anyone of his talents and drive. But Paul also copes with daunting insecurities due to his circumstances. He’s a latecomer to this movement, a man who’s burdened by a notorious past that casts shade on his motives and sincerity. More than that, he’s called to bring Gentiles into the faith—a mission many Jewish believers oppose. So Paul’s past, his role in the Church, and innumerable obstacles concomitant with his purpose already humble him. The added struggle amounts to more than he can bear. Three times, he begs God to remove it. God refuses, assuring Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.9) When Paul accepts his thorn isn’t going away, he changes his attitude. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses,” he writes in verse 10. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” This mindset is the key lesson we derive from Paul’s condition. Disadvantages that might cripple our self-image and effectiveness become assets when we place our trust in God’s grace.
In Galatians 4 we uncover additional findings. Galatian believers have retrenched into religious traditions and verge on losing their faith. In verse 9 Paul asks, “How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” He reminds his readers: “It was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you” (v13), alluding to his problem. This tells us Paul’s discretion on the page does not imply any shame about his thorn. He’s very open about it and uses it to witness God’s grace. But it’s also apparent his thorn stigmatizes him in some way. He writes, “Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.” (v14) Now, in the wake of regressive influences, the Galatians withdraw their welcome because of the very thing they once tolerated gladly. In verses 15 and 16, we hear his sorrow: “What has happened to your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?”
Burying Our Thorns
What weighs on Paul is worse than rejection. He’s wounded to know had he concealed his thorn (assuming it was possible), estrangement from the Galatians wouldn’t have happened. He’s penalized for his honesty! It angers and confuses him that formerly tolerant believers can’t discern they’ve been manipulated. He understands his freedom from shame and confidence in grace are no threat to the Galatians. But they most certainly intimidate those who oppose him. “Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good,” he insists. “What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them.” (v17) Before he debunks their heresy, he adds, “I am perplexed about you!” (v20) Nothing would please me more than asserting Paul’s frustration is an anomaly, a convergence of social and religious prejudice never again seen in Christian circles. But to this day, believers and faith communities adopt “don’t tell, don’t ask” positions at the urging of obstructionist dogma that neutralizes their duty to welcome the stranger, accept the outcast, embrace the weak (and their weaknesses), abhor rejection—in short, to love others as themselves.
Advocates of exclusion amass power through fear. “Believe what we say,” they threaten, “or there’ll be Hell to pay!” And sadly, many of us with thorns as inescapable as Paul’s submit. We lack the Apostle's confidence in grace. To keep our predicaments from coming to light, we conform to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Most definitely, this is the easier way to go. But is it right? Paul would say, “Definitely not!” Burying our thorns hides God’s grace. Not only that, it offers no hope to believers who’ve lost their joy to hateful teaching. Later, Paul challenges those who’ve fallen for erroneous ideology: “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5.7) His question revokes “don’t ask, don’t tell” by exposing how it nurtures deception and disobeys truth. We delight in our weaknesses so God’s power may be revealed in us, for our sake as well as others’. It secures our confidence and restores the joy false teachers have stolen from gullible believers. That’s why, when asked, we must tell.
Although we're encouraged to keep silent about our thorns, duty to God, others, and us demands open honesty.
Postscript: The "Drew Marshall" Interview
Audio of my interview on last Saturday's "The Drew Marshall Show" is now available at the program's Website. It was most stimulating. The conversation covered a broad range of topics, from my personal faith experience to marital equality. Whether or not this indicates anything, it ran past its original 35-minute time slot by nearly 10 minutes. Please take the time to give it a listen. It is most definitely a product of our shared journey. I pray God uses it for His honor and glory, just as I pray you'll find it useful in some way and worthy of sharing with others.
Finally, if any good comes of it, none of it would be possible without your loving support and effective prayers. I owe all of you an immeasurable debt of gratitude, and truly thank God for all He's doing in and through you. The praise is His, but the reward is yours!
The interview is listed under the "Journey" segment. I'll be most interested to hear your thoughts. And, once again, thank you!