Like many people his age, my father has developed cataracts in both eyes. A cataract is a clouding of the normally clear lens of the eye. It can be compared to a window that is frosted or “fogged” with steam. I have gone with Dad to the appointments with his ophthalmologist to diagnose his condition and to prepare for the surgery that will correct his vision. Cataract surgery is typically very effective. The clouded natural lens is removed and replaced with an artificial lens that, in addition to clearing the foggy vision, also corrects any issues related to focus. Successful cataract surgery can give patients nearly perfect eyesight!
This experience has reminded me of another person whom (like my dad) I greatly respect, and who also had vision problems, the Apostle Paul. Most people are familiar with the story of Saul of Tarsus (his Hebrew name prior to being renamed Paul, the Gentile version of Saul), a devout Jew living at the same time as Jesus, who was NOT an early convert to the Christian faith. He hated Christians, and even persecuted them by participating in beatings and stonings of Jews who proclaimed that Jesus was the long-awaited messiah and that He had actually risen from the dead. On his way to Damascus where he would carry out yet another mission of terror, Saul encountered the resurrected Lord who conscripted him for service as a messenger to the Gentiles. During this supernatural encounter Saul was blinded by the extremely bright light that accompanied the Lord’s appearance. Saul remained blind for 3 days until a Christian named Ananias prayed for him to receive his sight and to be filled with the Holy Spirit. When Ananias prayed for Saul “something like scales” fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again.
There are indications in scripture that Saul/Paul continued to have vision problems. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul mentions his infirmity and commended the Galatians:
You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.
(Galatians 4:13-15 ESV)
Later in the letter, Paul commented that he was writing the final portion himself saying “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” (Galatians 6:11 ESV) Presumably he was making large letters because he had difficulty seeing.
Much debate has occurred over the “thorn in the flesh” Paul was given as a result of the great revelations he was permitted to experience during a supernatural trip to heaven. This amazing story is recounted in the first part of 2 Corinthians chapter 12. The reason for this infirmity (as Paul describes it) was to keep him from being puffed up with pride. Paul was greatly troubled with this affliction:
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. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
(2 Corinthians 12:8-10 ESV)
I am one who believes this thorn, this infirmity, was perpetual problems with his eyes. In his pre-conversion days, Saul had developed spiritual cataracts on his eyes. He was blind to the obvious fact that Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah spoken of in the sacred scriptures Saul thought he knew so well. But in the encounter on the Damascus road, Jesus did spiritual surgery, blinding Saul for 3 days. I can imagine that Saul did a tremendous amount of soul-searching during that time. It must have been incredibly humbling for a prideful Jew like Saul to have his entire theological world turned completely upside down! When Ananias prayed for Saul to receive his sight and to be filled with the Holy Spirit, the scales that fell from his eyes were like the old clouded lenses of his pre-Christian days being surgically removed and being replaced with the clear lens provided by the Spirit’s new vision.
I can believe God allowed Paul to experience vision problems throughout his earthly life to continually remind him of that supernatural encounter. It was only by God’s grace that Paul was saved. God’s power was best revealed in Paul when Paul was in a weakened state. May God grant us all insight so we, too, can embrace our weaknesses as an opportunities to let God’s power work through us.