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James Dobson may have coined the phrase Tough Love, but he didn’t invent the concept. Paul did. Well, it may have existed before Paul, but he certainly perfected its use.


Often we excuse our failure to speak truth into a person’s life because of the pain and emotional discomfort it may cause them. We live under the assumption that genuine love will do whatever it can either to prevent or alleviate the immediate distress in the object of our affection. To permit their pain to continue, or to act in such a way that it might even increase, is in the minds of many misguided folk a sign of cold indifference at best, and calloused hatred at worst.


For example, we are told repeatedly today, both inside and outside the church, that if we love the homosexual we will accept their orientation and behavior and refrain from words of judgment or any suggestion that their lifestyle might be immoral. If we truly love the sincere Buddhist we will not speak ill of his faith or insist on the exclusivity of Christ, but bless him in his chosen path and embrace him as a child of God. If we truly love our professing Christian brother who has abandoned all local church life because of his disgust with its purported hypocrisy, or for some related reason, we will affirm his decision and wish him well during his time on the golf course or at Starbucks on Sunday morning.


All this reminds me of an interview I recently saw with James I. Packer concerning the reasons for his unwavering stance against the blessing of same-sex unions in the Anglican Church. Packer was asked if this was an expression of love. Yes, he replied, because true love would never tolerate or overlook a fault in the beloved that might well issue in their eternal ruin.


To ignore sin in the name of love is not only unbiblical, it also betrays the very nature of love itself which, by definition, always seeks the ultimate spiritual welfare of its object, even at the expense of immediate personal peace.


It’s also an act of cowardice. Confrontation is hard and we typically prefer finding a way to avoid it. Appealing to our “love” for the person as an excuse for not speaking biblical truth concerning their unrepentant sin is the worst and least loving thing one can do and displays a greater devotion to self than to the sinner. It means, in effect, that we prefer our own emotional peace and sense of well-being above their conformity to Christ and perhaps even their eternal destiny. That hardly qualifies as “love” in any language.


Paul’s so-called “severe” letter to the church at Corinth was hard for him to write. It was “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears” that he penned this obviously painful missive (2 Cor. 2:4). He evidently spoke forcefully and unequivocally about the nature of their sin and the need for repentance. In doing so, he ran the risk of alienating them and ending all hope for future fellowship.


His reputation at Corinth was also very much on the line. Would they dismiss him as a hard-hearted authoritarian, concerned only with enforcing conformity to his own preconceived position? Would they use the letter as another excuse to question the authenticity of his apostolic calling? Worse still, would they tell him that it was precisely for this reason that they wanted nothing more to do with the gospel he proclaimed to them? He could have cited all these and, no doubt, other reasons not to write the letter. “I love these people,” Paul might have said to himself, “and therefore don’t want to induce excessive psychological guilt or to contribute to any further schism in the church. I’ll just leave well enough alone.”


No, it was because he genuinely loved them with the love of Christ (what he called in 2 Cor. 2:4, “abundant love”!) and was burdened by the threat of their spiritual defection that he gathered up courage and spoke the truth (firmly and forcefully, I’m sure, but equally with tears of compassion).


Upon hearing from Titus that the letter had indeed hurt them, he initially regretted writing it. But not for long. His momentary grief soon turned to gladness, not, as he says, because he takes some perverse delight in their pain. He’s no sadist. His joy was stirred by their pain because it ultimately led to their repentance, and that was his ultimate goal.


Let’s look now at precisely how Paul put it:


“For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it- though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 7:8-12).


The letter stirred in them a grief or sorrow for sin that was “godly,” or more literally, “according to God” (vv. 9, 10, 11), by which he means that it was agreeable to the mind of God or that it was a sorrow prompted by the conviction that their sin had offended God, and not simply Paul. This he contrasts with “worldly grief” (v. 10) that is evoked not because one has transgressed a glorious and holy God but simply because one got caught. Worldly grief is essentially self-pity for having been exposed and having thus lost stature or favor in the eyes of men (not to mention money!). Godly grief is the sort that we see in Psalm 51:4 where David cried out, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”


We know the Corinthians were sincere in their sorrow because of the fruit it bore. They didn’t merely grieve, but thoroughly repented and thereby gave evidence that they were truly saved (v. 10a).


If they had formerly been apathetic and lackluster in their response to the apostle, now they are earnest (v. 11a) in their zeal to do what was right. If before they had denied their duplicity, this time they were eager “to clear” themselves (v. 11b), not wanting their failures to reflect poorly on Christ and the gospel. Paul’s letter, through the Spirit, had set ablaze an “indignation” (v. 11c) toward themselves for not defending Paul and for having permitted the situation to get so out of hand (and perhaps also against the wrongdoer for the way his actions constituted a brazen defiance of Paul’s authority).


Paul’s love, as reflected in the letter, awakened the “fear” (v. 11d) of God in their hearts, and perhaps even a little fear of Paul himself. He was, after all, an apostle of Christ, and they knew it. Their “longing” (v. 11e) for him and their “zeal” (v. 11f) for the joy of renewed fellowship were undeniable (cf. 2 Cor. 7:7). If this meant pursuing the “punishment” (v. 11g) or discipline of the guilty person who was ultimately responsible for the rift, so be it.


I suppose an interested observer might have taken note of the distress and discomfort of the Corinthians and simply assumed that they had been victimized by a cold and uncaring leader. If he truly loved them, or so they thought, he would have done whatever was necessary to spare them such suffering. Right? Well, no, I don’t think so.


Paul was more than willing to endure the heartache of their short-term discomfort if it yielded the fruit of long-term transformation and, eventually, eternal bliss.


“So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God” (v. 12). Here the letter’s purpose is being viewed retrospectively, in light of its effects. Let’s not forget that when Paul wrote the letter he was uncertain of how they would react. He was, according to his own testimony, restless (2 Cor. 2:13) and fearful (2 Cor. 7:5) about its outcome.


It would seem, then, that Paul is using a Semitic idiom in v. 12 in which a comparison (“not so much X, as Y,” or “not primarily X, but Y”) is stated as a blatant and unqualified contrast (“not X at all, but only Y”). For example, when God says “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6; quoted in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7) he doesn’t mean that he has no desire at all for sacrifice or burnt offerings but that he much prefers love and knowledge. Therefore, here in v. 12 “Paul is comparing two secondary purposes with his primary object that he recognized clearly in retrospect” (Harris, 545).


On the one hand, yes, he hoped the severe letter would stir them to apply discipline to the wrongdoer. And yes, he also intended that the letter would vindicate the person who had been wronged (which, by the way, was Paul himself). But exceeding these two aims was his desire to make clear to the Corinthians themselves, in the sight of God, that they were genuinely devoted to him. How they responded to the letter thus served as a measure or gauge of their affection for the apostle.


All told, it was initially an unpleasant experience for everyone concerned. But in the end, it yielded the harvest of repentance, restoration, and joy. Such is the nature and preeminent aim of tough love.