Do you fight for joy? Do you think of joy as something to be sought as the object of diligent striving and focused labor? Or do you think of it more as an after-effect, a by-product of other and more important pursuits? Or am I splitting hairs, leaving you to wonder, “Sam, what difference does it make?” I think we should let Paul answer that question.
As we’ve already noted on several occasions, Paul goes to extraordinary lengths to explain why he changed his plans about visiting Corinth. Here at the close of chapter one and the start of chapter two, he again accounts for his behavior and in doing so pulls back the curtain, so to speak, on his own heart and exposes the driving force in his life and ministry.
“But I call God to witness against me - it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4).
Some in Corinth felt that Paul’s behavior and change of travel plans was indicative of an arrogant and authoritative style of leadership. But the apostle is quick to remind them that it was neither indifference to their needs nor pompous posturing that governed his actions. Rather, he made his decisions based on what he believed would best serve their joy! Look again closely at v. 24 – “we work with you for your joy.”
The two verses at the close of chapter one deserve close attention. Obviously, Paul is concerned that his comments in v. 23 might lead to a false conclusion. His words, "Not that" or "This is not to say" is his way of introducing a clarification of what has preceded, lest they draw an unwarranted inference from he had said. Paul apparently fears that his statement about wanting to “spare” them (v. 23) could be misunderstood, as if he were presuming to have such authority over their lives that their every move was subject to his control or that his every move impacted their lives. "No," says Paul. "I have no intention of trying to tyrannize your faith, nor could I even if I wanted to, for your faith rests in the power of God, not in me or the wisdom of any human being" (cf. 1 Cor. 2:5).
Ultimately, the Corinthians, as is true of all believers (including you), are accountable to God alone. Although they may have come to faith through Paul's ministry, their faith is in God, not in an apostle or a pastor or an elder or a teacher or a theologian. "You have only one Lord," says Paul, "and it ain’t me” (or something similar; cf. Rom. 14:4).
Both 1 and 2 Corinthians must have been difficult for the church to swallow. Paul had some harsh things to say to the church in Corinth (deservedly so, I might add). His rebukes often stung. He pulled no punches and cut no corners. As far as Paul was concerned, compromise was the language of contempt. If you love someone, you speak the truth, no matter how painful or discomfiting it may be. But in every case, beneath and behind every word in every verse in every chapter, Paul’s aim was the same: joy!
Unlike so many in his own day and even more in ours, Paul didn’t discharge his apostolic calling to expand his personal power or to broaden his influence or to bolster his reputation or to increase his control, far less to pad his bank account, but to intensify their joy in Jesus.
Paul can almost be heard to say, “Whether I’m rebuking you for sectarianism in the church (1 Corinthians 3) or laxity in moral conduct (1 Corinthians 5-6) or abuse of spiritual power (1 Corinthians 12-14), my aim is your joy in Jesus. Whether I appeal to you to be financially generous (2 Corinthians 8-9) or warn you of false apostles (2 Corinthians 11), my aim is your joy in Jesus.”
Should Paul have been pressed for an explanation, he would have said: “I aim to intensify their joy because apart from their souls relishing and resting in the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ, they don’t stand a chance against Satan.” I believe he would have answered like the good Christian Hedonist that he was: “I work for your joy because God is most glorified in you Corinthians (and all believers) when you are most pleased and satisfied and enthralled with the plenitude of divine beauty seen only in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Let’s be clear about one thing: the joy for which Paul labored and prayed and preached should never be thought of in terms of “feeling good about yourself” or living in the lap of luxury. This joy is far and away removed from any form of self-indulgent smugness or that superficial psychological giddiness that comes from reaping the material comforts of western society.
The joy that Paul has in mind is a deep, durable delight in the splendor of God that utterly ruins you for anything else. It is a whole-souled savoring of the spiritual sweetness of Jesus that drives out all competing pleasures and leads the soul to rest content with the knowledge of God and the blessings of intimacy with him. This is the kind of joy that, rather than being dependent on material and physical comfort, actually frees you from bondage to it and liberates you from sinful reliance on worldly conveniences and gadgets and gold.
Paul’s commitment to their joy in Jesus was motivated, at least in part, by his belief that Satan was no less committed to their joy in the passing pleasures of sin (cf. Hebrews 11:25). He knew all too well that the diabolical strategy of the enemy is to seduce us into believing that the world and the flesh and sinful self-indulgence can do for our weary and broken hearts what God can’t (or won’t).
This is the battle that we face each day. We awaken to a world at war for the allegiance of our minds and the affections of our souls. The winner will be whoever can persuade us that he will bring greatest and most soul-satisfying joy. That is why Paul labored and prayed so passionately and sacrificially for joy in Jesus in the hearts of that first-century church.
To reinforce his point, he tells them in the opening verses of chapter two that if he had visited them when he had first planned to do so it would only have led to the diminishing of their joy and thus the deprivation of his own. “If I had come at that time,” says Paul, “I would have been compelled to deal with your unrepentant sin. It would have been unprofitably painful for you. And if you are in anguish, your joy is lessened. And if your joy is lessened, so too is mine in you.” This is why Paul delayed his trip, namely, to give them opportunity to put their house in order so that upon his arrival their joy in Jesus might enrich his and his joy in Jesus might in turn enrich theirs.
As you consider your involvement in the lives of others or your ministry to the broader body of Christ, do you consciously think in advance: What can I do to help them set aside obstacles to full and lasting satisfaction in Jesus? What can I do to portray the glory and beauty of Christ so that the allure of the world, the flesh, and the devil loses its luster? How can I live that others might see in me the superior pleasures that are found in Christ alone?
I awakened this morning, as did you, and as the Corinthians did each day of their lives, with an unshakeable, inescapable, relentless longing for joy. I can’t wash it from my skin in the shower or hold my breath in hopes that it will disappear. Psychological catharsis will not drive it from me. Willpower will not suppress its influence. And contrary to much so-called “Christian” counsel, I should not exorcise its presence or pray for its defeat.
Paul’s counsel to them and to us, I believe, is to pursue God’s presence where “fullness of joy” may be found (Ps. 16:11), to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8), to drink from the river of his delights (Ps. 36:8), and to avail ourselves of every means possible to increase and intensify our delight and satisfaction in him who is joy incarnate.
Writing for your joy,