“For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears;
not so that you would be made sorrowful,
but that you might know the love which I have especially for you.”
– 2 Corinthians 2:4 –
When Paul wrote this verse, false teachers claiming to be apostles had infiltrated the church of Corinth and aimed to discredit Paul’s legitimacy as an apostle. The controversy led Paul to change his travel plans and visit the Corinthians ahead of schedule, as he hoped he could put the matter to rest by being there personally. But when Paul arrived in Corinth, one of the men in the church openly flouted Paul’s authority and insulted him before the whole church. To make matters worse, rather than coming to Paul’s defense and defending the Gospel that he preached, the Corinthians were taken in by this false teaching, and allowed this man’s sin to go unchecked.
After this “sorrowful visit,” Paul returned immediately to Ephesus and wrote them a severe letter, sternly rebuking them for failing to deal with sin in the church properly, and for straying from his apostolic teaching and message. In the verse quoted above, Paul explains the circumstances in which and the motivation for why he wrote the Corinthians his severe letter. And there is a pastoral lesson for all of us in the church who give and receive correction to our brothers and sisters.
This verse teaches us that Paul’s severe letter wasn’t just some sort of retaliatory catharsis, where he was venting his frustrations on the Corinthians to make himself feel better. It wasn’t because he was too much of a coward to be so forthright with them in person. It wasn’t because he was trying to be a domineering tyrant, seeking to intimidate the Corinthians into siding with him. It was so that his love for them would be made manifest. And his love for them would be made manifest when they considered what extraordinarily unpleasant lengths he was willing to go to in order to protect them from the damning effects of sin and false teaching.
He’s basically saying, “Dear friends, don’t think it was easy for me to write that letter to you. Despite what the false apostles are telling you, don’t think I took some perverse delight in confronting you like that. My Corinthians, I tell you: it was out of much affliction and anguish of heart that I wrote to you—and with many tears! I had no desire to make you sorrowful. I don’t love conflict. Frankly, it would have been much easier for me to avoid the situation entirely! But dear brothers and sisters, I love you all too much to abandon you to damning doctrines of the false apostles for the sake of avoiding difficult conversations! I love you all too much to not confront you about your sin.” Paul’s love was a sharpening love.
Love is Bold
And I want to draw out two brief lines of application from this verse. First, the love that a faithful minister has for his people requires him to be bold enough to confront sin in their lives. You see, the watered-down, wishy-washy, sentimentalized version of “love” that is propagated by our self-indulgent, perennially-adolescent culture—and sadly which has been imbibed even in the professing church—is little more than Carl Rogers’ notion of unconditional positive regard. To “love” someone, according to our society, is to affirm every decision they make and to applaud them just for being them. In fact, there is nothing more hateful, according to our corrupt culture, than to tell someone they’re wrong, and that they need to change in some considerable way in order to be pleasing to God. But this is precisely what love demands.
I can’t imagine being an oncologist. Having to tell patients, day in and day out, that the scan revealed they had cancer, and that any hope of their survival requires them to endure exhausting treatments of radiation and painful surgery. It can’t be easy to inflict that kind of emotional burden on people day after day. In fact, I think it would be much easier for the oncologist to tell his patients that they don’t have cancer—that all is well! But surely that would not be loving. Why? Because the disease will go untreated, and will eventually kill the patient.
The same is true in the church. Discernment properly identifies sin for the cancer that it is. And love constrains us to have the difficult conversations with our brothers and sisters, in which we lovingly explain that, though they might not be aware of it, they’ve got spiritual cancer, and they need to do something about it before it ravages their soul. Sure, it’s easier to ignore sin in one another. It’s easier to not have people call you judgmental, and arrogant, and holier-than-thou because you’ve brought sin to their attention. It’s easier to avoid resolving that conflict with your brother; in a big church like the one I attend, you can just pretend they don’t even exist! It’s easier to write people off and terminate relationships. But dear friends: that is not ministry. That is not love. The loving servant of Christ’s flock is willing to endure all manner of difficulty for the sake of one another’s mortification of sin and joy in Jesus. Proverbs 27:6: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” because those wounds work in the soul a godly sorrow that produces repentance leading to salvation, 2 Corinthians 7:9–10.
Love is Brokenhearted
And secondly, love requires not only that the faithful minister be bold in his confrontation of sin. Love also requires that that boldness be a brokenhearted boldness. Paul says he wrote “out of much affliction and anguish of heart” and “with many tears.” Paul’s preeminent reaction to the sin of the Corinthians wasn’t one of vexation or exasperation. He wasn’t just annoyed at them. He was grieved to the heart for them. He didn’t rebuke them because their sin made him mad. He rebuked them because his heart broke for them. He knew where the end of the road they were traveling led: it led to apostasy; it led to condemnation. And he couldn’t stand to think that those whom he loved so much might be severed from the Christ who is their indomitable joy and go into the torment of eternal punishment.
See, the faithful minister is courageous enough to get over his fear of what people might say or do to him if he confronts them over their sin. But that same faithful minister also takes no perverse delight in delivering that correction. And we need to be on guard against that, because our hearts will deceive us into thinking we’re stalwarts for righteousness, when really we’re just hard people looking to beat up on others so that we don’t have to deal with the sin in our own lives.
Calvin said, “It is the part of a pious pastor, to weep within himself, before he calls upon others to weep: to feel tortured in silent musings, before he shows any token of displeasure; and to keep within his own breast more grief, than he cause to others” (148). We must be bold to confront, but that boldness must be a brokenhearted boldness. It must be sorrow—not exasperation—that drives us to confront sin in our brothers and sisters. And they should be able to tell the difference.
May our love be a sharpening love, friends. Let us be a people, unafraid to deal with sin in each other’s lives—driven by a brokenhearted boldness that labors for the church’s holiness.