2nd Corinthians 7:2 - 12
When we think of trials, testing and tribulations, we generally set those things in a context, and that context is usually our own interests. We may get a variety of emphases in our interests, such as maturity or perseverance or patience, but we are pretty much sure that the things we are suffering are designed by God to increase one of those traits in us. There is nothing wrong with that idea, as long as we see it in a certain light. The danger is not that the idea is wrong, that God is not really using our trials and tribulations to make us mature. The danger lies in limiting God’s actions and purposes to those things we can see and, at least to a limited extent, understand. I can see and understand that being seated on an airplane next to an uncontrolled toddler will give me a chance to develop some patience. But it is simple-minded in the extreme to think that God has arranged the cosmos simply to give me a character-building incident on a 737 headed for Chicago without taking into consideration many other things.
In our text today we have a pretty complex set of tribulations, trials, sins, rebellion, repentance and forgiveness. It would make a good opera. But it is also a lot like life. Nothing is ever as simple as we would like it to be. Paul found out that a man in the Corinthian church was living with his step-mother and sent a very strongly worded letter to the Corinthians about the situation. They saw the error of their ways and repented. Paul had apparently delivered his letter through Titus, who saw their repentance and found Paul and his party in Macedonia to give Paul the Corinthians’ reply. We know from his other writings that Paul was anxious to see Titus and had waited for him at Troas and then in Macedonia. His concern was for two things. First, he calls Titus his brother and was simply concerned about him and his long absence. Travel in those days was always hazardous, with storms and robbers and murderers ending many a journey. But he was also concerned that the message he had given the Corinthians had been too strong for them. It appears as though he suffered from a little “Send Button” anxiety.
In verses 2 – 4 we get a glimpse of his fear for them. One of the dangers of being the one that the Lord uses to point out a sin in your brother is your brother can react very negatively. Corinth had a number of influences at work in her. They would tell the Corinthians that Paul was all sweetness and light when he was there in person, but all tough guy when he wrote to them. They would say that he was just trying to get money out of them or influence over them. Paul does not deny that he hit them pretty darn hard, but he also says that he boasts of them pretty darn hard, too. This is one way to be able to discern the nature of the relationship you might have with an elder: is there care that is expressed? My mom used to tell me that if you listened to my dad at work, you would think he had the greatest kids in the world. However, the message was slightly different at home, but that is because he was the one who had to discipline us when we went astray.
So this is the context in which the correction of God came to the Corinthians. Sin had sprung up among them and they winked at it instead of condemning it. They had obviously welcomed the correction, the trial, because Titus was filled with encouragement for Paul. Their repentance brought joy to Paul not because he had won, but rather because they had corrected their course. His concern was for them and their repentance.
On the other hand, the context in which Paul’s tribulation came had nothing to do with his own sin. He was buffeted by the storms and the robbers and the crowds stoning and beating him. He was cold and hungry and naked. On top of that was the concern that felt for Titus and for the Corinthians and for all of the other churches he had worked so hard to get set up. Does that mean that Paul did not need the tribulations? Of course not. Jesus faced tribulations and there was nothing in him that needed to be corrected. We do not come to maturity without trials and tribulations.
But, how do we tell the difference between trials that come as the result of our sin and trials that come as the result of God’s simple providence? And how do we tell the difference between those things that are happening with us as their focus and those that would take place if we had never been born? These are excellent questions and the answer is, of course, that it depends. It depends on the covenantal relationships that exist for one thing.
In a church, the elders take a vow to protect the flock. Their trials will come along lines that intersect with their responsibility. By that I mean that the high maintenance costs for a Lamborghini will not have much to do with the trials and tribulations most elders will face. Instead they will be like what we saw Paul facing in Macedonia: robberies, beatings, storms and hunger all while he feared for Titus and the Corinthians. Church members can cause trials for their leaders as well because we are covenantally connected. Paul faced fear in Macedonia because of the church at Corinth. He was worried about them, and struggled with his fear. I can relate to those feelings. As we have faced our little crises here, the fear that I have experienced was significant. There is a care that develops that makes you hate to be ignored in a difficult situation. You can see a dearly loved brother heading for real trouble, but nothing you say makes any difference. This is what Paul is talking about in verse 12. He wanted them to understand that by being harsh and direct he was demonstrating his care for them. Independent minded people frequently trust themselves to always do what is right, so that when an elder comes to offer them help, they simply ignore him. When you care deeply for someone, as Paul did the Corinthians, it is difficult to see them wander away unwilling to listen.
Because we are covenantally connected, we will sometimes have to endure the tribulations that others have caused. This is what happened in Corinth. The immoral church member brought a severe trial to his brothers and sisters. Of course, the same thing happens in other contexts as well.
It has been many years since our national government lived within the boundaries set for it by our constitution. Not only have they determined that 45 million babies should die, but they have determined that you should help to pay for the killing. Our constitutional rights are trodden under foot so that we can avoid “terrorists”. When I was born, the federal government took about 2% of an average salary in taxes. That average is approaching 50% today for many middle-class tax payers. I could go on and on. When does all of this come to the point where an honest citizen can feel oppressed by his government? More to the point, when does this type of treatment become a trial of your faith, or a tribulation which you must bear patiently?
While all of this is certainly motivation for political action, I do not think it rises to the level of spiritual oppression. Not yet at least. In my opinion our situation is not terribly different than the Corinthians. The sin is evident for any who care to look. Until we are ready to repent as did the Corinthians, nothing much will change. Repentance is not the first thing that comes to our minds. We have a fondness for responding to the emergency we are not having. As CS Lewis said, in the presence of a flood, we break out the fire extinguisher.
In a family, the question can become urgent very quickly. If a father or mother is unwilling to do what God has commanded, or even works against godly standards in his family, then the results can be devastating.