Healing Painful Relationships
Scriptures: II Corinthians 2:1-11; Romans 5:6-11
In the past I have shared theological insights from Calvin and Hobbes, but this morning I dug out of my files an old comic strip from Peanuts. In this strip Charlie Brown meets Linus and says, “Where have you been?” Linus says, “Church school. We’ve been studying the letters of the Apostle Paul.” You can already see the relevance of this. Charlie Brown says, “That should be interesting.” Linus says, “It is, although I must admit it makes me feel a little guilty. I always feel like I’m reading someone else’s mail.”
Which is part of the problem with II Corinthians. When studying II Corinthians, we are reading someone one else’s mail. Throughout the letter Paul refers to situations that the Corinthians know about but we don’t. We must infer what happened from Paul’s response.
In this case it appears that Paul and his ministry has come under attack. We get clues of what was said from the way Paul responds. For example, some called Paul wishy-washy for changing his mind about visiting them. We read about that last week. They also mocked his weak appearance and his unpolished speaking style. Paul mentions this later in chapter 10, verse 10, when he quotes one of their attacks against him: “They say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’” They mocked him for his appearance and speaking style. Above all, they challenged his credentials as an apostle. They point out that he was not one of Jesus’ original followers, and they question whether he is even Jewish, whether he is a legitimate descendant of Abraham, like the other apostles. Paul was in fact Jewish, but his opponents sowed doubt about this to undermine his credibility. They said things about Paul, including things that were not true, to undermine his authority and discredit his preaching.
This apparently happened during a “painful” visit Paul mentions in verse 1. He says to the Corinthians, “I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit,” implying that his last visit had been painful. Apparently Paul had been stung and hurt by things some of the people in Corinth had said about him. Even more he was hurt that the Corinthians as a whole allowed it to go on. The majority in the church stood by and said nothing while Paul’s character and credibility were savaged by a few discontents. So he cancelled his second visit to them, the one we read last week he had promised to make. He cancelled it to avoid another painful visit.
Which strikes me as one lesson we might learn from this scripture. Sometimes the first response to a painful situation should be to give yourself space from it, a chance for things to calm down and for you to get a little perspective. Being a follower of Jesus does not mean you must go on letting yourself be abused. Whether it is an abusive boss, an abusive neighbor, or an abusive family member, being a follower of Jesus does not mean you should sit there and take it. This helps neither you nor the abusive person. So Paul starts by giving himself a little space—a respite from the abusive situation.
But he does not stop there. He then writes a letter. He refers to this in verse 3: “And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice.” We don’t know for sure what he said in this letter, but if you want a taste of it, you can read II Corinthians chapters 10-13. Some Bible scholars think chapters 10-13 is an excerpt from this painful letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians. We don’t know that for sure, but whatever Paul wrote it was painful for him to say.
This is important. Paul did not write out of anger, he wrote out of anguish. Verse 4: “For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” Paul confronts the Corinthians not to punish them but to deal with the issues that are separating them.
Here is the second lesson in this scripture: The first response to a painful situation may be to give yourself space, but it cannot stop there. The second response should be to confront the abuse, not only for your sake but for the sake of the abuser.
One of the things I appreciate about the “Me, too” movement is not only that women are standing up for their dignity but that men are being confronted about behaviors that are wrong, that they need to change for their own sake. I hope the “Me, too” movement not only helps women to be the people God created them to be, but men, too.
Paul feels pain about his relationship to the Corinthians, but it is the pain of love, the pain of caring about a relationship.
In a sense God does not want to spare us from that kind of pain, because it is the same kind of pain God feels toward us when we turn away from God. God grieves when we turn away from God to live self-absorbed lives, because God knows we are hurting ourselves. When we live self-absorbed lives, oblivious or not caring about the hurt we do to others, then we are eroding our souls. God knows that, so God confronts us, as did the apostle Paul.
So what happened when Paul wrote his confrontational letter to the Corinthians? We are not told how it affected the offending people, but we are told that the majority in the church censured those who had been saying hurtful things about Paul. We know this, because in verse 6 Paul says, “This punishment by the majority is enough.” The word translated punishment is a Greek word that more commonly means to rebuke or censure. The Corinthians did not round up and beat the people who were disparaging Paul. They publicly rejected the hurtful things they said about Paul. Which as I mentioned earlier was Paul’s deepest concern. By their silence the majority in Corinth were allowing a minority to discredit Paul and by extension the gospel he proclaimed. But now by this public censure against the critics, they reaffirmed their relationship to Paul and their commitment to the gospel he proclaimed.
Which brings me to the third lesson in this scripture. In verse 7 Paul switches gears. He says, “So now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.”
Most Bible commentaries on this passage assume that Paul says this because the person or persons maligning Paul had repented of their actions. But it does not say that. Go back and look at this scripture carefully. Paul does not say that the offending person has repented; he says that the punishment or censure by the majority is enough. His concern is whether the majority of the Corinthians will reject this person’s slander and reaffirm their commitment to Jesus. That’s Paul’s concern. Having established that, Paul now invites them to be gracious—to give grace—toward the offending person in order to win him back.
Does the offending person come back? We don’t know. The text does not say. We cannot control what other people do. The Bible does not promise that confronting people and seeking reconciliation will always work. It doesn’t always work. The other person may not want to be reconciled.
Nevertheless, the Bible tells us to try. Why? Because that is what God has done for us. Our first scripture reading says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus’ unjust death confronted us with the depth of own injustice and wrongdoing, while also opening the door to healing and reconciliation. Now it is up to us whether we will walk through that door. So it is with our painful relationships to others. We can confront the wrong and open the door to healing, but we can’t control how the other person will respond.
But even in the process of confronting and offering grace, there is a certain healing that happens to us—no matter how the other person responds. When we confront a painful relationship out of love rather than anger, and when we open a door to reconciliation, we allow a certain healing to happen in us, even if the other person wants no part of it. It is the healing that happens when we finally let go of a hurt, knowing we have done what we could about it, so that God’s grace can bathe the wound.