What was Paul’s affliction?
Ask a Pastor
Rembrandt captured in his paintings the sense of burden Paul carried.
“Paul refers to his disability but is unclear as to what his disability is. What were his disabilities?” -- Terry A., an ELCA Facebook follower
Ron: Dear Terry, throughout the ages people have tried to guess what the “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7) exactly was. It appears that while Paul was a mighty and strong writer, his physical appearance didn’t convey strength and gravitas, for example, “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’” (2 Corinthians 10:10) In Galatians 6:11, he writes, “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!” this has led some to suggest that perhaps he had some kind of problem with his eyesight. Other conjectures are epilepsy. The list goes on and on.
Whatever it was, it was a “weakness” for him by which he understood God’s grace. He wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
This thorn, this cross he bore, enabled him to understand the comedy of the gospel, that in order to be first one needs to be last, in order to be the greatest one needs to be the least, and as St. Francis of Assisi has taught us, it is in “giving that we receive, in forgiving that we are forgiven and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
David: Paul really does not say what his disability was. There are lots of guesses based on various clues of Scripture, but none of them is conclusive.
I am of the opinion that this uncertainty was intentional. The exact nature of Paul’s weakness was not important — what mattered was that our God finds strength in weakness. The lack of clarity about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” allows us all to identify with his story — to imagine how God might make use of us in spite of our weaknesses.
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