Just What Did the Apostle Pray for Relief From?
Based on what I've been able to determine, scholars have, for centuries, recognized what appear to be conflicting portrayals of the apostle Paul’s public speaking abilities. The Book of Acts seems to describe him as a bold, effective spokesman while Paul’s own letters tell a very different story: He is quite clear about his severe limitations involving public discourse, despite his writings being exceptionally eloquent and forceful.
According to his close companion, Luke, Paul courageously proclaimed the Gospel to multitudes, often including those who sought to kill him. The Gospel of Luke and later the Book of Acts, of course, were both written by Luke, a historian and medical doctor. Some believe that Luke, using the conventions of Greek historical writing of the time, may have decided that Paul’s oratory inadequacies in Acts were Paul's personal challenge alone: either be revealed or suppressed by the apostle only.
Luke was a man whose Greek ancestors included Alexander the Great. And, this was the time of the mighty Roman Empire, whose strength was unparalleled in the ancient world. Perhaps Luke’s emphasis focused predominantly on Paul’s evangelistic efforts. It seems that Luke’s primary goal was to highlight the early successes of the Church – and to a lesser extent, the eccentricities of those involved. He intent may have to portray Paul’s great strengths and endurance over his weak public discourse. There was little to be gained by squandering words on his closest friend’s very personal afflictions.
Luke rightfully paints Paul as a heroic figure in Acts, someone deeply human, standing virtually alone in opposition to all who would challenge the Lord Jesus as the prophesied Messiah. Paul’s incredible stamina in the face of grave persecution, including relentless physical abuse, surely exceeded all other considerations regarding the tireless evangelist. If any personal revelations were to be made, Luke would probably have yielded to Paul's own disclosures about himself. It has been suggested that Luke may have embellished his close friend's rhetorical skills on occasion - perhaps rightly so, to camouflage Paul's public deficiencies.
Paul introduces himself as one well equipped for the difficult task of organizing small congregations rather than for persuasive rhetoric in open forums. The difference between these portraits appears to be a reason why many scholars doubt the historical validity of the Book of Acts. There is, however, a simple means of reconciling them. Paul may well have suffered from social anxiety (or something analogous, like agoraphobia).
The impact of social anxiety on someone’s emotional state can sometimes be debilitating - even more so that physical maladies. This particular condition generally includes great apprehension and anxiety before crowds and other social settings. It has been known to lead to acute stress, self-imposed isolation, and a host of other problems. It often manifests itself as an inability to look directly at one’s audience while speaking, trembling, stuttering, sometimes inducing watering eyes and other closely-related symptoms.
Those who do not suffer from this affliction will probably not appreciate it's severity because there are no obvious, outward signs of illness or injury. Worse, it is "contemptible" to be nervously trembling before audiences that cannot empathize with such difficulties. Social anxiety is indeed a “messenger of Satan,” one in which its victims pay a heavy toll through routine, public humiliation.
Paul appears to have suffered greatly, and even discloses to us (twice) the reason for his condition:
2 Corinthians 12:7: “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself!”
Nothing can humble a person like acute social anxiety.
Although brilliant of mind, by his own admission, Paul was severely handicapped by his evangelistic adversities. He wrote to the believers in Corinth,
1 Corinthians 2:3-5: “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”
It seems hard to believe that the man who wrote some of the greatest letters in history was unable to communicate with “persuasive words of wisdom!” If we are still not convinced of the adversity that plagued Paul’s apostleship during his public appearances, he conveys other clues for us:
2 Corinthians 10:9-10: “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.’”
Does this sound like a confident orator, as might be the case with someone like Apollos (Acts 18:24-25)?
Earlier in his First Letter to the church at Corinth, Paul reacts to a potential breach in that early congregation:
1 Corinthians 1:12-13, 17: “[Each] one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
Some had obviously tended to identify more with their preferred speaker and were jeopardizing the unity of all saints under the name of Christ. Paul then apologizes that he had not demonstrated “cleverness of speech” (1:17) in the presence of this fledgling group. Rather, he was sent to proclaim the Gospel,
1 Corinthians 1:17: “[So] that the cross of Christ would not be made void.”
Obviously, Paul relates how he “trembled” when vocally delivering his messages, some of which were considered “contemptible” by his listeners. Yet the apostle is able to compensate for these difficulties:
2 Cor. 11:6: “But even if I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge; in fact, in every way we have made this evident to you in all things.”
Try to imagine the misfortune and sheer torment of proclaiming the Gospel to Roman citizens, all of whom valued boldness and fortitude. Their own leaders, the Caesars, were even worshipped as gods.
