What Was Apostle Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh? A Bible Study

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

Paul had a “thorn in the flesh.” What was this thorn in the flesh? Does the Bible say? Does Paul say?

A Thorn in the Flesh

I think it is not ironic that Paul called his physical or mental trial a “thorn” because thorns are indicative of the fall of man. After Adam and Eve sinned, the ground was cursed and thorns and thistles sprang up. The fact that Jesus wore a crown of thorns shows that He was victorious over the fall and reversed the curse…the curse that sin brings eternal death. For Paul, his thorn was something that was an ongoing problem and even though he prayed three times to the Lord to have Him remove it, God didn’t answer his prayer (2 Corinthians 12:8) because He said that God’s grace was sufficient or enough for him. This thorn was really not directly sent by God but it may have been a thorn allowed by God that came straight from Satan. How can we say that? Paul wrote that it was sent to him “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” (2 Corinthians 12:7).

My Own Theory

I have a theory on what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” might have been but I can’t be 100% certain. When Paul saw the risen Lord in all of His Shekinah glory, he was blinded for three days. He could have burned his cornea or he could have developed cataracts. Back in Paul’s day, there was no way to effectively treat cataracts. He likely has a discharge of puss continually flowing from his eyes and had constant infections from this. Maybe this is why Paul and others said that he was not much to look at. Paul was caught up to the 3rd heaven where the Lord was (2 Corinthians 12:1-3) and was also taught by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself for three years in the desert (Galatians 1:17-20) and “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” (2 Corinthians 12:7). When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he said “that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me” (Galatians 4:15).

Paul usually had someone dictate his letters but Galatians was different and so maybe this explains why he said “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand” (Galatians 6:11) meaning that he could have written with such big letters because of his eyesight was so poor. Two things I noticed in the letter he wrote to the church in Galatia; that he wrote with big letters and that he said that the Galatians were willing even to pluck out their own eyes for him (Galatians 4:15). Why would they pluck out their own eyes for him if his eyesight was fine? Again, this is only my theory but it is based upon the writings of Paul. Even so, I can’t be dogmatic about it. Others believe it may have been the Judaizers who followed Paul and constantly harassed him and tried to make some of the converts adhere to the old Jewish laws and customs.

... trials ... make us rely on God and they also refine us like gold is refined by fire.

… trials … make us rely on God and they also refine us like gold is refined by fire.

The Thorn’s Purpose

The purpose of Paul’s thorn is the same purpose that God allows us to go through suffering. It is to keep us humble and in desperate need for God. God cannot fix what is not broken. He resists the proud but will give grace to the humble (James 4:6). Look at these Bible verses about suffering or trials and see what the outcome of these are. They not only make us rely on God but they are also refining us like gold is refined by fire.

2 Corinthians 4:8-10 “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”

1 Peter 4:12-13 “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”

Hebrews 12:11 “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

2 Corinthians 4:17 “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

What is noteworthy in all of these Scriptures is that God is producing in us righteousness, peace, glory, and refining us like gold. When gold is refined, the refiner sometimes has to pass in through extreme heat and in this fire, the dross (impurities) are removed and when is the gold finally refined to its purest form? It is when the refiner can finally see his own reflection in the gold. That is the point. We are being refined by trials, sufferings, illnesses, and hardships and the more suffering we go through, the more we reflect Christ Himself. This is exactly what Paul says in Philippians 3:10 “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”

Paul knew more than a little about suffering because he wrote in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 that “I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.”


The Bible or Paul never does say exactly what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was and maybe that’s the point. Every Christian will have their own thorn in the flesh, whether it is mental, emotional, or physical. If Paul did name the thorn as something specific, perhaps Christians would relish in the fact that they had the same, exact thorn that Paul did and make more out of it than they should. The reason that Paul was given this thorn in the flesh is much more important than what it actually was. God have it to Paul to keep him humble so that he would constantly be in need of God’s grace. He says this in 2 Corinthians 12 :7-10 that his thorn was given by God “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.” The irony is that when we are weak, He is strong. When we can do nothing, He can do anything and He is glorified in the process. He takes weak, broken, base, simple vessels…doing the impossible through the improbable…all to reveal His glory. The world must realize that it must have been God because look at who He was working through!

