Who Gave Paul His Thorn?

Who gave Paul his thorn in 2 Corinthians 12? It might sound like a slightly obscure, angels-on-a-pinhead question, but it is actually very significant, because it cuts to the heart of questions about divine sovereignty, suffering, goodness and the agency of the devil. Does God send adversity, to teach us or bring us to maturity? Do God and Satan work together, in some weird way? Is Satan able to act on his own initiative? Does God sometimes actively will for people to experience things they find painful, that good may result? You get the idea.

The text doesn’t tell us what exactly the thorn was, and it doesn’t tell us who exactly gave it to Paul. So let’s start with what we know.

1. The thorn was “a messenger of Satan.”
2. It was given “to keep me from being too conceited” (hina mē huperairōmai).
3. It was painful, to the point that Paul pleaded with the Lord to take it away.
4. In response, Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness.”
5. Paul concludes, after talking about this thorn, by boasting in his weaknesses and being content with infirmities.

If all we had was #1 and #3, we would presumably conclude that Satan, and nobody else, sent the thorn: it was painful (#3), and it came in the form of an angelos Satana (#1). But if all we had was #2, #4 and #5, we would presumably conclude that God, and nobody else, sent the thorn: it was given with the intention of preventing pride (#2), Jesus did not take it away but rather pointed to the fruit it would bear in Paul’s life (#4), and it obviously worked (#5). Given that we have all five, it seems clear that we should answer the question “Who gave Paul his thorn?” as most commentators do: God, through Satan. Unless we are to see Satan’s purpose as humility in Paul—which beggars belief—it is hard to reach any other conclusion.

Yet there remain interpreters, particularly from a more health-and-wealth perspective, who insist that not only did God not give Paul his thorn, but God never sends afflictions to believers for the sake of their maturity. Crucial in this approach is the idea that God and Satan can never co-operate in doing something; arguing that they could, in fact, would be to attribute the work of God to the devil, and implicitly commit the unforgivable sin. As Bill Johnson puts it:

Uncertainty causes some people to misunderstand who God is. They begin to deny God’s true nature and embrace sickness and disease, poverty and mental anguish as gifts from God. That is a devastating lie from hell. It’s actually blasphemous to attribute to God the work of the devil.

The problem is, of course, that there are a number of places in Scripture in which a collaborative relationship between divine and satanic agency is assumed, or explicitly taught, without going anywhere near the unforgivable sin (unless we are to believe that Moses, the Chronicler, Luke, Paul and co committed it within the pages of the Bible, which seems unlikely). Job is afflicted by Satan (1:6-12; 2:1-8), and also by God (1:20-22; 2:9-10). David’s census is incited by God (2 Samuel 24:1), and also by Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1). Judas betrays Jesus because of Satan (Luke 22:3-6), and because of God’s sovereign plan (Acts 4:27-28). Church discipline will result in an immoral brother having his flesh destroyed by Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5a), so that his spirit may be saved by God (5:5b). And that is without mentioning the various human individuals whose evil actions are ordained somehow by God, with a view to bringing about good (Joseph’s brothers, Pharaoh, the king of Assyria, and so on). Paul’s knowledge of all these stories, alongside his language here, strongly indicate that he regarded his thorn in the same way.

Intriguingly, some Pentecostal preachers go further, and argue that God was not behind the thorn because its purpose was to stop Paul from being “exalted” in the sense of successful in his gospel ministry, rather than “conceited” in the sense of proud. Andrew Wommack writes:

Verse 7 says it came lest Paul should be exalted above measure. Traditionally, that has been interpreted to say the thorn was to keep Paul humble. Therefore, God had to be the author of it, because only God would want Paul to be humble. But there is a godly way of being exalted. First Peter 5:6 says, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.” Those who submit (humble) themselves to God will be exalted by God. Paul was not speaking of exalting himself above measure through pride, but rather, the thorn came from Satan to keep Paul from being exalted by God in the eyes of the people.

This, unfortunately, is the problem with doing word studies in English rather than Greek. The word Peter uses is hupsoō, which is in the active voice, and means simply to exalt, or lift up; it is frequently used positively in the New Testament. But the word Paul uses in 2 Corinthians is huperairomai, which is in the middle voice, and means to exalt oneself, become haughty, or “have an undue sense of one’s self-importance” (BDAG); in its only other occurrence in the New Testament, it refers to the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2:4! Lexically, there is simply no way that huperairomai could mean something positive about Paul, and therefore that Satan could be trying to prevent something good from happening by giving him the thorn. No: the thorn is given to prevent Paul from being proud, haughty or conceited on the basis of his vision (12:1-6)—which sounds exactly like the sort of thing God would do.

So who gave Paul his thorn? God, and Satan, but with thoroughly different agendas. Satan, we may surmise, wanted to destroy him. God wanted to humble him, and throw him back onto divine grace. And God won.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

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