It is my opinion that some have erroneously argued Paul suffered from “headaches.” One commentator went as far as to confidently suggest that: “Paul’s difficulty was that he was nearly blind.” This begs the question: "How does one’s visual impairment correlate with the symptoms that Paul has just described? Does failing eyesight lead to timidity and trembling – indeed, to speech that is “contemptible”? Many people have faulty vision and almost everyone has had headaches. How might these ever have been analogous to a “messenger from Satan?”
It seems that some have misconstrued Paul's statement in Galatians 6 to infer the apostle literally wrote large letters in the scrolls he was compiling, perhaps something analogous to α, β, γ, δ, ε, στ -- one Greek letter or so at a time per page!:
Galatians 6:11: See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.
It is hard to take such an interpretation seriously: it is based on the most frivolous of evidence: a single verse. (Actually, there appear to be two verses or so that are used to support this thesis as we will see.) As one considers the Paul's symptoms carefully, it should evident that these are not merely the characteristics of poor vision, or headaches. Rather, Paul exhibits the qualities of someone beleaguered by intense anxiety, experiencing great distress before his many audiences, a condition often (inaccurately) referred to as “stage fright.”
What can we learn from these words by the apostle? First, it seems that Paul’s letters were “weighty and strong” to those who received them. Who can read Paul’s Letter to the Romans (esp. chapter 8) or his First Letter to the Corinthians (esp. chapter 15) and not be impressed with the prowess that he exhibits in his material? Let's revisit Paul's Letter to the Galatians, where he emphasizes this sentiment himself:
Galatians 6:11: “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.”
I'm persuaded that the proper interpretation of what Paul has just conveyed is the grand significance of his powerful, authoritative testimony to the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul did not literally form extra-large Greek symbols on oversized scrolls. This simply cannot be true, and it diminishes the great hardship that Paul was forced to endure: a messenger from Satan, one that affects the mind.
All of this is exacerbated by the fact that Paul did not compose many of his own letters: he dictated them to others who wrote for him (e.g. Sosthenes: 1 Cor. 1:1, Tertius: Rom. 16:22). The implication here is that it would be irrelevant even if Paul had failing eyesight.
We should also not overlook the fact that the other apostles recognized the gravity of Paul's writing, something emblematic of all of his scriptural treatises:
2 Peter 3:16: “[Just] as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand..."
The other apostles recognized the impact of Paul’s writing – his profound, “large letters” so to speak. Despite this, some will still insist that Paul was nearly blind. Let us again observe another set of passages from the Letter to the Galatians that may be used to supplement the hypothesis from Galatians 6:11:
Galatians 4:12-15: “I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. 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... I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”
What does all of this mean? Well, Paul is reminding his readers that due to some unspecified illness, he was detained and had to labor with the Galatians at a time of personal distress during his first visit. And, at that time, they might have been repulsed by his affliction -- which sounds very much like that we have already discussed. But they received him with open arms just as one might welcome “an angel of God.” Indeed, they might have “sacrificed their own eyes” for him -– which is simply tender hyperbole for their loving kindness toward this great man.
What we should understand is that Paul is not suggesting that he literally needed the eyes of others due to some visual impairment. Such is believe to be an oversimplification of what must surely have been an incredibly haunting condition -- again, one delivered by a "messenger of Satan." None of the verses from Galatians 4:12-15 is believed to relate to the disorder that we have contemplated. We should not confound a relatively straight-forward narrative with unwarranted assumptions, certainly none that cannot be reconciled elsewhere in the New Testament.
Indeed, Paul is contrasting his first encounter in Galatia – an exceedingly welcoming one, with this follow-up visit where the saints appeared to have forsaken their first love. As a consequence, they were no longer treating Paul with the kindness they had previously demonstrated.
The great apostle to the Gentiles wrote a significant portion of the New Testament. He proclaimed the Word to the Roman Empire, establishing new churches and turning the world upside down in the name of Christ. But he was not known for effective public presentations. We might well ask: “Why would God choose such an ineffective voice for the Gospel? Why not instead select someone like Apollos (as previously mentioned), a man known for his oratory prowess?” (Note: Some have plausibly suggested that Apollos may have been the one to write the Letter to the Hebrews, with a style all its own.) The answer appears to be given to us, just as we read earlier:
2 Corinthians 12:7: “[To] keep [Paul] from exalting [himself].”
God chose Paul because He wanted everyone to recognize that the forcefulness with which this preacher communicated his sermons did not come from any human source. Paul lacked a natural ability to speak, but his writing was influenced by the Holy Spirit. So, while Paul may have been severely handicapped in speech, and such was even viewed contemptibly,
1 Corinthians 1:27-29: “[God chose] the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong... so that no man may boast before [Him].”
