I was recently berated (I won’t say by whom) for “giving disability permission to exist” in my daughter, and told that I don’t have to wait for God’s timing to heal her – His timing was at the cross. Also, because I had made reference in something I said to God’s sovereignty in healing, I was directed to an article (again, I’m not going to name the author) about Paul’s thorn in the flesh and how, allegedly, people misuse this passage to suggest that Paul had something wrong with his eyes from which he was not healed, which, the author maintains, is far from being the truth.
Let me start out by saying that I do believe God’s timing was at the cross in the sense that Christ’s atonement included healing as well as forgiveness; and that as far as my daughter is concerned, God has given me a very specific promise in a way that was quite unmistakable about her healing (although I’m not going to tell that story here, either). I don’t believe the passage of time negates the promise of God, and am still expecting to see the things God promised me.
I also believe that healing is much more the norm than we realise or expect, and one reason we don’t see more of it is something to do with our corporate lack of faith as the body of Christ (note I am not saying a lack of faith on the part of any individual). However, I have seen far too many people who have been blamed for their own disability – something which Christ never did, unless we include the case where He said, “Go and sin no more”, indicating that He clearly had knowledge not shared by the onlookers. I have also (sadly rather often) seen people so desperate to get a disabled person healed that they have given that person a clear message of “You’re not acceptable the way you are” – and I’m convinced that Jesus never made anybody feel like that.
So having briefly set out my own position, I would like to analyse the article I was sent. The author asserts that Satan has used the story of Paul’s thorn in the flesh to convince people that since Paul wasn’t healed, neither can they expect to be healed. He goes on to assert that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was not a physical disability and so this application is unwarranted. I believe this is going beyond what is said in the text. I recently took issue with a publication which stated that “Paul the apostle prayed repeatedly for some unknown disability to be removed but had learnt to delight in his weakness” on the grounds that this goes beyond what is in the text – we are not told that this was a disability, and though it may have been, to assert this as truth goes beyond what the Bible says. In the same way, to assert that this was definitely not a disability (although it may not have been) also goes beyond what the text contains. We must make sure not to impose our own biases or preconceptions on our reading of Scripture.
The author next points out that Paul’s thorn came about because of the abundance of his revelations, and that unless we have received similar revelations we will not have a thorn in the flesh. This seems to me just silly. There is not an absolute level of revelation above which we qualify for opposition. I’m sure we have all experienced a degree of opposition in accordance with our degree of revelation.
The author disputes the interpretation that the thorn was given in order to keep Paul humble, because it is when we humble ourselves that we are exalted; but rather it was given by Satan to try and stop God from exalting Paul in the eyes of the people so that his message would not be received by so many. But again the text does not support this. Paul’s assertion is that the difficulty came to prevent him from being exalted “above measure” (or more accurately, to translate from the original Greek, from being ‘ϒπεραιρωμαι (huperairomai) “overly lifted”. This word indicates being exalted or lifted to an inappropriate height. It seems much more likely that Paul is referring to something which Satan originated but God allowed to prevent him from being so overly prominent that attention focused on him rather than on the Christ whom he was preaching.
He next claims that this messenger of Satan, sent to buffet Paul, must have been not a physical ailment but a demon. However, in the book of Job we have clear evidence that a Satanic messenger can take the form of destruction of property, bereavement and physical affliction, so there is no Scriptural reason why this could not also have been so in the case of Paul.
Next, the author makes reference to the words “weakness” and infirmity” in verses 9 and 10, and states that although these words can mean a physical condition, they do not have this meaning exclusively. I find it both interesting, and understandable, that he quotes entirely from the 1611 King James Version of this passage. Understandable, because he needs that particular translation to support certain aspects of his exegesis, aspects which are not supported when we examine the Greek text. In fact the Greek word used is ασθενεια (astheneia) – a word which literally means absence of strength. This is the word used in the Greek record of Jesus’ description of a woman with a physical disability in Luke 13.11 – where the physical disability is attributed to the activity of a spirit. In other places the word is translated as sickness and as disease. The root of this word is also used in Romans 15.1 to refer to weakness of faith. So it seems that it was normally used to refer to a physical state of weakness but could, by analogy, be applied in other ways.