Read more about the Apostle Paul in this article:

Apostle Paul Biography and Profile

Resources: New International Version Bible THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Jimmy August 20, 2013 at 6:36 am

Very well thought out! Best theory I’ve ever heard. Of course you’re right that the “why” is much more significant than the “what” but I can’t help but be curious! Thanks for your insight!


Jack Wellman August 20, 2013 at 9:43 am

Thanks my good friend. I appreciate your words of encouragement sir.


Steven August 20, 2013 at 11:38 am

Thank you Jack. My battle with sex addiction makes more sense. It’s been my constant thorn that’s left me feeling forsaken and defeated. Despite the great things God had been providing me, I still had that losing battle. I wondered why would God do so much for me and yet leave me to fight that battle alone? This article, along with the recent victories I have had against my thorn, have provided insight on how He works and how Jesus is glorified through our sufferings.


Jack Wellman August 20, 2013 at 11:51 am

Wow, love this comment Steven. Yes sir, you are so right. I have battled for victory but when I realized it was in my own strength, I was doomed to fail but when I saw that I could really not fight this on my own (former drug addiction) I could only fall on my face and plead for His help. This is what He had been waiting for. Today, I am clean for so many years and you are right Steven…it is how Jesus is glorified….to gain us victory and to help us endure our own personal “thorns in the flesh.” Thank you sir.


veronica August 20, 2013 at 1:26 pm

My thorns are cursing and anger when people continue to push me. I have prayed so many times about it. It’s not all the time ,but I still want deliverance. I was on drugs and I called on God he freed me, but I realized those thorns keep me on bended knees. Thank you for sharing.


Jack Wellman August 20, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Thank you Veronica…the very fact that you are wanting deliverance is a wonderful sign that God is working in you and thru you by the Holy Spirit. That is a sure sign of conversion and my own thorn was drugs and only by God’s grace and power was I delivered from this “thorn” of my own making.


Zack August 20, 2013 at 3:26 pm

This was very powerful! I was deeply moved by this article. Often in my struggles, I know God WILL use them for good, but I didn’t ever put it in this perspective per se. The alliteration of the thorn compared to Adam and Eve in correlation with Jesus was profound. I can appreciate these articles. I enjoy your style and openness to perspectives. An honest writer is the best writer.

Thank you for a well informative article. I learned things about Paul I did not know! Thank you again.

As always keep the faith and cheers. God Bless.


Jack Wellman August 20, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Zack, what a powerfully encouraging comment my friend. You have surely blessed my day with your edifying words. As I have confessed, my own thorn was drugs and only by God’s grace and power was I delivered from this “thorn” of my own making.


Joel August 21, 2013 at 5:50 am

This is awesome. I believe that in every thorns that we have, God’s allowed it so that we can see His will glory and power. And His work and His love might be displayed on us. Keep on sharing Ptr Jack. God’s overflowing blessing will surely be upon you.

Thank you as always for sharing. In Christ…Joel


David August 21, 2013 at 6:10 am

Jack, greetings from Central Europe. Great teaching, you are certainly blessed from God, and you use your gifts to share with others, bless you.
“ to keep me from being conceited“. That to me was the key, He wants us to be humble, He wants us to be mature and not proud. Good stuff.
Praying for you, that the Lord will continue using you.
Blessings. David


Jack Wellman August 21, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Thank you so much David and greetings to you from the States. It is always good to have people from around the world come together in one common goal…to learn from the Master and to be humbled by His Magnificence. I appreciate your words…they are an encouragement sir.


taiwo sunday August 21, 2013 at 9:04 am

i need downloads of many christian literature.


Jack Wellman August 21, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Thank you Mr. Sunday for your request for free download and Christian literature. Please visit this link to receive your request sir at:



Kris August 24, 2013 at 1:09 am


Num 33:55 But if ye will not drive out the INHABUTANTS of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them [shall be] pricks in your eyes, and THORNS in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.