Paul wrote prolifically, through masterful compositions as though attempting to compensate for his vulnerabilities. His own words disclose this very fact:
2 Corinthians 10:1: “I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you [in writing] when absent!”
Once again, Paul obviously wrote bold, commanding epistles to all his recipients. Social phobias are not unique to our modern world. There is at least one example of another man known for his social awkwardness in the Old Testament. Some may recall that Moses pleaded with God that he be spared from leading the Israelites:
Exodus 4:10: “Moses said to the Lord, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue’” (cf. Ex. 6:12).
Indeed, God described Moses as:
Numbers 12:3 [ESV]: “[Very] meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.”
Moses also appears to have been afflicted with some form of speaking infirmity; his meekness was probably the result of a speech impediment or social phobia similar to that of Paul’s. God always chooses those who we might think were the least likely candidates for His special purposes.
Naturally, Paul had distinct qualifications as an apostle:
- He was born a Jew in Tarsus, capital of Cilicia;
- He was of the tribe of Benjamin;
- His given name was Saul – he is renamed Paul in the Book of Acts (13);
- He was a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” a master of the Law;
- He kept the Law of Moses “perfectly”;
- He was a Roman citizen, and,
- He saw and spoke to the glorified Christ on the road to Damascus, Syria.
The outstanding characteristic with which God endowed this endearing man was his ability to write. And, he did so exceptionally with the help of the Spirit of God:
1 Corinthians 4:20: “For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power.”
Christ provided Paul with unparalleled spiritual insight at a considerable cost, as noted previously:
2 Corinthians 12:7: “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations...”
He was afflicted so that he might not fall victim to an even greater handicap: the evil of Pride. Paul has not left us in the dark regarding when and why he became afflicted as he did. We read about his demonic torment from his Second Letter to the Corinthians. Note that Paul discloses this condition immediately after he tells us of his heavenly vision:
2 Corinthians 12:2-4, 7-9: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows – was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak... Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’”
Of course, the “man in Christ” in these verses is Paul himself. In his own words, a messenger from Satan was permitted by God to keep Paul from exalting himself. And, that was due to the “surpassing greatness of the revelations” that Paul received, perhaps only rivaled by the apostle John's in the Book of Revelation.
[Note: This experience by Paul was clearly by divine arrangement. It may have been allowed to strengthen Paul’s resolve against the many trials and suffering that he would eventually endure along his missionary journeys. Having experienced this vision of Paradise, he would be stronger in the face of the great tribulations that would consume all his great endeavors.]
We may be able to reconstruct this period in Paul’s life. There are those who believe that the apostle's heavenly vision occurred after he and others had fled to escape persecution from the Jewish elders of Antioch, Syria, where he was later stoned in Lystra (Acts 14:19-20). The 14-year period prior to the Letter to the Corinthians seems to correspond well with the timeframe of the Book of Acts (chapter 14). Some have placed the time of the stoning to be between 45-46 A.D. The Second Letter to the Corinthians may have been written approximately 14 years after that brush with death. More to the point, how could any man be stoned, and then be dragged out of a city by enemies intent on killing him without truly experiencing death? The text reads:
Acts 14:19-20: “[Jews] came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. But while the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city.”
If anyone knew how to effectively stone someone it was the Jews. That had long been their method of execution, one commanded by God for violating certain Laws of Moses. It will be remembered that the Jews stoned Stephen, the first Christian martyr, while Paul (“a young man named Saul”: Acts 7:58) looked on. Unlike the injuries sustained during a random mob attack, a real stoning was strictly intended to kill the victim.
It strains credulity that the Jews were not successful in that attack. After they had done this, they dragged Paul’s lifeless body outside the city. Even if we concede that he was only badly injured, how is it possible that anyone could survive more than a few hours – or minutes, following such a brutal assault? In modern times, anyone who sustained such injuries would immediately be placed in critical care. They would have their broken bones set, their wounds stitched together, and pressure inside their skull relieved to minimize brain trauma.
Imagine the amazement that must have gripped the disciples who stood around Paul’s lifeless body, as they watched him stand up only proceed to reenter the city (Acts 14:20)! Nothing short of divine intervention could have brought Paul back to life and healed (or at least mitigated) what must surely have been severe, life-threatening wounds.
However, during the time Paul lost consciousness, that may have been when he was:
2 Corinthians 12:4: “[Caught] up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.”
It is because of the “surpassing greatness of [these] revelations” that God allowed him to be influenced by a messenger of Satan. Paul was plagued by a demonic infirmity that appears to have overcome him in the same manner as acute social anxiety, often consisting of numerous symptoms including tremor in the hands and legs, elevated heart rate, perspiration, facial and other bodily tics, dry mouth, dizziness, and often panic. Only the Devil himself could concoct such a paralyzing blight on a human being, one intended to maximize the anguish of this courageous, invincible servant of Christ.