Paul had as rich a spiritual life as any of the false teachers in Corinth. It seems likely he was “boasting” in response to the boasting of these teachers. It seems they may have been boasting about their own visions and revelations from God. It may have been their claim to spiritual superiority – the fact they regularly were having supernatural encounters with God.
I think they must have been downgrading Paul, asking, “What kind of spiritual experiences is he having?” Today, we would shake our heads at that question. Paul had met Jesus on the Damascus road, an experience he seemed quite willing to share (Acts 22:6-11; 26:12-20).
But he didn’t share that experience in 2 Corinthians 12. He shared what appears to be an even more intimate experience with God from 14 years earlier. “And he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” Facing questions about his authority as an apostle and, probably, the authentic nature of his spiritual walk with God, Paul boasted about this experience.
Except he didn’t really boast about it. Paul said he would refrain from boasting about this experience “so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.”
That’s a refreshing concept in our culture of competition. Paul said he simply wanted to be judged on what people saw in him and heard from him. That is, he wanted his way of life and his preaching of the gospel to define him – rather than some spiritual experience that was unique to him (and that others might not be able to authenticate).
To keep him from boasting, Paul was given a mysterious thorn. Was this a physical disability – or a spiritual ache? Maybe it was a persistent temptation. Or maybe it was constant persecution. We don’t know. But we do know the result of this “messenger of Satan.”
God left it with Paul, and said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And so Paul rested in God’s grace, and he boasted in his weaknesses.
God has a way of humbling us. He has a way of keeping us honest. Many people experience thorns in their own lives, and they must learn how to deal with them. You might be one of those people.
The lesson for Paul was to rest in God rather than try to compete for prominence among men. Paul was convinced he was nothing in and of himself. If he was of any use to others and to the gospel, it was because of the surpassing grace of God. Rather than take it away, God used a “messenger of Satan” to keep Paul tethered closely to Himself.
I could be wrong, but my guess is that the people who walk closest with God – those who are chosen by him for special work – have thorns. I would assume it’s normal for a person who truly has the gift of prophecy also to have a thorn.
God wants to use his children to share the gospel. God wants to reveal himself to his people, like he did to Moses and Elijah and the Twelve and, yes, Paul. But God doesn’t want his children to be conceited. He wants them humble, like Christ – “I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29).
Intimate moments with God can make a person want to boast. But God wants us to be humble. Some people are naturally humble. That’s true. But more than that are naturally proud. A proud person may be able to train himself or herself to be humble, but I’m not sure many do.
So that thorn you have might not be a bad thing. It may cause you to pause before speaking, to love instead of competing, to show compassion instead of judgment.