“Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm. 1But I determined this for my own sake, that I would not come to you in sorrow again. 2For if I cause you sorrow, who then makes me glad but the one whom I made sorrowful? 3This is the very thing I wrote you, so that when I came, I would not have sorrow from those who ought to make me rejoice; having confidence in you all that my joy would be the joy of you all.”
– 2 Corinthians 1:24–2:3 –
Paul is elaborating on what he said in 2 Corinthians 1:23—that it was to spare the Corinthians that he postponed his second visit to them, because he didn’t want a repeat of a his painful visit. He didn’t want to come before they had time to repent, and then have to come with the rod and punish unrepentant sin. That, he says, would not have tended to their joy (cf. 2 Cor 1:24).
But in the first three verses of chapter 2, we learn that, though Paul’s change in travel plans was out of consideration for the Corinthians first of all, they weren’t the only ones he was trying to spare from sorrow. Notice the repeated emphasis in these three verses again: “But I determined this for my own sake, that I would not come to you in sorrow again. For if I cause you sorrow, who then makes me glad but the one whom I made sorrowful? This is the very thing I wrote you, so that when I came, I would not have sorrow from those who ought to make me rejoice.”
Is Paul being selfish? He’s just repeating over and over again that his concern is that he would not be made sorrowful, and that he would not lose his means of gladness. Unless Paul has gone absolutely crazy, and has entirely forgotten what he’s trying to accomplish as he’s writing—namely, to convince the Corinthians of his love for them—and is now finally letting down his guard and showing his true colors that he’s just a self-seeking manipulator—unless that’s what’s happening here (and it’s not), what we learn from this passage is that there is a way to pursue your own joy and, at the same time, love people. And that is when you pursue your joy in their joy—when you seek the happiness of others as your happiness. True, biblical love consists in the sharing of mutual joy—of seeking one another’s joy as one’s own.
Charles Hodge really captures the way Paul is reasoning here. He writes, “If I came to you with a rod of discipline, I knew that that would cause you sorrow. And how can I be happy, if you are afflicted? Unless my visit cause you joy, it can bring no joy to me (407).” Philip Edgcumbe Hughes says, “The sense of this verse is that [Paul] cannot be made glad by those whom he has made sorry; for their sorrow is his sorrow, just as their joy is his joy” (53). Charles Hodge says again, “Such was the apostle’s love for the Corinthians that unless they were happy he could not be happy” (407). Such was the apostle’s love.
You see, friends, biblical love is not disinterested benevolence. True biblical love is not merely stone-faced self-sacrifice, no matter the cost. The point of love is not that the lover should go without some particular good things. The point of love is that the lover must do whatever needs to be done to secure those good things for his beloved. Love is not chiefly about our abstinence; it’s about our beloved’s happiness.
One of the best illustrations of this truth that I’ve ever heard is John Piper’s “Roses for Noel” illustration (see point 5 here).Here’s my version of it.
Imagine, gentlemen, that it’s Valentine’s Day, and you come home to your wife with a beautiful bouquet of a dozen red roses. She sees you with the roses, her eyes light up, she smiles ear to ear, and she throws her arms around your neck, and says, “Oh honey, they’re beautiful! Thank you so much!”
What’s your response? “Yeah, don’t mention it.” You’re just disinterested. “Sure thing. Just doing my husbandly duty.”
Is that loving?
Why not? Love is an action, right? You’ve dutifully performed the action of buying your wife roses for Valentine’s Day. Love is self-sacrifice, right? You left work early, drove 30 miles away to the best florist you knew of, so you could find the most beautiful roses you could get your hands on. How is that not love?
Because love is more than an action! Love is more than self-sacrifice! Love is seeking your joy in one another’s joy!
What’s the loving response at the doorstep, when your wife thanks you for the flowers? It’s taking her in your arms, smiling back at her, and saying, “Sweetheart, it is my pleasure. Nothing makes me happier than to see you happy.” Which one of you, ladies, is going to call your husband selfish because he seeks his happiness in your happiness? Not one of you! Why? Because even if we’re not always perfectly conscious of it, we understand that love is having someone else’s joy so inextricably bound up with your own joy, that your heart as it were envelops their own heart—that their happiness is what sustains your happiness.
This is the love that Paul had for the Corinthians. Their joy is his joy. And then at the end of verse 3 he says, “. . . having confidence in you all that my joy would be the joy of you all.” In other words, “Dear Corinthians, your joy is my joy. I’m happy when you’re happy. And everything in me is hoping that my joy would be your joy as well—that what would bring you the greatest delight is not my grief and my sorrow, but my joy.”
What a beautiful picture of true, Christian love! My prayer is that the Spirit of God would so work true, biblical love in the hearts of His people, that I would pursue your good as my good, that you would seek your joy in my joy—that God’s people would seek our happiness in one another’s happiness. Do you know what would happen then? Sacrificial, life-laid-down ministry to one another in the body of Christ would go from merely being our duty, to being our delight. Difficult, inconvenient service to our brothers and sisters wouldn’t just be something we know we ought to do and will feel guilty for if we don’t do it. It would be our joy; it would be our meat and our drink. Then needs would get met. Then the body of Christ would truly minister to one another.
Then the love of Jesus would be on display to a watching world.