The Dialectical Thorn in St. Paul’s Side

The Apostle Paul, Rembrandt

A dialectic is a philosophical method in which a thesis, when conjoined with an antithesis, produces a synthesis; two contradictory concepts can instruct each other and together form a new concept. There appears to be two of these in the fascinating story of St. Paul’s thorn in his side, a God-given ailment meant to humble the apostle.

St. Paul shares with the Corinthian church the story of having been “caught up to the third heaven” fourteen years earlier, where he “heard ineffable things which no one may utter” (2 Cor. 12:1-4). He admits that he deserves to feel proud of this privilege, but was given a painful thorn as a result in order to prevent him from the sin of pride.

Although if I should wish to boast, I would not be foolish, for I would be telling the truth. But I refrain, so that no one may think more of me than what he sees in me or hears from me because of the abundance of the revelations. Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me (2 Corinthians 12:6-9).

Paul chose not to disclose what the thorn specifically was. Based on his vague description it is generally understood to have been a serious physical ailment. But there are a wide range of possibilities including that it refers to a person, a nemesis that harasses Paul. It could also be a persistent temptation, though not an attachment to sin (see 2 Cor. 13:5-6).

The first dialectic we notice is that Paul implies that God gave him the thorn even though it is caused by a demon sent by Satan. This is an example of God’s providence expressed in His permissive will, just like when Satan entered Judas whose subsequent betrayal of Jesus led to Satan’s own defeat (Luke 22:3). God uses Satan and his demons to shame and defeat Satan and his demons. The resolution of the dialectic is that Paul retains his humility as a result of Satan’s thorn.

In vs. 10 Paul generalizes the thorn to include a variety of afflictions that a missionary of Christ might experience:

Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ.

The word “content” is usually translated “well-pleased” and expresses the second dialectic: Paul is given a privileged experience of heaven and it’s secrets, but to avoid being prideful he is also given a painful affliction, which forces him to rely on the power of God to accomplish His purposes. For this Paul is “well-pleased”. He stated it also in verse 9:

…but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.

The resolution of this dialectic is that God’s power is made “perfect”, and Paul rejoices in this paradox:

…for when I am weak, then I am strong (vs. 10).

…rjt

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