They Coped With Thorns in Their Flesh
“There was given me a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan, to keep slapping me.”—2 CORINTHIANS 12:7.
1. What are some problems facing people today?
ARE you contending with some ongoing trial? If so, you are not alone. In these “critical times hard to deal with,” faithful Christians are coping with bitter opposition, family problems, sickness, financial anxieties, emotional distresses, the loss of loved ones in death, and other challenges. (2 Timothy 3:1-5) In certain lands, the lives of many are threatened by food shortages and wars.
2, 3. What negative attitude may result from the thornlike problems we face, and how might that prove dangerous?
2 Such problems can make one feel completely overwhelmed, especially if a number of hardships strike at the same time. Note what Proverbs 24:10 says: “Have you shown yourself discouraged in the day of distress? Your power will be scanty.” Yes, discouragement over our trials can rob us of much-needed strength and can weaken our resolve to endure to the end. How so?
3 Well, discouragement might cause us to lose our objectivity. For example, it is easy for us to blow our hardships out of proportion and to start feeling sorry for ourselves. Some may even cry out to God, “Why are you letting this happen to me?” If such a negative attitude were to take root in a person’s heart, it could erode his joy and confidence. A servant of God could become so discouraged that he might even give up fighting “the fine fight of the faith.”—1 Timothy 6:12.
4, 5. In some cases, how is Satan involved with our problems, yet what confidence may we have?
4 Jehovah God certainly does not cause our trials. (James 1:13) Some tests come upon us simply because we are trying to be faithful to him. In fact, all who serve Jehovah make themselves targets of his archenemy, Satan the Devil. In the short time he has left, that wicked “god of this system of things” is trying to make anyone who loves Jehovah give up doing His will. (2 Corinthians 4:4) Satan inflicts as much suffering as he can on the entire association of our brothers around the world. (1 Peter 5:9) Granted, Satan does not directly cause all our problems, but he can exploit the problems we face, seeking to weaken us further.
5 No matter how fearsome Satan or his weapons may be, though, we can defeat him! How can we be certain of that? Because Jehovah God fights in our behalf. He has made sure that his servants are not ignorant regarding Satan’s tactics. (2 Corinthians 2:11) In fact, God’s Word tells us much about the trials that afflict true Christians. In the apostle Paul’s case, the Bible used the expression “a thorn in the flesh.” Why? Let us take a look at how God’s Word explains that phrase. Then we will see that we are far from alone in needing Jehovah’s help to triumph over trials.
Why Tests Are Like Thorns
6. What did Paul mean by “a thorn in the flesh,” and what might that thorn have been?
6 Paul, having been sorely tried, was inspired to write: “There was given me a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan, to keep slapping me, that I might not be overly exalted.” (2 Corinthians 12:7) What was this thorn in Paul’s flesh? Well, a thorn lodged deep under the skin would certainly be painful. So the metaphor suggests something that caused Paul pain—whether physical, emotional, or both. It may be that Paul suffered from an eye affliction or some other physical infirmity. Or the thorn may have involved those individuals who challenged Paul’s credentials as an apostle and called into question his preaching and teaching work. (2 Corinthians 10:10-12; 11:5, 6, 13) Whatever it was, that thorn remained in place and could not be removed.
7, 8. (a) What does the expression “to keep slapping” indicate? (b) Why is it vital that we cope with any thorns afflicting us now?
7 Note that the thorn kept slapping Paul. Interestingly, the Greek verb Paul used here is derived from the word for “knuckles.” That word is used literally at Matthew 26:67 and figuratively at 1 Corinthians 4:11. In those verses, it conveys the idea of being beaten with fists. In view of Satan’s bitter hatred of Jehovah and His servants, we can be sure that the Devil was pleased that a thorn kept on slapping Paul. Today, Satan is just as pleased when we are similarly troubled by a thorn in the flesh.
8 Therefore, like Paul, we need to know how to cope with such thorns. Doing so means our very life! Remember, Jehovah wants to prolong our life forever in his new world, where thornlike problems will never beset us again. To help us win this wonderful prize, God has given us many examples in his holy Word, the Bible, showing that his faithful servants have successfully coped with thorns in their flesh. They were ordinary, imperfect people, just as we are. Considering some among this great “cloud of witnesses” may help us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1) Meditating on what they endured can build our confidence that we can cope with any thorns that Satan may use against us.
The Thorns Afflicting Mephibosheth
9, 10. (a) How did Mephibosheth come to have a thorn in his flesh? (b) What kindness did King David show to Mephibosheth, and how might we imitate David?
