In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul said, “To keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan.” What was that thorn, other than painful?
Early in my ministry, I was told that Paul might have had epilepsy, an eye disease, or some other physical impairment.
In the 1980s, I became involved in progressive Christianity. It gave me the freedom to think outside the box. The mystery of the thorn in the flesh took on an interesting new twist once I read other statements by Paul for clues.
In 2 Corinthians 12:8, Paul wrote that he had appealed to the Lord three times to make the thorn leave, but a messenger of Satan had placed it there. Clearly, that thorn was nasty.
In Romans 7:15, Paul said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” What did he hate? The thorn?
Romans 7:23 might help us figure it out: “I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (emphasis mine). In scripture, members often meant “appendages.” Men have two arms, two legs, and a penis, any of which could be called a member. What law of sin could dwell in a man’s arms and legs? That leaves us with one other choice.
In Romans 7:24, Paul denigrated himself: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Paul, as a strict Jew and Pharisee, obeyed every letter of the law. He knew that according to Leviticus 20:13, homosexuality was punishable by death.
I wonder if Paul had homosexual feelings and felt so guilty about this that he tried to escape from himself and prevent others from realizing that he was gay through his extensive missionary work. Many people try to cope with their problems by running away, either literally or through drugs.
In 1 Corinthians 7:8, Paul recommended that unwed people “stay unmarried, as I do.” Perhaps he thought that if lots of heterosexual men remained single, people wouldn’t question his own bachelorhood.
I also think that Paul was attracted to the Followers of the Way because Jesus deemphasized the law (Matthew 22:37–40) and emphasized the power of agape—unconditional love with lots of forgiveness.
Here’s the bottom line: I don’t care about Paul’s sexual orientation. Agape is unconditional. But I do care that churches and insecure men seem to be the biggest homophobes today. I wonder what they’d do if Paul came out of the closet. Would we see another crucifixion? Or would they rethink their homophobia?