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When Christians Misunderstand Christians (2 Cor. 1:12-2:4)

No one enjoys being misunderstood or having their motives called into question. We can get fairly feisty when others question our integrity in this way, especially if we know in the depths of our heart that we intended only good.

We are all by nature defensive, but there are different ways of going about vindicating our reputation or explaining our aim. All too often we react, rather than respond, and do so in anger and bitterness at those who’ve dared to express doubts about our sincerity. No one modeled godly “self-defense” more clearly and consistently than the apostle Paul, and nowhere is it seen more explicitly than in this paragraph that closes the first chapter of 2 Corinthians.

Paul had numerous enemies in Corinth, men who were determined to criticize his every move and undermine the confidence of the church in his apostolic credentials. Here in this paragraph we detect at least three accusations brought against him: (1) against his conduct in v. 12; (2) against his correspondence in vv. 13-14; and (3) against his course of travel in 1:15-2:4.

I want to skip the first two of these and focus on the third. After doing so I’ll return to this paragraph in subsequent meditations to address other matters raised by Paul that are profitable for us today.

It’s important to understand the actual sequence of events as a framework for making sense of Paul’s response to his critics.

Contrary to the accusations of his opponents, Paul's change of itinerary was not because he was fickle or unstable, far less because he cared little for the Corinthians but only for himself; indeed, he changed his plans for their sake.

Paul had hoped to visit the Corinthians twice: first, on his way to Macedonia, and second, on his way back from Macedonia (see vv. 15-16). This changed, however, when Timothy arrived in Corinth bearing the letter we know as First Corinthians and discovered how bad things were. Upon hearing of this, Paul immediately made an urgent visit to Corinth, a visit that was confrontational, as well as humiliating and bitter for him (cf. 2:1). Paul quickly returned to Ephesus and determined not to make another painful visit to Corinth. Therefore, he called off the double stop he had earlier planned. It was this alteration in his plans that opened him up to the charge of being fickle and unstable.

Paul's apparently arbitrary change of plans, they insisted, was motivated by self-interest and a lack of concern for the Corinthians themselves. He is charged with making plans like a worldly man, according to the mood of the moment (see vv. 17-18).

James Denney explains what Paul must have been feeling:

“Am I . . . in my character and conduct, like a shifty, unprincipled politician – a man who has no convictions, or no conscience about his convictions – a man who is guided, not by any higher spirit dwelling in him, but solely by considerations of selfish interest? Do I say things out of mere compliment, not meaning them? When I make promises, or announce intentions, is it always with the tacit reservation that they may be canceled if they turn out inconvenient? Do you suppose that I purposely represent myself . . . as a man who affirms and denies, makes promises and breaks them, has ‘Yes, yes, and No, no,’ dwelling side by side in his soul? You know me far better than to suppose any such thing. All my communications with you have been inconsistent with such a view of my character. As God is faithful, our word to you is not Yes and No. It is not incoherent. . . . It is entirely self-consistent” (37-38).

I’ll return to vv. 19-22 in a later meditation, but here I only take note of Paul’s vigorous denial that he is a man given to vacillation and insensitive disregard for the people entrusted to his care. He’s not the sort who says “Yes” one moment, only to reverse himself on some inexplicable, self-serving whim and then declare “No”.

Paul is a man of his word, as is the God whom he loves and serves (v. 18a). The Father doesn’t assure us of some great blessing, only to withdraw it, without justification, to serve his own interests. When God makes a promise to his people, he fulfills it in Christ. This, says Paul, is the pattern and principle on which I’ve based my ministry to you Corinthians. One can almost hear him say, no doubt with great energy and passion: “How could I possibly preach to you the good news of a God who always acts with your best interests at heart and never fails to fulfill his promises, and then turn around and treat you with utter disregard by behaving in a double-minded and self-serving way?”

Of course, in the final analysis Paul cares little what they think of him so long as they put their trust wholly in Christ. It may even be that Paul is telling them here, “If you refuse to believe me, at least remember the truth and consistency of my message concerning God’s gracious work in you through his Son. You may consider me untrustworthy, but you can hardly question the veracity and fidelity of God as revealed in Jesus. And ultimately it is only with the latter that I’m concerned.”

In any case, Paul will again insist in the remainder of this paragraph (1:23-2:4) that he made his decision based on his undying love for the Corinthians, his concern for their spiritual welfare, and, above all, for the sake of their joy in Jesus (see esp. v. 24).

As I said earlier, we’ll return to these verses in a subsequent meditation, but here I want to identify several important lessons for us in the way Paul dealt with this church.

First, don't be quick to "read between the lines." Unless past indiscretions or the preponderance of evidence indicate otherwise, trust your Christian friends. Give them the benefit of the doubt when they say they are sincere (vv. 13-14).

Second, don't always look for some ulterior and sinister motive in what others do simply because things did not turn out the way you wanted them to (vv. 15-16).

Third, if someone has proven himself faithful and devoted in the past, don't be quick to believe accusations brought against him by an outsider. Be patient and give him an opportunity to explain himself. In other words, don't jump to conclusions, for it just may be the case that you are the one at fault (vv. 17,23).

Fourth, don't become frustrated or withdraw yourself from other Christians if they should prove fickle or unfaithful. Ultimately, your trust and dependence are not in them anyway, but in Christ who never fails (vv. 19-22).

Fifth, and finally, even if it means suffering unjustly and being slandered, avoid unnecessary confrontations. Don't be too quick to vindicate yourself. Be willing to endure what you don't deserve for the sake of peace in the body of Christ. The opportunity to clear your name will eventually come (v. 23).