9 Consider Mephibosheth, the son of David’s friend Jonathan. When Mephibosheth was five years old, news came that his father, Jonathan, and his grandfather, King Saul, had been killed. The boy’s nurse panicked. She “began to carry him . . . , but it came about that as she was running in panic to flee, he then had a fall and was lamed.” (2 Samuel 4:4) This disability must have been quite a thorn for Mephibosheth to endure as he grew up.
10 Some years later King David, out of his great love for Jonathan, expressed loving-kindness to Mephibosheth. David turned over all of Saul’s property to him and assigned Saul’s attendant Ziba as caretaker of this land. David also told Mephibosheth: ‘You will eat bread at my table constantly.’ (2 Samuel 9:6-10) No doubt David’s loving-kindness was comforting to Mephibosheth and helped to blunt the pain of his disability. What a fine lesson! We too should show kindness to those contending with a thorn in the flesh.
11. What did Ziba claim about Mephibosheth, but how do we know that his claim was a lie? (See footnote.)
11 Later on, Mephibosheth had to contend with another thorn in his flesh. His servant Ziba slandered him before King David, who was then fleeing Jerusalem because of the rebellion of Absalom, David’s son. Ziba said that Mephibosheth had disloyally stayed behind in Jerusalem in the hope of acquiring the kingship for himself.a David believed Ziba’s slander and turned over all of Mephibosheth’s property to that liar!—2 Samuel 16:1-4.
12. How did Mephibosheth react to his situation, and how is he a fine example for us?
12 However, when Mephibosheth finally met with David, he told the king what had really happened. He had been preparing to join David when Ziba tricked him and volunteered to go in his place. Did David right this wrong? Partially. He divided the property between the two men. Here, then, was another potential thorn in Mephibosheth’s flesh. Was he badly disappointed? Did he protest David’s decision, crying out that it was unfair? No, he humbly acceded to the king’s wishes. He focused on the positive, rejoicing that Israel’s rightful king had returned safely. Mephibosheth truly set a sterling example by enduring disability, slander, and disappointment.—2 Samuel 19:24-30.
Nehemiah Coped With His Trials
13, 14. What thorns did Nehemiah have to endure when he returned to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem?
13 Think of the figurative thorns that Nehemiah endured when he returned to the unwalled city of Jerusalem in the fifth century B.C.E. He found the city to be virtually defenseless, and the repatriated Jews there were disorganized, discouraged, and unclean in the eyes of Jehovah. Even though authorized by King Artaxerxes to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah soon learned that his mission was odious to the governors of nearby lands. “It seemed to them something very bad that a man had come to seek something good for the sons of Israel.”—Nehemiah 2:10.
14 Those foreign opposers did everything in their power to stop Nehemiah’s work. Their threats, lies, slander, intimidation—including the use of spies sent to discourage him—must have been like persistent thorns in his flesh. Did he succumb to the machinations of those enemies? No! He put his full trust in God, not weakening. Thus, when Jerusalem’s walls were finally rebuilt, they provided lasting testimony to Jehovah’s loving support of Nehemiah.—Nehemiah 4:1-12; 6:1-19.
15. What problems among the Jews deeply troubled Nehemiah?
15 As governor, Nehemiah also had to contend with many problems among God’s people. These difficulties were like thorns that troubled him deeply because they affected the people’s relationship with Jehovah. Wealthy ones were exacting heavy interest, and their poorer brothers, in order to pay debts as well as the Persian tax, had to give up their land and even sell their children into slavery. (Nehemiah 5:1-10) Many Jews were violating the Sabbath and were failing to support the Levites and the temple. Also, some had married “Ashdodite, Ammonite and Moabite wives.” How this pained Nehemiah! But none of these thorns made him quit. Again and again he rose to the occasion as a zealous upholder of God’s righteous laws. Like Nehemiah, may we refuse to allow the unfaithful conduct of others to dissuade us from loyal service to Jehovah.—Nehemiah 13:10-13, 23-27.
Many Other Faithful Ones Coped
16-18. How did family strife beset Isaac and Rebekah, Hannah, David, and Hosea?
16 The Bible contains many other examples of people who coped with distressing situations that were like thorns. One common source of such thorns was family problems. Esau’s two wives “were a source of bitterness of spirit to Isaac and Rebekah,” Esau’s parents. Rebekah even said that she abhorred her life with those wives. (Genesis 26:34, 35; 27:46) Think, too, of Hannah and how her rival wife, Peninnah, “vexed her sorely” because Hannah was barren. Perhaps Hannah suffered this torment frequently in the privacy of their home. Peninnah also publicly vexed her—no doubt before relatives and friends—while the family attended the festival at Shiloh. This was like pushing the thorn deeper into Hannah’s flesh.—1 Samuel 1:4-7.
