This post might become somewhat serious; it is so for me. One of my more-than-several medical persons remarked after our discussion about managing one of my more-than-several physical unfixable infirmities, “Well, that's your cross to bear.”
I wasn't sure that he was right, so I began to research the matter more thoroughly in Scripture. In brief, without any private interpretation, I examined just the facts from the text and context and concluded that there is a difference between our CROSS and a THORN. To be accurate, I think that my medical person should have referred to my malady as "a thorn in the flesh." It was not, strictly speaking, "my cross." The Scriptures speak clearly about both.
Each has a God-aspect. Some people incorrectly use the word cross for any misfortune or trouble, as when “bearing one's cross” means to suck it up and put up with something patiently. However, apparently a cross is something a normal Christian disciple is to “take up daily” as a follower of Christ. (Mark 8:34) Trouble and suffering for the body may follow as a consequence of our witness for Him. A cross is not something we should plead for God to take away from us. On the contrary, carrying a cross carries with it the joy and privilege of being united to Christ. (Matthew 16:24, 25) Carrying a cross is a qualification of discipleship requiring denying oneself even to the loss of life for His sake while confessing Jesus before men. (Matthew 10:33, 38) Jesus declared that if we don't take up our cross we are not worthy of Him. A cross is not optional for a follower of Christ. A hard saying, but in fact, Jesus said that if we don't carry our own cross, we can't be His disciple. (Luke 14:27) It would seem then that a cross is not a physical infirmity or some disorder of the body.
What is a thorn in the flesh then? In Scripture it is something that is given not something we should take up. It is described in detail in 2 Corinthians chapter twelve. When we examine the apostle Paul's case, he tells us explicitly why a thorn in the flesh was given him, who gave it, what Paul prayed for, how God answered, and the outcome. I researched the topic in every translation I could find and from every angle to squeeze the meaning from every word. I didn't want to get this wrong. I have compiled the results with the variations in the words without any deviation from the text.
Who gave Paul the thorn in the flesh? He called it “a messenger of Satan” in the beginning. Doubtless Satan wanted to dissuade and dismay and cause the apostle to doubt the dealings of God. He took advantage of what God was permitting for a special purpose. But then Paul recognized that the thorn was coming from God. Why did God give him the thorn? He had favored Paul with incredible private spiritual experiences, “surpassing great revelations” beyond which other men ever had. He had grounds for boasting. In the natural, he could have felt proud. In the first six verses of this chapter he alluded to his marvelous experience while caught up into the third heaven. However, it was not allowed by God to “glory in” such things or to talk about them.
We know Paul was speaking about himself not someone else when referring to that experience because he changed to the “me” pronoun. He obviously waited fourteen years even to mention it. God wanted to make sure that he wouldn't boast and “let the cat out of the bag” so He went to great lengths not to humiliate Paul but to keep him humble. Paul obviously recognized that it was “to keep me from becoming conceited or exalting myself” or letting other people exalt him because of what he had experienced.
The thorn was obviously some serious physical infirmity (probably more than an allergy attack!) about which he anguished and wanted to be rid of. He was no sissy. Note the list in chapter eleven of all the incredible hardships he went through for the sake of the gospel. The thorn couldn't have been a cross because this chiefest of the apostles wouldn't have pleaded to have it taken away. He wanted healing from something “in his flesh” that was tormenting him and buffeting him. Other translations say blow after blow, a prick of my flesh, like a continuous slap of his face, beating him, harassing him, using one's fist, pounding away at me, a handicap, a weakness, a splinter, a stake in my flesh, some physical malady that persisted, that was chronic. Paul wanted to be healed. He prayed to have the thorn removed from him completely, “depart from him.”
What was the nature of Paul's thorn? Bible scholars differ and speculate, but agree that it must have been something physical that was painful and had to do with his body. It was definitely a big "ouch!" Was it something that had to do with his eyes, something residual from his three days of blindness at his conversion? Did it cause him to write in certain letters that he was signing that particular one “with my own hand,” as if that was not his usual manner? “But you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself” (Galatians 4:13,14). He adds, “...that if possible you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me.” Whatever it was, it was also a trial to the people to whom he preached. Was it cataracts or Macular degeneration? Or was his hand shaking as in a Parkinson's tremor so that he, a highly educated and literate man, could not write his own letters but had to depend upon others? It was something bad enough to cause him suffering when he ministered in the churches; on another occasion it was noted that his speech was contemptible. We simply aren't told.
Paul did pray, that was commendable, and God didn't fault him for asking for healing. Jesus Himself prayed three times with sweat like great drops of blood in the Garden prior to His trial asking if this cup could pass from Him and that He could be spared the cross that was ahead of Him. He also “pleaded with God” and received a negative answer. Jesus' response was in surrender that God's will be done. Paul too persisted pleading “three times,” not just quick prayers, obviously over a period of time. The first two times God must have been silent until after the third entreaty. Then God spoke. [Paraphrased] “The answer is no, Paul. I'm not taking your bodily illness away. I am permitting it for a purpose. My grace is enough for you to bear it. When you are weak, then I can show Myself most effective to work through you. Your sense of your own weakness fits you to receive My divine strength.”
Paul, we've been a fly on the wall while you've been learning this painful lesson that has so much to do with our own personal thorns in the flesh. We each have our own thorns. And God doesn't fault us for asking to be healed. Thank you for sharing this teaching moment with us. If we may ask, when did you really “get it?” You didn't tell us whether it was still a struggle to adjust to a “no” answer from God who so highly favored you with those supernatural revelations, or whether your turn-around acceptance was instantaneous. Your thorn kept hurting, didn't it? Everything was still worst case scenario. There was no relief or light at the end of the tunnel. You would have to live with the thorn until God took you Home. Whenever it was that you “got it” your spiritual eyes finally “saw” what God was after.
That's when you declared to all of us who “have ears to hear”: “Therefore, I will all the more gladly glory in, boast, delight, take pleasure in my weaknesses and infirmities, insults, hardships, persecutions, perplexities and distresses; for when I am weak in my human strength, then am I truly strong—able, powerful in Your divine strength.” [Amplified Version]
You didn't tell us specifically what your thorn was, Paul. Was that deliberate? We know you had a human body just like ours that can hurt with innumerable things that can get out of order inside of our bodies or in our outward appearance, especially as we age, as you did too. So this allows us to identify with you—our own thorn can be anything that is common to humankind or unique to ourselves. The purpose for the thorn, however, is probably the same—that we might remain humble and not think too highly of ourselves and boast of our spiritual experiences. And we can be sure that God will answer us in the same way.
The Message translation of verse 7 puts a down to earth spin on what we were meant to learn:
“Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn't get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan's angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty!”