To Spend and Be Spent for Others (2 Cor. 12:14-18)
I have to admit that at times I find myself losing patience with the Corinthians. In more honest moments, I'm flat out sick of them. Although centuries removed and without ever having met them, I still find them more than a little intolerable. How Paul was able to endure their ingratitude and arrogance, not to mention their suspicion of his integrity and intentions, is beyond me.
Here again, in vv. 14-18, we encounter yet another inexcusable and groundless charge against the apostle. Some were accusing Paul of being "crafty" (v. 16a) and using "deceit" (v. 16b) to take advantage of them financially. Although Paul had refused to exercise his apostolic right to be supported by them, they now insist that he surreptitiously used his co-workers to pad his pocket. The charge, apparently, was that Paul had stood on high moral ground up front to make it appear that Titus and "the brother" (v. 18) had come to Corinth to organize the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, when in fact they were there only to ensure that the money, through the "back door", so to speak, ended up in his own hands. In brief, the Corinthians had come to believe "that Paul's fiscal independence was a cunning front that masked his financial corruption" (Carson, 161).
Here's how he describes it:
"Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit. Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps?" (2 Cor. 12:14-18).
As you can see, I've started at the close of the paragraph and moved backwards. It's important that we understand the baseless accusation in vv. 16-18 before we focus on the pastoral response in vv. 14-15.
Paul makes it clear that when he arrives for the third time in Corinth his financial policy will be the same as it has been on his previous two visits. The word translated "burden" in v. 14 means to grow numb under a heavy weight. "While the Corinthians looked on Paul's refusal of support as a personal injustice, he saw it as an opportunity to relieve his children of the undue weight of his daily needs" (Belleville, 316).
Unlike the false apostles, he doesn't want their money or their possessions. His only concern is for their spiritual welfare. He wants them, which is to say, their continued allegiance and love, first to Christ and then to himself. We need to pause for a moment and reflect on the profound spiritual implications of two statements, the first in v. 14, and the second in v. 15. Here they are. Note them well:
"I seek not what is yours, but you" (v. 14).
"I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls" (v. 15).
Let me address each of them in turn.
First, and without wanting to exaggerate or sound melodramatic, it grieves me to say that many in pastoral ministry today have reversed Paul's perspective. People have become to them a means to a material end. If compelled to reveal their most fundamental motive, they would concede, "I seek what is yours, not you." Fame is their aim. Power is their purpose. People are viewed as a resource for financial gain. Ministry, so-called, has degenerated into pragmatic manipulation to enhance their physical comforts and elevate their social standing.
I doubt there is anything I could say that would persuade those who are thus inclined to change their behavior. But perhaps this expression of Paul's can serve as a daily reminder to all others and a standard by which we measure our motives and deeds. As we set our agendas, cast our vision, schedule our days, prepare our sermons, and relate to those whom God has entrusted to our care, let us ever and always ask: "Am I seeking them, their souls, their greatest good, their deepest delight in God and greatest joy in Jesus? Or do I see them as a burden, an inconvenience, a mere rung on the ladder for my personal ascent to higher acclaim, recognition, and prosperity?"
The second of Paul's declarations is even more stunning: "I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls" (v. 15). Ministry is costly. There is a high price to pay, whether financially, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. And this applies no less to the average Christian than to those in full time vocational work. The untimely phone call at home. The intrusive appearance at the office. The inordinate demands on time and energy. And all this, at least in Paul's case, for ungrateful people, unfaithful people, people who actually loved Paul "less" for his having loved them "more" (v. 15)!
And what of his response? Was he resentful for the imposition on his time and effort? Was he angry at unrequited love? Was he bitter that so few were thankful for all he had given? Did he wallow in self pity for the injustice endured? It would appear not.
There's no doubt that Paul was frustrated by their failure to reciprocate his love for them. They tested the limits of his patience and pressed him to the brink of despair. But his compassion never waned. His devotion never faltered. However, it's one thing to "spend and be spent" for the sake of others. It's quite another to do so "most gladly". So how did he do it? If asked, I suspect he would have responded with the words he wrote to the Colossians: "For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me" (Col. 1:29).
I will expend and be utterly expended for you! I will pour out and be poured out for your sakes! All his energy, whatever money he possessed, even his very life, he gladly and with profound delight devotes to the goal of bringing them to maturity in faith and the sanctifying knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But is this possible for anyone other than an apostle? By all means! There's no indication this kind of love was tied to any particular spiritual gift or office. Still, though, to give gladly with no expectation of getting, to serve sincerely without the assurance of being served, strikes us as entirely out of reach. We'll happily expend ourselves for the sake of others, but only so long as we know they will acknowledge our efforts and be quick to replenish what we've poured out.
To what, then, do we attribute Paul's enduring love? Was there a spiritual secret to which only he was privy? Our difficulty here undoubtedly comes from thinking that ceaseless compassion and service and humility left him somehow depleted or in lack. But so long as he drew on the "fullness of joy" (Ps. 16:11) available in Christ Jesus, he suffered no loss. If the in-flow is unending, the out-flow poses no threat. Paul drew from a deep well of satisfaction in Christ and ministered faithfully in the strength of its overflow.
As far as Paul was concerned, this was only natural, for as their spiritual father (cf. 1 Cor. 4:14-15) it was his responsibility to provide for them, not theirs to provide for him (v. 14). We should be careful, however, that this illustration is not elevated to an unqualified absolute or made universal in its application, for there are several notable exceptions. Paul himself received financial support from some of his spiritual children (Phil. 4:15-16; 1 Cor. 9:3-9, 13-14; see especially 2 Cor. 11:8-9). Furthermore, in 1 Timothy 5:8 "he requires believers to provide for the needs . . . of their own families, which would include, in certain circumstances (cf. Mark 7:9-13), the care of parents by children" (Harris, 884). His point, then, is that it is not normally the case that children provide for their parents, but parents for their children.
Of greatest concern and practical importance for us today is the revelation in this passage of the heart of Christian love and ministry. In the face of ingratitude and injustice, Paul labors all the more fervently for the sake of God's people. And again, he does so "most gladly"! Not with grumbling or muttering or unspoken disdain for their having put him in such unpleasant circumstances, but with true, sincere, heartfelt joy he expends himself for their sakes. Shall we do less? We dare not.