But in my view the worst piece of exegesis in this article occurs in reference to the verse which says, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” He bases his interpretation of this passage on the meaning of the English word “glory” which, he says, means to have dominion over or command. I don’t know if he is being disingenuous in order to support his pre-determined interpretation of the passage, or if he is simply unaware of the Greek behind this translation. A literal translation of this verse from the Greek would go like this: “Rather, then, I shall be boasting in my lack of strength, that the power of Christ should be erecting a booth (or “tabernacle”) above me.” The picture here is not at all one of Paul having dominion over or commanding whatever is causing him to lose strength; rather he is painting a very clear picture of how, at times when he has no strength of his own, the power of Christ is like a booth or tabernacle over him, offering him shelter and protection – a very different picture from the one which this author gives. To Jewish readers, the mention of the tabernacle would have symbolised the place where the presence of God dwells, so this was also a promise of God’s presence in the absence of one’s own strength.
Finally, he disputes that Paul had an eye problem. It may or may not be that Paul’s eye problem was his “thorn in the flesh” but that he had one is indisputable – the evidence for it is so abundant. The author refers to Paul’s words in Galatians 6.11, again using the KJV to support his interpretation: “Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand.” He asserts that this is not a reference to large handwriting, but to a long letter. Since the epistle to the Galatians is one of his shorter letters, this interpretation seems highly improbable.
Again, we are more likely to see the true meaning if we read the Greek rather than the KJV. The Greek word for a letter in the sense of an epistle is επιστόλη (epistole). The word used in this passage is γραμμασιν (grammasin). This is a plural word and means letters in the sense of letters of the alphabet. “You see with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand.” It can only mean that Paul is drawing attention to the fact that this is his own handwriting, and is abnormally large. No other interpretation is admissible from the text. This makes sense in the light of the fact that Paul used an amanuensis to take down the dictation of all his letters, and did not normally append anything in his own handwriting; on this occasion it was necessary to do so to authenticate the letter, as counterfeit epistles purporting to come from Paul were by this time beginning to circulate.
There is further evidence that Paul had a sight problem; he failed to recognise the high priest, and spoke against him in a way in which he would not have done had he realised whom he was addressing (Acts 23.5). There is also Paul’s passage in Galatians 4. 13-15 (I am quoting from the NASB which is both clear and accurate): “You know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself. Where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me.”
The author of this article acknowledges that this refers to a physical eye condition (it would be impossible not to, since the text is so clear) but claims that it was a temporary state of runny or puffy eyes resulting from a beating. But taken together with all the other signs – the failure to recognise the high priest, the use of an amanuensis to write for him, and his own abnormally large handwriting, all the evidence points to Paul having a longstanding sight condition, and to avoid this conclusion one really has to impose a predetermined interpretation on the text.
None of this, of course, proves that Paul’s eye condition was his “thorn in the flesh”. It may or may not have been. To assert either that this thorn was or wasn’t a physical ailment is to go beyond what the Bible tells us.
I agree with the author of this article that God has given us authority, including authority over sickness, and that we do not always understand or use this authority. But please let us not use this to justify a form of victim blaming where disabled Christians are concerned.
We can learn much from Jesus’ attitude when he healed Jairus’ daughter. He threw out all those who thought they knew what the situation was but had no emotional engagement with it (the professional mourners) and allowed only five people to be present – the three who believed in His power (Peter, James and John) and the two who loved her (her parents). Yes, faith is involved in healing, including miraculous healings of disability which do indeed take place, but let us not forget what Paul tells us in Galatians 5.6, that faith works by love. Scolding disabled people for permitting disability to exist in their bodies is not only something Jesus is never recorded as doing, but also does not display the kind of love that releases faith for healing.
Let me finish by quoting Brian Gault who, as a result of the drug Thalidomide, was born without arms, and has learned to do almost everything adeptly with his feet: “God knit me together in my mother’s womb, and He doesn’t drop any stitches.”