When Your Spouse is Your Thorn in the Flesh
By: Dr. Roger Barrier
Note: Pastor Roger Barrier’s “Ask Roger” column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues.
I am a long-time Christian who has been married to the same woman for 42 years. My experience is like Paul’s (2 Corinthians 12:7) thorn in the flesh. We don’t know what his thorn was, but I know mine. My wife is my thorn.
She is angry, bitter, and constantly nagging and berating me. She has no friends and argues with me every time I want to go to church. She has hurt our daughters so much that we are estranged from them. I could go on with the details, but you get the idea.
Recently, during a marriage counseling session, we discovered that she was sexually abused by her father from the ages of four until she was 10. I was told that healing the sex abuse damage may take years.
My problem is that I don’t know how much longer I can hold out. I’ve prayed for her healing, but unfortunately, I’ve seen little improvement. As a Christian, I’m committed to our marriage; I have no grounds for divorce. I feel trapped in a cage with no hope.
Can you give me some advice on how to survive my thorn?
Regarding thorns, of course you are referring to Paul’s thorn in 2 Corinthians 12:7: “…because of these surpassingly great revelations (Paul’s God-given visions of the workings of heaven), “…in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”
Before I answer your question directly, let me give you some background regarding thorns. The word “thorn” is literally the Greek word for “stake.” It describes the primary Babylonian method of crucifixion that was to sharpen a large tree limb and impale people on the stake. Paul had a stake twisting in his body to keep him humble.
You realize, Rick, that everyone has a thorn. Everyone has some problem, trouble or sin that buffets them–something they wish they didn’t have!
Is Paul alone with his thorn? No! Never! Jesus had His cross. He even wore a crown of thorns. Every garden has its weeds; every rose has its stickers; every life has its strife.
There are many guesses as to the nature of Paul’s thorn.
First, some suggest that he was Ugly as a result of the beatings, whippings and stonings that his body endured.
It was said of Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:10: “His letters are weighty, but his bodily appearance is weak.”
Five times he was beaten with rods which was a Roman punishment whereby a prisoner was strapped between two sawhorses and beaten in the back. Early second century writings tell us that Paul walked stooped over and couldn’t look up.
Three times he endured the Jewish punishment of 39 stripes whipped into his back.
Second, others suggest that he suffered debilitating malaria.
This life-long malady was prevalent and incapacitating when he was in Asia Minor on his first missionary journey. The resulting fevers are often life-long problems.
Third, he may well have suffered from epilepsy.
“As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself” (Galatians 4:13-14).
The ancient world believed that epilepsy was caused by demons. People spit in order to ward off demons. The word “scorn” above is actually the Greek word “to spit at.”
Fourth, most probably he suffered with eye trouble.
In Galatians 6:11 Paul wrote, “See with what large letters I write with my own hand.”
In Galatians 4:15 Paul wrote, “You would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me if you could.”
In Acts 23 during his trial, he chided the high priest. One of the guards slapped Paul and said, “Don’t you know that you are speaking to the high priest!”
Paul replied, “I didn’t perceive that he was the high priest.”
Remember that at his conversion, Paul was blinded and scales fell from his eyes.
Now, here’s the point: Why didn’t Paul tell us the nature of his thorn?
So all of us could identify with Paul.
If he said, “My thorn is eye trouble,” then someone would say, “Well, my thorn is worse than Paul’s. God’s grace may cover your eye trouble, but I’m not sure he has enough grace to cover mine.”
Rick, notice that Paul pleaded with God to remove his thorn. However, while God did not give him what he wanted, God did answer his need.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:8).
Now Rick, let me give you several practical lessons about handling thorns.
- Thorns for the saints always have a divine purpose.
Thorns have a way of correcting us.
When we are out of God’s will, resisting the Spirit or involved in sin, we will most likely feel the hand of God. God disciplines us when we need it.
“We have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:9-10).
Thorns have a way of perfecting us.
“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6-7).
Rick, examine your life. If something is wrong or ungodly, take your spanking like an obedient child.
If all is well and in place, then recognize that God’s hand is perfecting.
Paul’s thorn had a definite purpose: “Lest I be exalted…” God had a purpose for Paul’s thorn and he’ll certainly have a purpose for ours.
Job spoke confidently about his thorn: “You put me in the furnace of affliction; when you’re through, oh Lord, I’ll come out like gold!”
- Thorns are no hindrance to Christian service.
We live in the aspirin age of excuses: “My headache, my arthritis, my fatigue, my leprosy… We all have something wrong.”
What if some of the great saints had the attitude that some of us have?
Paul was incarcerated in the Mamertine prison in Rome. It was cold, dark, rat-infested misery. Yet, with grace and purpose he wrote four Bible books before being beheaded.
Rick, it’s my opinion that Paul eventually was glad that God didn’t answer his prayer. If Paul hadn’t had that thorn, he’d never have been Paul.
Every useful servant of God has had something painful that’s made him or what she or he is.
Suffering is no excuse from service. Peter tells us that instead of being handcuffed by anger, bitterness, depression and quitting, Peter declares that it’s suffering which produces true saints.
Rick, don’t run from your thorns. Let them be a source of power in your life. Thorns are not barriers to Christian service; they oftentimes are the pathway to fruitfulness.
- No matter how small your thorn or how great your stake, God’s grace is sufficient for all things.
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” …That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
While Christ’s grace is sufficient and inexhaustible, he never dispenses it superfluously or needlessly.
Charles Spurgeon, my hero pastor, grew the Metropolitan Tabernacle to over 10,000 people in the mid-19th century in London. His sermons were copied each week and distributed all over the world.
Spurgeon was once asked: “Do you have grace enough to burn at stake at the town square tomorrow at noon?”
“No, I don’t need it today; but tomorrow at noon I’ll have the grace and be ready.”
God doesn’t give martyr’s grace to an office worker. But let that office worker become a martyr; he or she will have plenty of grace.
Rick, I hope my thoughts will give you the grace to endure your thorn now and in the future. I’ll be praying for your wife to be healed and for you both to have many great days ahead.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a church known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry.