There’s hardly anything more painful and disheartening than being misunderstood. I can’t begin to imagine what Jesus must have felt each time the religious leaders twisted his words into something he never intended or misinterpreted his motives or impugned his character, attributing to him ideas or aims foreign to his heart.
The apostle Paul was another who often experienced this kind of misunderstanding. His actions often ran counter to the cultural norms of his day, not least of which was his refusal to accept remuneration from any church in which he was at that time ministering (although he had every right to be supported by them, as he makes clear in 1 Corinthians 9:3-18).
Here in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul refers explicitly to being the object of this sort of unwarranted misinterpretation. He has acknowledged that he does not follow the ways of the false teachers in Corinth who parade their “outward appearance” as grounds for boasting (v. 12; would that our Christian leaders and TV personalities might hear and heed this word!). This inevitably exposed Paul to accusations that he was out of his mind, although in the final analysis he couldn’t have cared less what they thought of him. That is why here, in the flow of his argument, he declares,
“For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you” (2 Cor. 5:13).
Paul’s point is that self-interest simply doesn’t factor into his decisions or behavior. If he is judged irrational or insane, that is between him and God. If he is considered rational and astute, it is for the welfare of others. But before I go any further, a comment is in order about Paul’s choice of terms in this text.
The word translated "beside ourselves" is exestemen. It is used nowhere else by Paul, but is found in Mark 3:21 where it is used of Jesus! There we read, “And when his family heart it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’” This word is also used in the NT as an expression of amazement (see Mt. 12:23; Mark 2:12; Luke 8:56; Acts 2:7,12; 8:13; 9:21; 10:45; 12:16).
Paul’s statement has thus been interpreted in a number of ways. Some argue that his critics were insisting that he was a victim of religious mania; that he had lost his senses, a criticism that may have been due to certain doctrines he proposed. You may recall at his trial that Festus declared “with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind’” (Acts 26:24). Of course, Paul’s response was to say, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words” (Acts 26:25).
This charge may also have been provoked by the apostle’s “indefatigable zeal and tireless work (cf. 6:4-5; 11:23-28)” (Harris, 417), his unbridled passion for Jesus and the extreme physical and emotional abuse to which he willingly exposed himself for the sake of the gospel (see 2 Cor. 4:7-18; 6:4-10; etc.). Perhaps his opponents in Corinth thought Paul too eccentric for their own tastes, preferring instead someone who would diligently uphold the norms of social propriety. Paul, quite simply, lacked those social graces they regarded as essential for a true apostle.
Another option is that Paul is referring to exaggerated behavior in his past which he now repudiates. His point would be that however extreme or bizarre his actions may have been, God knows they were well-meant and sincere.
A final option is that Paul has in view here his own personal experience of what some have called “religious ecstasy” or “spiritual elation”. Included would be his consistent and unapologetic practice of praying in tongues, for which he gives God profound thanks (1 Cor. 14:18; although be it noted that tongues is nowhere described as “ecstatic” in the NT), as well as his many dreams, visions, and trances (see Acts 16:6-10; 18:9-22; 22:17). Some would also point to his having been caught up into the third heaven, as he will later describe in 2 Corinthians 12:1ff.
In the final analysis, it matters little which view is embraced. What is important is that in the immediately preceding verse (v. 12), Paul distanced himself from those who were obsessed with “outward appearance,” which is to say, they took pride in their credentials and wanted to be perceived as “having it all together.”
Paul, on the other hand, put no stock in such claims. For him, it was solely a matter of “the heart” (v. 12b), of inward integrity and sincerity in conduct. That his behavior may well have appeared bizarre, extreme, and outlandish by the standards of most was of no concern to him. If his conduct evoked charges of being crazy, he was willing to live with it, so long as God was honored.
His point is that all he does is either for the glory of God or for the spiritual welfare of other believers. He simply does not take himself into consideration. No matter what his state of mind may be, self promotion does not factor into his aims or activities. “If he had visionary experiences – on which his opponents prided themselves – they were moments of intimacy between God and himself, and not to be paraded as flamboyant claims” (Martin, 127). If, on the other hand, he appears right-minded and rational, that is for the sake of the Corinthians themselves and their spiritual edification. But nothing is done with himself in view, even though he may be the victim of unjustified caricature.
Let’s return now to what’s most important for us to learn from the apostle in this passage. If God is being honored and exalted, what difference does it make what others may think? Our value as individuals is not suspended on the approval of religious elites. Paul had two primary concerns, neither of which was his own reputation. He cared only that God be honored in his life and that other Christians be edified by his ministry.
So, how do you respond to unwarranted criticism? What reaction is evoked when your motives are misinterpreted? Is either your life or ministry dependent on the approval of men or do you seek God’s favor alone? Whether we are maligned as madmen or eulogized for our eloquence, our aim should be the glory of God and the good of his people. Nothing else matters.