Caricatures are hard to shake. Once people have an image of someone indelibly printed in their minds, not even the facts can dislodge it. As a student of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) I've seen this first hand. Ask the man on the street (or even the person in the pew) about Edwards and they'll immediately mention his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" and how stern, negative, and condemning a personality he must have been. Of course, anyone who has spent time reading Edwards knows he was nothing of the sort. But the image is probably here to stay.
Much the same is true when it comes to the apostle Paul. His sharp theological mind, together with his unflinching and uncompromising stand for truth, have contributed to an image of him as a relationally stunted, remote, ivory tower pinhead who had little time and even less compassion for people and their problems. I trust that as you've read through 2 Corinthians with me you've come to see how much of a distortion this is and how it fails to grasp the true heart of this deeply passionate and profoundly tender-hearted man of God.
Take, for example, this concluding statement following the list of his many sufferings:
"And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?" (2 Cor. 11:28-29).
Before we look at this text, a word of application is in order on the front end. Don't read this passage as if it were relevant only for Christian leaders, whether apostles or pastors or elders in the local church. The heart here revealed ought to beat within the chest of every follower of Jesus. The affection and passion for the body of Christ so evident in Paul, as well as the whole-souled commitment to the spiritual welfare of other believers, is something for which all of us must aim and labor. More on this as we proceed.
The opening phrase, "apart from other things" (v. 28a), is one that few people would stop and notice, yet it is highly instructive. It alerts us to the fact that the many expressions of hardship and deprivation cited in the previous paragraph (vv. 22-27) are only a sampling of what Paul endured! These are representative or illustrative and by no means exhaustive of the afflictions he suffered in the discharge of his apostolic ministry. Wow.
The way in which these two verses bring the list of adversities to a close suggests that what Paul is about to say constitutes the pinnacle of his apostolic burden. Floggings and hunger and shipwreck and imprisonment are far more tolerable, in his mind, than the weight of concern he feels for the spiritual welfare of his converts.
But doesn't Paul's "anxiety" (v. 28) for the churches violate our Lord's command that we "not be anxious" (Mt. 6:25-34)? Could it be that Paul is here confessing a failure to live up to his own counsel that we "not be anxious about anything" (Phil. 4:6)? No.
We need to remember that the alternative to anxiety in our Lord's teaching is to "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" (Mt. 6:33a). The emotional burden and distress Paul has in view is precisely due to his singular and whole-hearted pursuit of God's kingdom! He is not filled with anxiety about whether he will endure another imprisonment or beating but rather is concerned with the on-going spiritual struggles of others whom he dearly loves. Seeking the righteousness of God's kingdom means doing the very thing Paul is doing: laboring for the restoration of the Corinthians to a godly lifestyle and feeling "a divine jealousy" (2 Cor. 11:2) for the robust and pure devotion of their hearts to Jesus. Paul's "anxiety" had nothing to do with what he might "eat" or "drink" or "wear" (Mt. 6:31) but with the progressive conformity to the image of Christ in the lives of those he loved.
There are two specific concerns that weighed heavily and constantly on Paul's heart. First, he asks, "who is weak, and I am not weak?" (v. 29a). This word translated "weak" is used in a variety of ways in the NT and we can't be dogmatic about the sense in which Paul employs it here. It could be a reference to the physical weakness of certain saints that evoked in him the same distress he felt for Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:26-27). Others see here psychological or emotional weakness, perhaps fearfulness or timidity or the oppressive burden of responsibilities in life or a lack of boldness in the living out of one's faith in Christ.
A good case could be made for the kind of weakness Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 8:7-13 and Romans 14. In the former he speaks of the believer whose "conscience is weak" (1 Cor. 8:10) and in the latter of the sort "who is weak in faith" (Rom. 14:1). In other words, some believers have simply failed to grasp the meaning and implications of their liberty in Christ. They still walk in fearful bondage to rules and regulations that have no bearing on their standing with God. They are regenerate, but are inclined to violate their own conscience in following the behavior of Christians who are more mature and enjoy the freedom that is theirs in Christ.
That said, Carson is probably on the mark in arguing that "weakness" refers "to a lack of strength in any respect. Paul is talking about Christians who for some reason have been brought to a spiritual low point, and who seem to have no reserves of strength to overcome temptation, doubt, seduction, and opposition, or to get on with the business of discipleship" (124). Needless to say, the triumphalism of the false apostles would lead to the despising of such weakness and disqualify them from any meaningful pastoral empathy.
Paul's second concern is with those who are "made to fall" (v. 29) or are led into sin. How different we are today. When we receive news of someone's lapse or moral failure or doctrinal error we quickly pass it along in a text message or post it on a blog or inwardly gloat over the fact that we wouldn't be "caught dead" doing any such thing.
Paul's reaction? Burning indignation! What was your response upon hearing that someone in a church other than your own had stumbled? "I-told-you-so" arrogance? Or "there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I" humility? How did you feel when news broke of a well-known pastor leaving his wife? Indifferent? Self-righteous? Disdainful? Or broken-hearted? To what did it lead? Gossip? Embarrassment? Or intercession?
This deeply felt and undeniably emotional rage in the apostle's heart probably had a two-fold focus. On the one hand was his personal sadness and distress that a fellow believer had tripped up. He undoubtedly thought of the individual's welfare as well as the dishonor that such sin would bring to the name of Christ. But his rage was no less directed at whoever was responsible for leading one of the Lord's "little ones" (Mt. 18:6) astray. He had previously issued stern warnings to those who might "put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother" (Rom. 14:13).
Yes, Paul was an apostle, called and commissioned of Christ. Yes, he was a theologian of the highest possible caliber. But he was first and foremost a pastor, a lover of souls, a man consumed with care for the flock of God. Carson pegs him:
"Here is no mere professional, running a superb organization from the comfort of a well-appointed, air-conditioned office, but a pastor attuned to the needs of even the least brother for whom Christ died. Organization and competent administration there are, as a close study of the comings and goings of Paul's numerous assistants reveals; nevertheless, this apostolic ministry is not discharged with aloof detachment, but with flaming zeal, profound compassion, evangelistic fervor, and a father's heart. Paul engages all his considerable intellectual and emotional power in his ministry to the whole church. Such an approach bears fruit; but it takes its toll in energy consumed and in deep involvement with people" (124).
Earlier I suggested that this approach to life and ministry and the love of people is not something reserved for the ordained alone. We are all members of the same body, dependent on the health and welfare of each other, and thus committed, as Paul, to the continued growth of the church and the many who comprise it. May God help us all to help us all!