Monday, October 7, 2013

A Thorn in the Flesh

Today is the first day in our 40th week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures this week are:

  •  Jer 11-13; 2 Cor 12
  •  Jer 14-16; 2 Cor 13; Psalm 76
  •  Jer 17-20; James 1
  •  Jer 22, 23, 26; James 2; Psalm 77
  •  Jer 25, 35, 36, 45; James 3; Ps 133
Everybody has heard someone say "So-and-so has been a thorn in my side!" or, "thorn in the flesh."  But did you know that it's a biblical quote?

In 2 Corinthians 12 (ESV), Paul writes about his "thorn in the flesh."

I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
The Apostle Paul

Often, people use the expression "thorn in the flesh" to indicate a hardship that they have to endure.  Like the phrase, "the cross I have to bear," it's often misused.  When used improperly, these two terms both mean an unpleasant experience that's unavoidable.  This is true for both biblical expressions, yet it falls short of the meaning of each.

When Jesus said, "Take up your cross and follow me (paraphrase of Lk 9:23, 14:27; Mt 10:38; Mk 8:34)" He meant far more than "You should be willing to go through some tough times for my sake."  The cross was an instrument of torture and death; Jesus was saying that His followers should willing to pay the ultimate price--the giving up of their very lives--for His sake.

Similarly, the phrase "thorn in the flesh" or "thorn in my side" means more than an unavoidable irritation.  Paul was blessed with "surpassing greatness of...revelations," which included (as Paul is speaking of himself in the third person, as a 'man he knows') being taken up to paradise.  There, he heard things that were far to great to even reveal to the churches.  Now, Paul was a man of great spiritual stature, who knew Jesus in a personal way, even though he had never seen the Master in the flesh.  Frequently, he would give commands from the Lord, by way of revelation.  The problem with all these ecstatic experiences was that Paul also lacked humility.  (As we've been reading through his writings, I'm sure you've observed that he can sometimes come across as egotistical.)  So, to keep him humble--to keep him from being too puffed up by these great revelations, God gave him a "thorn in the flesh."

Sometimes Paul's vagueness is good, because it allows us to take his writings and apply them to our own lives as well.  But at other times, we long for more specificity.  What was this "thorn in the flesh" from which Paul suffered?  Some say it was poor eyesight.  They substantiate this by Citing Galatians 4:15, in which Paul writes of the compassion he received from the Galatian Christians.  "For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me."  Later, in Galatians 6:11, Paul is concerned that there might be forgeries of his letters circulated by imposter apostles.  As he wrote through the help of scribes (which itself may be an indication of poor eyesight, or it may not), Paul wanted them to be able to identify the genuine article by his personal signature.  He says, "See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand."  Could poor eyesight be the result of his lightning-flash encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, after which he was blind for a time?  When the scales fell from his eyes (Ac 9:18), did he receive only a partial healing--with a residual eye injury that reminded him of where he'd come from?  Possibly--but I don't believe this was Paul's thorn in the flesh.

Some have joked that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" to keep him humble was his short stature and baldness (history records these details, though the Bible itself does not).  I don't believe these to be the culprits either.  Short stature is no messenger from Satan, and neither is baldness.  And surely, neither is poor eyesight.  (As a short man with glasses and a gradually receding hairline, I certainly hope these aren't messengers from Satan.)  So what might Paul's "thorn in the flesh" have been?

Perhaps...just was exactly what Paul said it was.  Perhaps it was an "angelos" from Satan.  "Angelos" here is generally translated as "messenger," but you can obviously tell that the word is also "angel."  Perhaps Paul was tormented by an evil spirit, much the same as King Saul was in 1 Samuel 16:14-23.  (Please don't miss the irony of both the Old Testamant Saul and the New Testament Saul experiencing trouble with evil spirits.)  Was Paul demon-possessed?  Of course not--but why wouldn't Lucifer himself take an interest in tormenting the greatest evangelist who ever lived?  

