Who Gave Paul His Thorn?

So who gave Paul his thorn? God, and Satan, but with thoroughly different agendas.

The problem is, of course, that there are a number of places in Scripture in which a collaborative relationship between divine and satanic agency is assumed, or explicitly taught, without going anywhere near the unforgivable sin (unless we are to believe that Moses, the Chronicler, Luke, Paul and co committed it within the pages of the Bible, which seems unlikely).

 

Who gave Paul his thorn in 2 Corinthians 12? It might sound like a slightly obscure, angels-on-a-pinhead question, but it is actually very significant, because it cuts to the heart of questions about divine sovereignty, suffering, goodness and the agency of the devil. Does God send adversity, to teach us or bring us to maturity? Do God and Satan work together, in some weird way? Is Satan able to act on his own initiative? Does God sometimes actively will for people to experience things they find painful, that good may result? You get the idea.

The text doesn’t tell us what exactly the thorn was, and it doesn’t tell us who exactly gave it to Paul. So let’s start with what we know.

1. The thorn was “a messenger of Satan.”
2. It was given “to keep me from being too conceited” (hina mē huperairōmai).
3. It was painful, to the point that Paul pleaded with the Lord to take it away.
4. In response, Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness.”
5. Paul concludes, after talking about this thorn, by boasting in his weaknesses and being content with infirmities.

If all we had was #1 and #3, we would presumably conclude that Satan, and nobody else, sent the thorn: it was painful (#3), and it came in the form of an angelos Satana (#1). But if all we had was #2, #4 and #5, we would presumably conclude that God, and nobody else, sent the thorn: it was given with the intention of preventing pride (#2), Jesus did not take it away but rather pointed to the fruit it would bear in Paul’s life (#4), and it obviously worked (#5). Given that we have all five, it seems clear that we should answer the question “Who gave Paul his thorn?” as most commentators do: God, through Satan. Unless we are to see Satan’s purpose as humility in Paul—which beggars belief—it is hard to reach any other conclusion.

Yet there remain interpreters, particularly from a more health-and-wealth perspective, who insist that not only did God not give Paul his thorn, but God never sends afflictions to believers for the sake of their maturity. Crucial in this approach is the idea that God and Satan can never co-operate in doing something; arguing that they could, in fact, would be to attribute the work of God to the devil, and implicitly commit the unforgivable sin. As Bill Johnson puts it:

Uncertainty causes some people to misunderstand who God is. They begin to deny God’s true nature and embrace sickness and disease, poverty and mental anguish as gifts from God. That is a devastating lie from hell. It’s actually blasphemous to attribute to God the work of the devil.

The problem is, of course, that there are a number of places in Scripture in which a collaborative relationship between divine and satanic agency is assumed, or explicitly taught, without going anywhere near the unforgivable sin (unless we are to believe that Moses, the Chronicler, Luke, Paul and co committed it within the pages of the Bible, which seems unlikely). Job is afflicted by Satan (1:6-12; 2:1-8), and also by God (1:20-22; 2:9-10).

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