I live with depression every day. It has dogged my every step for the past eighteen years. How I wish I could be rid of it and live out from under a constant cloud of melancholy. I’ve asked God to heal me many times. I’ve even tried to go off my medication several times, praying and hoping to be cured. But the depression persists, and I’m forced to go back on my medication.
In this, I can relate to Paul and his “thorn in the flesh,” given as a “harassment” to him (2 Corinthians 12:7-10):
“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. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 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.”
But some question whether Paul’s “thorn” was an actual physical ailment. It might be something else altogether. There are at least three theories—speculations, really—about what the “thorn” is:
1. Physical Impairment
Some scholars speculate that Paul may have suffered from partial aphasia, more commonly known as a stammer. They base their theory on what the Corinthians’ opined about Paul: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (2 Corinthians 10:10, emphasis mine).
Besides a stammer, “of no account” could also refer to Paul’s being an ineloquent speaker and having poor oratory skills, unlike Apollos. Paul himself even admits to this in 2 Corinthians 11:6. “I may be unskilled as a speaker, but I’m not lacking in knowledge.”
The other theory—that Paul had poor eyesight—comes from three passages in the Bible:
Galatians 4:15: “… for I [Paul] testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.”
Galatians 6:11: “See with what large letters I [Paul] am writing to you with my own hand.”
Acts 28:1-3: Some theorize that Paul accidentally gathered a “viper” along with some brushwood, mistaking the snake for a stick because of his impaired vision.
2. Guilty Conscience
No one can forget Paul’s past behaviors, least of all him, since they’ve been immortalized in Scripture. Paul was a persecutor of the Way. He intentionally hunted down its followers in order to arrest, falsely convict, and even execute them. He stood by one such execution, Stephen’s, watching placidly from the sidelines, and even held the garments of those who carried it out. Yes, Paul had plenty to feel guilty about. However, considering that God forgives the past sins of those born again— as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12)—this theory seems the least likely. Paul would have known God forgave him. He would have also known that guilt, once one becomes a believer, is either from Satan, the father of lies, or from the conviction of a recent sin committed.
3. Persistent Persecutors
Paul was plagued by persecutors everywhere he went. There are myriad accounts of their harassment in the Bible. Some of the harassments were physical in nature, as in stonings, beatings, and imprisonments. Others were verbal assaults and insults. Thus, Paul’s “thorn” may have been actual people causing him all kinds of problems in his ministry, which may have seriously impeded his preaching.
There is strong evidence to back this claim. In Numbers 33. The Israelites, after trekking through the wilderness for 40 years, were about to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. At that critical juncture, God explicitly instructed Moses to go into Canaan and remove all the people living there. “But,” warned God, “if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live (Numbers 33:55, emphasis mine).
We know from reading further in Numbers that the Israelites failed to evict all the Canaanites, and Canaanites indeed became thorns in the sides of the Israelites and caused all manner of problems.
In the end, we don’t know what the “thorn” was—whether it was an impairment, guilt, or persecutors. It does not matter. Paul was intentionally vague and did not name it, likely with good reason, “lest those whose afflictions are of a different nature than Paul’s feel disqualified from applying his teaching to their own hearts… Paul’s point is not the content of the thorn but its intent,” writes Dane C. Ortlund in his article, “What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?”
While we will never know, the application is the same for us today as it was for Paul back then.
Acknowledge the “Thorn” (Weakness)
As I mentioned earlier, I struggle with depression. For many years, I kept it a secret out of fear of what people would think or say. There was a stigma around depression, which, thankfully, is not the case anymore. But 20 years ago, when I was diagnosed, people still did not quite understand mental illness. It was as if they only acknowledged those illnesses from the neck down, ones that afflict the body and not the mind, like diabetes, heart disease, or any discernable disability. But any illness having to do with the brain, like depression or anxiety, they relegated to the “spiritual” realm. I can remember being told several times to “just have more faith” and I would be healed. It was very hurtful and disheartening, and for obvious reasons, I kept quiet about my depression.
But not Paul. He openly admitted his weakness. He did not deny it or cover it up or avoid it. Why? Because he knew there was a godly purpose, or intent, to being given this “thorn,” or weakness. What was that purpose? Paul mentions it twice in 2 Corinthians 12:7, “…to keep me from becoming conceited.”
Conceited in Greek means, “to be arrogant, inflated with pride.” Paul’s weakness was given to him to keep him deflated, if you will. Keep him humble.
Think how easy it would have been for Paul—once a high-ranking Pharisee, with all the privileges of that class of religious elite—to become arrogant and prideful about his new ministry as an ambassador for Christ, especially since he had been personally called and chosen by God Himself on the road to Damascus. Paul could have quickly become puffed up by his Divinely given purpose and position. But God wisely, with love and grace, saw to it that Paul didn’t. God allowed “a messenger of Satan” to afflict Paul deliberately, to keep the apostle from getting an overly inflated ego.
Sadly, we’ve seen this kind of arrogance and pride happen to many “celebrity” evangelists, authors, and speakers in the past, and even today, unfortunately.
Ask for its Removal
The fact that Paul had this weakness—whatever it was—did not prevent or disqualify him from asking for its removal. Paul knew he could “…by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present [his] requests to God” (Philippians 4:6b). And he did.
But he did more than just ask, he pleaded. He begged. Three times! We can conclude from Paul’s example that we can, and should, too.
And I have with regard to my depression. I’ve pleaded with God to heal and make my mind whole. I long for the chemicals in my brain to become balanced again and function properly so that I don’t have to rely on medicine (although I am extremely grateful that there are medications for depression and anxiety).
Yet, like with Paul, God has left that plea unanswered.
Accept God’s Answer
But God has a more powerful answer than healing. Grace. A grace that Dane Ortlund says is “a shorthand for the presence of God—sustaining, empowering, calming, supporting, comforting, emboldening, satisfying. ‘My grace is sufficient for you’ means I am sufficient for you.’”
God Himself is enough. His grace is enough. Both His presence and His grace sustain and support me during those days when my depression gets the better of me. For God’s empowerment is “made perfect” in my weakness. And that’s the key: It’s about God, not me. It’s about His power being made manifest through my depression.
First, my “thorn” causes me to lean heavily into that grace to get through the day, to be in utter dependence upon God and His strength. Secondly, when I praise God in prayer and verbally to others, that brings Him glory and magnifies His name. It bears witness to our all-power God who sustains, empowers, calms, supports, comforts, emboldens, and satisfies us.
So now my prayers about my depression echo that of Paul’s: “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Act upon the Weakness with Courage
My own “boasting” comes in the form of now talking openly about my depression and writing about it in articles and devotionals. Through these avenues, I am able to “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort [I myself] received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). Which is the point. This comfort is meant to be passed on. Must be passed on. And each time I speak or write about my depression, I receive gracious, heartfelt replies from women struggling with the same mental illness. It is a privilege to receive their confidences, and I hope and pray that my own courage to speak out—borne from God’s grace alone—gives them hope, gives them the encouragement to set aside their shame—borne of Satan, who seeks to “destroy” God’s children, with shame being one of his weapons—and, finally, gives them the courage to begin to openly acknowledge their own “thorn in the flesh.”
That alone is worth it. For through my “thorn” of depression, God’s power is perfected, for His glory and for the good of others.