Jos 23:13 Know for a certainty that the LORD your God will no more drive out [any of] these nations from before you; but THEY SHALL BE snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and THORNS in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you.

Jdg 2:2 And ye shall make no league with the INHABITANTS of this land; ye shall throw down their altars: but ye have not obeyed my voice: why have ye done this?

Jdg 2:3 Wherefore I also said, I will not drive THEM out from before you; but THEY SHALL BE [as thorns] in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you.

2 Sa 23:6 But [THE SONS] OF BELIAL [shall be] all of them as THORNS thrust away, because they cannot be taken with hands:

Psa 118:10 All NATIONS compassed me about: but in the name of the LORD will I destroy them.
Psa 118:11 They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about: but in the name of the LORD I will destroy them.
Psa 118:12 They compassed me about like bees; THEY are quenched as the fire of THORNS: for in the name of the LORD I will destroy them.

Isa 33:12 And THE PEOPLE shall be [AS] the burnings of lime: [AS] THORNS cut up shall THEY be burned in the fire.

Throughout the Bible …..thorns ….owls,….scorpions and such are those that demonstrate the opposition to believers….They have ‘words’ and they are OF the ‘rebellious house’ …UNBELIEVERS….oppositions of all kinds of influences against the

Eze 2:6 And thou, son of man, be not afraid of THEM, neither be afraid of their THEIR WORDS, though briers and thorns [be] with thee, and thou dost dwell among scorpions: be not afraid of THEIR WORDS, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they [be] a rebellious house.


Crystal McDowell August 24, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Thank you Jack for this article. Sometimes we spend so much time trying to pull out the thorn instead of letting our Father in heaven to the refining business. God bless you!


Jack Wellman August 24, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Thank you Crystal. I liked your wording that we should let God refine us instead of inquiring to Him. It is more Who that what? I appreciate your kind words my friend and sister in Christ.


Kris August 24, 2013 at 7:45 pm

This is the last of a two day conference in Bend by Berean Call ..the online live stream has been awesome …Hope you can catch this last one …there will be access to the various teachings until Monday night ….so we can all hear the speakers again.

Hope it is OK to place this here …I hate for anyone to miss it who would like to hear these …The founder Dave Hunt passed away last April but the group carries on with many who are students of the Word and examine all things by the WORD of GOD.


James R Graham May 26, 2016 at 2:00 pm

I’ve been pondering Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”. This is a very simplistic line of thinking and probably fraught with errors, but there are two words used in the context of Paul’s “thorn”.

The two words are “thorn” and “grace”. Simplistically, it looks (at least to me) like Paul is by example, expounding upon why God’s free gift of “grace” is so important. It is because that he (Paul) understood that he received a free gift and that there was nothing that he did or could do to _earn_ this free gift of “grace”. We’ve all read Paul’s discourse concerning sin in the book of Romans. He flat out tells us that even though he is now a child of God, as a human being he is and will continue to be a sinner. At this point, my simplistic conclusion is that Paul’s “thorn” is his knowledge that he will (even unwillingly) continue in some form of sin and this is why he emphasizes that God’s “grace” is sufficient for him, because without this unearned, free gift of grace, Paul would, as we all would be, devoid of hope and “of all men most miserable”. It is the “grace” that saves us.
Let the darts begin… 🙂


Kalaba July 16, 2016 at 5:00 am

Great artcle sir, am a youth pastor in south africa. i have battle long with failures in areas that my peers have excelled incredible and this has had both a humiliating and humbling effect in my life. thank you


Angel Herrero April 18, 2020 at 6:57 am

Dear Mr. Wellman,
This ”thorn in the flesh” challenge that Paul had, has intrigued me for a long time.
I have finally decided to study on it and see it.
Thanks for your article.


Paul (not the Apostle) May 5, 2021 at 3:57 am

A lovely, well thought out article. I agree with the conclusion you’ve reached that the “Thorn” was likely Paul’s failing eyesight. (Gal 4:15 and Gal 6:11). Nevertheless, you are careful to provide some good reasoning about why the “Thorn” was never directly identified.


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