Martin Luther Throwing an Ink Well at the Devil

Or, why wouldn't Satan take and interest in harassing the first great reformer of the Catholic Church, Martin Luther?  Pastor Daniel Harmelink of Redeemer Lutheran Church writes about Martin Luther's troubles with the devil.  Though Harmelink seems not to believe in an actual devil, attributing this "demonic experience" to a psychological manifestation, I think he still makes a great point in the end of his article.  He writes:

Years ago, when tourists visited the study of Martin Luther in the Wartburg Castle, the docent inevitably would point to the dark stain next to the desk of the Reformer and announce, “This is the ink stain left when Martin Luther threw an ink bottle at the devil.”  The story was so well-known that it was included in a famous collection of stories by the Grimm brothers (responsible for the publishing of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.)  An English translation reads:
Doctor Luther sat at the Wartburg translating the Bible.  The Devil did not like this and wanted to disturb the sacred work, but when he tried to tempt him, Luther grabbed the ink pot from which he was writing, and threw it at the Evil One’s head.   Still today they show the room and the chair where Luther was sitting.
Today, the tour guides at the Wartburg do not mention the incident and the stain to tourists.  The stain has, I have heard, either faded away or been removed by someone embarrassed by the perceived silliness of the story.   To most living in Western society these days, Luther’s attack on Satan with ink has been all but explained away by modern psychology.  A good example of this is the report of the “Tintenfass” affair by the museum in Wittenberg found under its “Legends About Luther” section:
Since his childhood Luther was pestered by devils, evil spirits, and demons.   He reported about such occurrences during his later life as well, these fears of being attacked increased especially during his time of seclusion at the Wartburg, Luther ascribed his depressions and mood swings to these ‘evil spirits’.
This constant fear of Satan is normal for the late-Middle Ages and rooted in the religious upbringing within his home and at school.
Luther defended himself against this constant hostility through prayer, ‘happy song’ or more rigorously by throwing his inkwell.  Luther, awakened by the devil during the night, supposedly courageously defended himself against Satan by throwing an inkwell at him. (
Despite the prevailing embarrassment to attribute attacks upon Luther (and any other Christian) to the person of Satan instead of our own mental facilities, Martin Luther gave very good advise to each of us when he said that he had “driven the devil away with ink”.
No, I’m not suggesting that the priests in The Exorcist should have followed the antics of the Three Stooges and fired ink from a fountain pen in the direction of Linda Blair. I think the Reformer actually meant something very different when he made the comment about hurling ink.(Click here to read the rest of Harmelink's story)

Harmelink continues to talk about Jesus hurling scripture at the devil, when He was tempted in the wilderness.  He talks about the efficacy of Holy Scripture in warding off the devil, saying that it might not have been wet ink, but dry ink that Luther hurled at Satan.  The dry ink of the Bible.

Unlike Harmelink, I believe in a very real, personal devil.  I've had too much experience with him to believe otherwise.  When buffeted by an angel of the devil, Paul responded by crying out to God for deliverance.  God assured him that God's grace was sufficient for him.  

And in God's grace, Paul threw ink at the devil too.  By writing and writing and writing.  Letter after letter he wrote to the people of God.  And his letters would become Scripture indeed!  

When Satan becomes a thorn in your flesh, it's more than just an unavoidable annoyance.  If you're a Christian, then it's a real attack against a child of God.  Satan is terrified that like Martin Luther, you're going to make a difference in the Kingdom of God.  He wants to stop you any way he can.  Why not try firing God's Holy Word back at the devil?  It will stop him in his tracks.  If you're not a believer, then Satan's attacks are designed to keep you from receiving Jesus as your Savior--to keep you from eternal life.  There's no better way to defeat him than to trust Jesus, and to call on Him to save you today.

"Thorn in the flesh."  "Thorn in my side."  "My cross to bear."  These phrases mean far more than we think they do.  To the believer, they are matters of spiritual life and death.  Let's take seriously the invisible dimension that's behind our religion, and realize that these things aren't just phrases--these things are real.  And in those areas where we struggle with them, let's trust that God's grace will be sufficient for us, as well.

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