Thursday, July 2, 2009

Dealing with Thorns

What is worse than kneeling on a thorn while weeding? Or reaching for a ripe fruit only to have your hands torn by a thorn? Have you ever cut down a thorn tree? Even if you wear gloves, you are not immune to the poisons on the spines. So, how does God want his children to deal with thorns? Endurance is one key; dependence another.

Honey Locust thorns are large enough and strong enough to puncture a tennis shoe while walking, or even a tractor tire! (Image Source,

The point of dealing with thorns is not to get stuck! ...and, if inevitably stuck, to get unstuck quickly, but carefully (extraction without additional sticks)!

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Paul uses the Greek word, skolops, which in its widest sense means anything sharp and pointy, to name his famous, or infamous, "'thorn' in the flesh." (In medical parlance, this more general definition would be comparable to "sharps," needles, lancets, etc., that are intended to bring health, but when disposed of improperly may bring injury and death.) In Paul's use the "sharp object" clearly has a negative connotation, and so may mean thorn or splinter or other cause of "serious annoyance," an "injurious foreign body" (BDAG).

What is Paul's Thorn?


Or some existential angst? Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Ethics (opens a .pdf file) raises an interesting question regarding the "thorn in the flesh" of our human condition. Levinas says regarding Kierkegaard's view of the problem of subjectivity: "the subject had a secret, forever inexpressible, and it was this secret that defined its subjectivity. The secret was not like a piece of information passed over in silence, but was essentially inexpressible and associated above all with the burning pain of sin. There was no victory for rational and universal truth; nor was there any means of expression that could either cover up the secret or extinguish it. This incommunicable burning, this 'thorn in the flesh', testified to subjectivity as a tension over itself (tension sur soi)." Levinas goes on to say that this problem of the subject's subjectivity is akin to the ancient tension of the human soul's desire for salvation and the tension of "the soul consumed by desire." Is Paul's "thorn" sin? We must be careful here, because the use of the passive, "a thorn 'was given' me," is often in biblical and theological texts a form of indirection. (The active would be "God 'has given' me a thorn.") In other words, Paul may see his thorn as God's doing, as a gift to him from God. Perhaps the fact that the Lord denies the apostle's three-fold request that the thorn might leave him be also supports this interpretation. Of course, seeing sin as a gift from God is theologically problematic at best.

...but perhaps we should not so quickly dismiss the idea of the thorn as sin. Paul also speaks of this thorn as an "angel of Satan." And any "messenger of Satan" could--and probably should--be associated with sin. In this regard, one could think of any and all pangs of conscience and inward temptations to sin.

After all, who hasn't reached for a beautiful rose, just to be stuck by a thorn?

(Image Source, "Lilacs and Roses" blog,, April 16, 2009.)


Perhaps the most commonly held position is that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was some sort of painful, long-term illness. Something that, again in modern medical parlance, could be treated and managed by human effort, but not cured. (Sound a little like sin?) The degree to which this assumption regarding the precise identity of Paul's thorn is shared--and the altogether speculative nature of this assumption--is on full display in the BDAG statement that Paul uses kolaphizo figuratively here (2 Cor. 12:7) for "painful attacks of an illness." More literally, Paul describes a physical beating by a messenger of Satan. In other words, the proper definition of kolaphizo is to "strike with the fist, beat, cuff" someone--i.e., "to cause physical impairment, torment." Obviously, we have somewhat incongruous metaphors here used side-by-side. Thorns--at least the non-human ones--do not beat a person about the head and shoulders, despite the views of some harassed rose gardeners. Neither do illnesses.

Nevertheless, BAGD trots out a list of Paul's proposed illnesses that would be hilarious if not so obviously without any basis. The list includes epilepsy, hysteria, depression, headaches, eye troubles, malaria, leprosy, speech impediment (stammering) and the like. This leaves aside for a moment such things as the "anxieties of a missionary's life" and the "attacks of opponents" that do not quite reach the level of diagnosable physical or mental illness.


This interpretation of Paul's "thorn" is given some credence by Paul's list of things he delights in (2 Cor. 12:10), including insults and persecutions. Insults and persecutions arise from enemies without, not the enemies within. Such an interpretation also resonates with Psalm 123:3-4, "Have mercy on us, LORD, for we have endured the contempt and ridicule of proud and arrogant people." But the rather constant reference to Paul's weakness tends to point in the opposite direction, toward an inward condition rather than an external source.

What are we to make of such conflicting clues? Perhaps Paul's metaphors refer to human weakness in sum, in which he has to contend both with self-inflicted pains and the persecution of his enemies. What do you think?

Maybe Paul was thinking of the long thorns of the Locust, or the smaller thorns of the rose.

Or maybe he was thinking of that time he reached for forbidden fruit and had his hand scratched as he pulled away.

Bramble branch with thorns, Image Credit: © Georgette Douwma /

(Image Credit: © Georgette Douwma /

What sorts of thorns are impaling and paining you?

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