This week, I am thankful for the people who give me blog topics. This week’s blog is brought to you by someone who suggested that the Apostle Paul was arrogant. I hope the comment was made in jest, but it didn’t seem that way, to me. The text that was cited as an example of this was Philippians 3:4-6, in which Paul listed the reasons that he might have “confidence in the flesh.” But, in context, it is clear that he was not demonstrating self-righteousness, he was rejecting it. He stated that all of those things were “rubbish” compared to knowing Christ. Further, his hope was not in having righteousness through the law, but righteousness from God, through faith. The Philippians were to beware of anyone trying to make them follow the law, because even Paul’s extensive qualifications under the law would not save him.
If we believe that all Scripture is inspired by God, we cannot also hold that Paul’s letters demonstrate his arrogance. Would the Holy Spirit inspire arrogant boasting? In Philippians 3:17 Paul wrote, “Join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Would God have inspired such a statement if Paul had not been setting a good example? Yet, the topic of boasting does come up repeatedly in Paul’s letters. When these passages are read in context, it is clear that the topic arises not because Paul is boasting, but because others are.
Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 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. 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.
2 Corinthians 12:6-9
The passage that first came to my mind when I heard the accusation against Paul was 2 Corinthians 12. Most Christians are familiar with the verses in which Paul wrote about having a thorn in the flesh. I have always focused on verses eight to ten, making parallels and taking lessons for my own life. But a different verse came to mind. It was verse seven, where Paul introduced the subject of the thorn and told the specific purpose: “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.” I have always sped past this and never stopped to think about what it meant.
But let me take a step back. This section of 2 Corinthians 12 builds on a discourse that started in chapter ten. In chapter eleven, Paul was boasting to show the absurdity of other people’s boasting. Chapter twelve begins, “I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it. . .” But then he boasted of things that had happened to other people, finally concluding, “. . .but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” It is after this that Paul shared about the thorn. I have tended to think of this thorn as something painful that was torturing Paul. But looking more closely, now, I see that the thorn was about humbling him, and it wasn’t necessarily causing physical discomfort. I have missed a lot over the years by looking at verses eight to ten without regard for verse seven. Paul was not one for pithy points. He built cases and demonstrated his points, so that his readers could reach his conclusions for themselves.
Paul wrote that his affliction was “a messenger of Satan to harass [him].” I was thinking about Satan’s “playbook” for harassing Christians. It is often the case that believers who are most effective in God’s service are attacked most viciously by the Enemy. Satan may try to puff up pride in order to make a Christian stumble, but it seems more common for him to attack the confidence of God’s servants. He likes to make people feel inadequate for the work that God has called them to. In this case, Paul knew that God was allowing the harassment, in order that he would not become arrogant.
This makes me wonder more than ever what this thorn was. At the same time, I feel much less disposed to make any parallel to my own life. I realize that whatever problem Paul had, it was literally humiliating. In order that it would keep his pride in check, it would have had to be obvious to others. We don’t know what he suffered, which underscores the fact that we don’t know enough to judge this aspect of his character. If we begin to judge Paul negatively based on verses plucked out of the text, it will eventually affect how receptive we are to what we read in his epistles.
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.
We know that the apostles were sinners, just like us. We don’t need to read sins into the text that aren’t explicitly documented. Paul’s letters are filled with instruction to help us understand the gospel, grow in faith, and become more Christlike. While he was an example to others, his work was pointing people to Jesus. Jesus should be our focus, not Paul.