That I, Paul, might not become too elated, because of the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Cor 12:7-9
What is this “thorn in the flesh” that St. Paul speaks of in his second letter to the Corinthians? Bible scholars have speculated over the years – it could have been a physical illness, a spiritual temptation, or perhaps a certain person who simply made his life incredibly difficult. In the end, it really doesn’t matter, and perhaps that is why St. Paul was purposefully vague (the Holy Spirit at work!). If he had specified what, in particular, was bothering him so much, we might be inclined to brush off the verse and think it doesn’t apply to us. As it is, it has something to say to each and every one of us.
Every one of us has a “thorn in the flesh” – something that no matter how hard we try and no matter how much we beg God, just isn’t going away any time soon. I know I have mine – more than one, actually. There are the physical issues I struggle with, the temptations I find myself battling every single day of my life, the people who I always seem to clash with, the character flaws that I can’t seem to correct, the sins I find myself saying in confession over and over and over again, despite my resolution to “go and sin no more.”
And yet, perhaps, like St. Paul, those thorns in our flesh serve a purpose. I know mine help make me much more understanding and less judgmental. My physical difficulties help me to have patience with others. Is someone having a bad day? Perhaps they had some pain I can’t see and don’t know about. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The people I find difficult to deal with? I’m sure that they find me a cross as well, and if not them, well, then there are probably others that do and I just don’t know about it. A little kindness and biting one’s tongue can go a long way.
I know I’m not perfect. I prove it every day of my life. Therefore, I will not be casting stones anytime soon, and when I’m tempted to be self-righteous at any time, I only have to remind myself of my own laundry list of sins and that temptation is usually put in check pretty quickly.
Most importantly, though, like St. Paul, our imperfections force us to depend on God. We need His mercy, His forgiveness, His understanding. We need Him to take us, all of us – even our weaknesses, and flaws, and somehow turn our failings and our trials into something good. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need God. As it is, we can’t make it through a minute on our own. We must rely on His grace and trust that He knows what He is doing. Those thorns in our flesh may be an ever-present reality, but God can use even them for His glory.