Paul wrote in II Corinthians 12:7-9 -"And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me."
What was Paul's "thorn in the flesh"? I've read a variety of opinions on this question before. All agree that he was not referring to a literal thorn, but suggestions include temptation, a chronic eye problem, malaria, migraines, epilepsy, a speech disability, etc. Others are convinced that we simply cannot know with certainty what the "thorn" was.
If we analyze the larger context of the statement, however, I am convinced that a strong case can be made for a clear identification of Paul's "thorn in the flesh." Consider how Paul describes it in II Corinthians 12:7-9:
What is the larger context of Paul's thoughts here? As I read II Corinthians 10 & 11, it seems that Judaizing teachers (i.e., the ones who wanted to bind the Old Law on Christians) were opposing Paul's authority and apostleship. They boasted of their fleshly attainments & ancestry, and sought to convey that Paul was without education, crude in speech, and without a respectable background. Thus, Paul, because of the situation, engaged in boasting as his opponents did, though his approach was different. False teachers affirmed: "Look at what we have done!" Paul declared: "Look at what has been done to me for Christ's sake!"
Here is what Paul says about the Judaizers and their work against him:
It is easy to see contextually that everything Paul affirmed about his "thorn in the flesh" was also affirmed about the persecution he endured from the Jews. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was the continual persecution from the Jews who were trying to destroy Paul and the message of the gospel. Paul's conclusion in 12:10 fits well with this thought - "Therefore, I take pleasure in my infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong."
Friends, although it is highly unlikely we will suffer to the extent Paul did for his faith, all have a cross to bear and various infirmities to deal with (cf. Matt. 16:24). May we--like he--accept God's will with joy and serve to the best of our ability, glorifying Him through our words and deeds, remembering that God is more interested in our character than our comfort and that He will not necessarily remove problems from our lives if they are helpful in humbling us in His strength (cf. I Pet. 1:6,7).