2 Corinthians 12:2-10 – The 6th Sunday following Pentecost – for Sunday, July 5, 2015
“I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited.” (2 Corinthians 12:7)
Paul believed that thorn was a prickly gift from Satan, and prevented him from being conceited. It punctured the balloon of his vanity; it was the discarded banana skin threatening his next step; it was the “angel” on a shoulder reminding him of his foolishness even as the “devil” on the other side encouraged him to brag about his Christ-inspired revelations and Godly experiences.
Professional and amateur scholars* have wondered about Paul’s thorn for centuries. What was his “problem?”
- He had leprosy.
- He had poor eyesight.
- He was gay.
- He had a speech impediment.
- He had halitosis.
Did Paul have Tourette syndrome long before it was ever formally diagnosed? A big schnoz that made the typical “Roman nose” appear demure? A first century version of an addiction to booze-drugs-food-gambling-hoarding-pornography, or another not-nice-vice that would be addressed in the alphabet soup of future 12-step programs?
The speculative list of Paul’s physical or metaphoric thorns never ceases to contract and expand. One generation’s thorn is the next generation’s cure. How much do you or your neighbors worry about any form of leprosy? And one generation’s lowercase word—aid for example—can shift from benign to horrific, from thornless to thorny, with the addition of uppercase text and one letter: AIDS.
The speculative list about Paul’s thorn invariably becomes personal. If Paul had an addiction or compulsion or bad habit or weakness or wound . . . then what is yours?
Paul never identified his “thorn.” His ambiguity was and is an enduring gift for every boastful and bashful believer.
Or maybe Paul didn’t need to name his thorn to the Christian community in Corinth because everyone there—every one!—knew his problem! Maybe they’d witnessed the evidence of leprosy on his skin. Or they knew his poor eyesight meant he couldn’t read a word from the Torah on a sunny day if his life depended on it. Or they knew Paul preferred the company of men, but at least never did anything overly queer—pardon my modern word—to upset the Corinthians. Were his public sermons partly amusing and partly confusing because he stuttered? Did the Corinthians avoid him in the coffee and cookie time after worship because, frankly, Paul had bad breath?
I prefer to believe Paul didn’t provide prickly details because he knew he wasn’t unique. If Paul had been specific, there wouldn’t be any reason to speculate. Instead, Paul’s Corinthian friends and twenty-first century readers could’ve easily said: I’m glad I don’t have poor, poor Paul’s bad breath or bad eyes or bad skin. (It’s his thorn, not mine!)
But don’t literal or figurative thorns pierce everyone? Flesh is weak. Souls are stained with mistakes. Addictions and compulsions stalk every far-from-perfect human. The vultures of our corrupted virtues circle overhead, reminders of our banality and mortality.
Paul’s thorn is a version of Jesus’ splinter. Why do I gleefully see the toothpick in my neighbor’s eye, but ignore the redwood tree in mine?
I prefer to believe that Paul, with good or bad eyes, with palsied or steady hands, with shame in his heart or scars on his flesh, wrote to the Corinthians with as much honesty as he could muster. I believe he was afraid to confess the details of his thorn and yet also prescient about the future needs of believers.
Paul had so much to share. He had so much to boast about. He was on a mission to save the next person, and to save the world, by and through Christ. He was convinced he had to use every breath to prevent others from a futile death. In his visions, he’d seen the glory of God. Through his fertile imagination, he was able to sway others with wondrous words. Because of his superior faith—oh wasn’t his faith in God and Christ tested and tried and true?—he could serve as the preeminent example to Jew and Gentile alike!
And yet . . . Paul had that thorn. No one is immune.
Many years ago I had an unexpected supper with writer and pastor Frederick Buechner. How I admired him! How his writing had challenged and inspired me! Buechner was the featured speaker at the Pacific School of Religion’s Earl Lectures. News releases had mentioned his availability for a few meals. I called, hoping to invite him to my clergy group’s lunch, but the only time left on his schedule was a dinner. That didn’t work for my group, but it worked for me.
As we broke bread in a Berkeley, California restaurant, Buechner talked about his books, asked about my ministry, and then—softly, with humility—spoke about one of his daughters. He’d revealed her struggle with anorexia in his writing, but now shared more with me. He confessed his anguish as he sat beside her bed in a hospital room. Buechner described watching his daughter smile while she bantered with him and reminisced about childhood events. He watched when she spooned food, lifted it to her mouth, and then—with what seemed like a practiced motion—lowered the spoon. Nothing had been eaten. In that early stage of healing, she was engaged in patterns and habits that might still kill her. How he grieved as a parent. How helpless he felt. He became to me, in those moments in a quiet restaurant, not a great man who wrote stirring words, but a father dreading failure and loss, with a thousand thorns piercing his heart.
Maybe your thorn is obvious. Maybe your thorn is hidden or disguised. Maybe your thorn—and perhaps this applied to Buechner—isn‘t the presence of a visible wound, but the invisible wound caused when you’re powerless to help a loved one.
In my feeble Christian faith, I don’t believe Satan caused Paul’s thorn. But in truth, a debate over the source seems as pointless as speculating about Paul’s “problem.”
Aren’t there thorns enough to wound and weaken everyone? I pray that I—and you—recall Paul’s God-blessed courage to claim his weakness as strength as he served and cared for others with their visible and invisible thorns.
*If you wish to waste an hour or ten, you can Google “Paul” and “thorn” and scamper across the web to see how many interpretations are out there!