17 Contemplate what David endured because of the insane jealousy of his father-in-law, King Saul. To save his own life, David was forced to live in caves in the wilderness of En-gedi, where he had to climb precipitous and dangerous rocky passes. The injustice must have been galling, for he had done nothing bad against Saul. Still, for years David had to live on the run—all of this because of Saul’s jealousy.—1 Samuel 24:14, 15; Proverbs 27:4.
18 Imagine the family strife that beset the prophet Hosea. His wife became an adulteress. Her immorality must have been like thorns stuck into his heart. And what further anguish he must have suffered when she bore two illegitimate children from her fornication!—Hosea 1:2-9.
19. What persecution afflicted the prophet Micaiah?
19 Another thorn in the flesh is persecution. Consider the experience of Micaiah the prophet. To see that wicked King Ahab surrounded himself with false prophets and that Ahab believed their blatant lies must have tormented Micaiah’s righteous soul. Then, when Micaiah told Ahab that all those prophets were speaking by “a deceptive spirit,” what did the leader of those frauds do? Why, he “struck Micaiah upon the cheek”! Even worse was Ahab’s reaction to Jehovah’s warning that the campaign to recover Ramoth-gilead was doomed to failure. Ahab ordered that Micaiah be thrown into prison with reduced rations. (1 Kings 22:6, 9, 15-17, 23-28) Remember, too, Jeremiah and the way he was treated by his murderous persecutors.—Jeremiah 20:1-9.
20. What thorns did Naomi have to endure, and how was she rewarded?
20 The loss of loved ones is yet another bitter situation that can be like a thorn in the flesh. Naomi had to endure the painful loss of her husband and her two sons in death. Still feeling those devastating blows, she returned to Bethlehem. She told her friends to call her, not Naomi, but Mara, a name that reflected the bitterness of her experiences. In the end, though, Jehovah rewarded her endurance with a grandson who became a link in the line to the Messiah.—Ruth 1:3-5, 19-21; 4:13-17; Matthew 1:1, 5.
21, 22. How was Job beset by loss, and how did he respond?
21 Think of how shocked Job must have been when he heard of the sudden and violent death of his ten dear children, not to mention the loss of all his livestock and his servants. Suddenly, his whole world seemed to collapse! Then, as Job was reeling from these blows, Satan struck him with illness. Job may well have thought that this malignant sickness was going to kill him. His pain became so unbearable that he felt that death would be a relief.—Job 1:13-20; 2:7, 8.
22 As if all of this were not enough, his wife, in her grief and anguish, came to him and cried out: “Curse God and die!” What a thorn this was in his aching flesh! Next, Job’s three companions, instead of comforting him, attacked him with specious reasoning, accusing him of secret sins and holding that this was responsible for his misfortune. Their erroneous arguments shoved the thorns in his flesh deeper and deeper, as it were. Remember, too, that Job did not know why these terrible things were happening to him; nor did he know that his own life was to be spared. Yet, “in all this Job did not sin or ascribe anything improper to God.” (Job 1:22; 2:9, 10; 3:3; 14:13; 30:17) Although beset by many thorns at once, he never gave up his course of integrity. How encouraging!
23. Why were the faithful ones we have discussed able to endure various thorns in the flesh?
23 The preceding examples by no means represent an exhaustive list. The Bible contains many more. All these faithful servants had to contend with their own figurative thorns. And what a wide variety of problems they faced! Yet, they had something in common. None of them gave up in their service to Jehovah. Despite all their distressing tests, they overcame Satan in the strength that Jehovah provided them. How? The next article will answer this question and show us how we too can cope with anything that is like a thorn in our flesh.
a An ambitious scheme of that kind would have been out of character for such an appreciative, humble man as Mephibosheth. No doubt he well knew the faithful record set by his father, Jonathan. Although a son of King Saul, Jonathan had humbly recognized David as Jehovah’s choice to be king over Israel. (1 Samuel 20:12-17) As the God-fearing parent of Mephibosheth and a loyal friend to David, Jonathan would not have taught his young son to aspire to royal power.
How Would You Answer?
• Why can the problems we face be likened to thorns in the flesh?
• What were some of the thorns that Mephibosheth and Nehemiah had to endure?
• Among the Scriptural examples of men and women who endured various thorns in the flesh, which did you find especially moving, and why?
[Pictures on page 15]
Mephibosheth had to cope with disability, slander, and disappointment
[Picture on page 16]
Nehemiah persevered despite opposition