It is in the setting of Paul’s sharing this unique revelatory privilege that we are introduced to Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh.” We must note first that we cannot conclusively identify the nature of Paul’s thorn. We do well to listen to the wise observations of Philip Hughes:
The problem of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is another one of those questions which, on the evidence available, must remain unanswered. Over the centuries many solutions have been proposed, frequently with excessive confidence, but the plain fact is that it is impossible to escape from the realm of conjecture, which is by its nature the realm of inconclusiveness.
While we cannot identify with dogmatism what the thorn in the flesh actually was, we do not need to guess concerning its effect upon the Apostle and the purpose for which God allowed this “messenger of Satan” to afflict him. As to its effect on Paul, it is clear that the Apostle had become convinced that he could not fulfill his Apostolic mission while being hampered by this thorn. Therefore, he gave himself to three seasons of intensive supplication, pleading with the Lord Jesus that the thorn might be removed in order that he might fulfill his mission without this crippling affliction. So much regarding the effect of the thorn.
Second Corinthians 12:7–10 is the record of what God made plain to Paul concerning the purpose of this thorn. Part of the explanation of that purpose is captured in the Lord’s words to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). The Lord further revealed to Paul that the purpose of the thorn was to keep him from “becoming conceited” by the surpassing greatness of the revelations given to him (v. 7). The Lord went on to reveal to Paul the profound truth that by His grace, a man reduced to conscious weakness but walking in humility and in dependence on God will be empowered to complete his God-given tasks in spite of a deeply disturbing context of weakness. In fact, this new insight given to Paul by the Lord Jesus caused him to give up praying for the removal of the thorn and to say:
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (vv. 9–10)
From these verses, we see that the Apostle viewed everything that we label as “negative providences” as God-ordained means to keep us consciously weak, that we may indeed be blessedly strong in Christ. Only when we are kept in the conscious state of felt weakness will we be able to say with the Apostle, “Then I am strong.”
Regardless of our calling in life, if God asks us what we have to offer in the pursuit of that calling, can we honestly respond by giving that two-word answer, “My weakness”? If so, then perhaps we are learning what it means to live as a child of God who believes with every fiber of his being the words spoken by our Lord Jesus to His disciples: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Let us continually offer Him our weakness while pleading with Him to fulfill His promise that His strength would be made perfect in that weakness.