This past week, I preached from 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, the passage about Paul’s thorn in the flesh. We focused on the role of weakness and difficulty in the Christian life, and God’s will to draw us into deeper dependence and contentment in him.
As usual, there is a lot more to this text than we can cover in one sermon. And in this case, there is a difficult issue which I briefly made mention of, but didn’t really have the time to dive into: the involvement of both Satan and God in Paul’s thorn.
Here’s the relevant verse: “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.” (2 Cor. 12:7)
As I explained in the sermon, it is clear that this “thorn was given” to Paul by God. Only God would have the purpose of keeping Paul from becoming conceited.
And yet, this “gift” is also called a “messenger of Satan.” Now, this doesn’t tell us exactly what role Satan played in Paul’s experience with his thorn. But perhaps it is confusing enough that Satan would play any role at all. How are we to think about this? Are God and Satan working together here?
A few things to note:
- This thorn in the flesh, this “messenger of Satan” was not “good” in and of itself. It was meant for good, it was brought about in God’s providence for a good purpose, but that doesn’t mean that it was a good thing itself. Like any weakness or difficulty we experience, it was a result of the fall. And like some, but not all weaknesses or difficulties we experience, it could have been a direct result of the work of the devil, or of personal sin.
- God will sovereignly ordain, even “give” us trials, weaknesses, difficulties, persecutions. He will providentially use the brokenness of the world and our physical bodies, the limited power of the devil, even our own sin and the sin of others against us for his good purposes. As Joseph said to his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” Similarly, what the devil means for evil—such as with tormenting Paul with a thorn in the flesh–God means, and will use, for good.
- The book of Job gives us some insight to involvement of both God and Satan in Paul’s thorn. There, God allows Satan to strike Job, to remove his material blessings and to inflict his body with “loathsome sores” from head to toe. God is not powerless in this situation. God’s sovereignty did not take a break, nor did his goodness. But God’s purposes in this were certainly not the same as Satan’s: that Job would curse God to his face. In the end, God’s purposes stand, and Job humbles himself before God in amazement, and has his fortunes restored. The devil may tempt us for his own ends; but God is testing us, to lead us to greater contentment and joy in him.
- Finally, whatever troubles we may have with God “giving” us thorns, weaknesses, difficulties and the like, they lose their sting if we are assured that God is good and loving. If God is ultimately good and loving towards his people, then his sovereignty is ultimately a source of comfort for his people. Whatever the trial, the suffering, the sin, it is not outside of God’s reign and ability to use it for good. We are not dealing with an out-of-control, chaotic world where God is merely one actor among others, and hopefully he wins. God is in control, always. But even more than that, and what 2 Corinthians 12 is telling us, is that in this life, our weaknesses and difficulties–whatever their source or cause–are not a hindrance to God’s purposes, but a prime factory for God’s purposes, namely the display of his glory and our satisfaction in him.