Today we’ll focus in on the passage in our second reading, taken from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In this passage, Paul describes a thorn in his flesh, and he even says that it is an “angel of Satan” that is beating him. We all know this verse, if only obliquely, because we have all heard the expression, “he/she’s a thorn in my side.” Hopefully we haven’t had to say that about anyone in our own lives! Still, many Biblical scholars have wondered at these words, trying to figure out what exactly St. Paul was intending.
Scholars think that the thorn in the flesh or the angel of Satan could be a metaphor for spiritual suffering. And they have narrowed it down to about four possibilities:
- A certain temptation (very few believe this theory nowadays)
- Physical or psychological distress
- An actual demon
- The adversaries of Paul (most scholars believe this to be the most likely)
Now, Paul is most probably writing this letter in the most crisis-ridden moment of his life. He has worked hard at establishing the new Christian Church at Corinth, and now, having moved on to other communities, he hears that things are falling apart there. Most especially, there are new preachers in town, riding on the coat-tails of St. Paul, and preaching a different gospel message than the one he preached. Paul, writing from afar, pleads with the Corinthians to hold fast to the gospel that he originally preached to them. He devotes several chapters to this plea. He is far away, and feels powerless to correct the errors that have spread throughout the Corinthian church.
I think many of us can identify with the way St. Paul is feeling. If you’ve ever had a job that you left, and if you keep in touch with your former co-workers, chances are that you hear certain things about the new person who has your old job. Perhaps you felt like the good things you had done at work were being undone by the newcomer. It can be discouraging to hear about the changes that are taking place, especially if you worked on the team when the company was founded. A situation like this can leave us feeling powerless to do anything about it. This is probably what St. Paul meant by the thorn in his flesh.
But we don’t have to remain on the surface of this issue. Even though Paul was writing in a specific situation, the symbol of the thorn in the flesh can have a deeper meaning for us today. This is where the other interpretations can be helpful. Let’s take them one by one.
An actual demon. Perhaps you are being tormented by an actual demon. Yes, demons are real, just as angels are. And while we need not fear them taking possession of our souls, they certainly can oppress and harass us. I have had a few people complain to me, right here in Hill County, about demonic oppression and supernatural occurrences.
There are two things we need to understand about demons:
- They are more powerful than we are,
- but they cannot overcome the power of Jesus Christ.
For we who are baptized, the demons can only have power over us if we invite them in. Sometimes we invite them in by overt occult practices, like visiting fortune tellers, or using Ouija boards and tarot cards, or reciting magic spells, etc. But more probably we allow them to harass us when we simply let down our defensive shield.
After doing some research and reading advice from priests far more experienced than me, I have come to one basic conclusion: if you want demons to leave you alone, STAY CONNECTED TO THE SACRAMENTS. Go to confession. Go to Mass. Pray every day. Demons really hate that!
In my own short experience, I have also discovered a pattern. Every person who has told me about demonic oppression is one who do not go to Mass regularly. And, to boot, none of them had ever received the Sacrament of Confirmation. Could that be a coincidence? Perhaps, but I’m inclined to think not. Demons are real, and the grace of God is also real. The grace of the sacraments is sufficient to keep them at bay. But enough about demons. They are not even worth thinking about any further.
Physical/Psychological Distress. Perhaps the thorn in our flesh is physical or psychological distress. We all experience suffering to some degree in our lives. Sometimes it’s physical suffering, sometimes mental suffering. We often have the experience of calling out to God in these moments, begging him to take away our suffering. Maybe we have even made a bargain with God, promising him to make a drastic change in our lives if only God would do us this one favor!
By the way, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do! I know at least one priest who promised God he would be a priest if God would save him from both the Viet Cong and the sharks that were surrounding his tiny boat as he escaped Communist Vietnam. God delivered him, and this priest kept his promise.
But maybe you’re not in shark-infested waters. Maybe you are in an intractable family situation, or you’re being bullied at school. Maybe you’re trapped in an addiction or fighting a terrible disease. These are the moments that would cause any of us to cry out to God. And usually, God does not reach down and fix our problems for us. It is at these moments when we can either fall into despair or hear the voice of God in our hearts saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
It is only from a position of weakness that we can allow God in. Think of it this way—God is like a gracious host at a party, and he wants to refill your glass for you. But if you are constantly filling up your own glass, he cannot pour any more in. An empty glass is a receptive glass. When we are weak, the power of God can flow in. But when we rely on our own strength, it is like the already-filled glass. It is like telling God that we do not need him. This we call the sin of pride. And this is why God allowed St. Paul to suffer the thorn in his flesh—to keep him from relying on his own power, to keep him from getting too proud of his own talents and accomplishments.
We can take a cue from St. Paul in this regard—we, who are called the Body of Christ, can identify with the suffering Christ, just as St. Paul did. We can look at a crucifix and say, “I am that bleeding side, I am that wounded head, I am that pierced hand and foot.” We draw strength from our crucified Lord, knowing that we are making up in our flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. We, the Body, suffer with our Lord, the Head.
Temptation. Lastly, the thorn in our flesh could be a certain temptation. Again, we recognize that temptations are pesky things—we tend to encounter the same ones over and over. And, the temptations that haunt us personally may not be the same temptations with which our neighbor is struggling. It is also in these situations that we cry out for God to lead us out of temptation and to deliver us from evil.
We can take comfort in another verse from St. Paul, in which he says, “No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.”
Taken together with our verse from today’s reading, we can say that God’s sufficient grace, coupled with our own tenacity, can bear every temptation. And God’s grace comes in many forms. I have found that grace often comes thru another member of the Body of Christ. That is, a brother or sister Christian, acting in charity, can be my strength in times of personal weakness. They can be that way out that God has promised us, if only we would swallow our pride, and ask for help.
Whatever the thorn in our flesh may be—a temptation, a demon, discouragement or terrible suffering in our lives, it can be transformed into a conduit of grace. God just may allow us to live with that thorn so that we may constantly rediscover our need for him. The thorn causes us to acknowledge our own weakness, so that the power of God may be our strength. For when we are weak, it is then that we are strong.
 2 Corinthians 12:9
 1 Corinthians 10:13