What would you do if someone in your church sued another member for slander? Before you answer, consider the second question. What would you do if you discovered a case of incest by one of the leading men of the church? Let me give you another one for good measure. What would you do if you discovered that some young people (and some not-so-young people) were engaging in premarital (or extra-marital) sex? Or if you found out that some of the elders didn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus? Or if people were getting drunk while taking the Lord’s Supper? Or if three adult Sunday School classes demanded that the entire church adopt a vegetarian diet? Or if you got a note in your mailbox saying that four of the board members had called a special secret meeting to consider firing the pastor and replacing him with the associate pastor? And here’s the last one. What if all these things were happening in your church at the same time? What would you do?
If you are like most people, your immediate reaction would be, “I’d find another church.” That would be fine for you, but it wouldn’t do much to help the church. If the only people untainted by compromise left, how would the church ever recover? There must be a better answer that just pulling up your stakes and moving on.
I think we’ve all heard about the woman who said she was looking for a perfect church. To which a friend replied, “If you ever find such a perfect church, please don’t join it. You’ll ruin it.” Though we would all like a church without serious problems, there aren’t very many of those around. And if we did find one, we would ruin it if we joined it.
We are left with an undeniable reality. The church is made up of people, and wherever you have people, you have problems. Since the church deliberately opens its doors to all kinds of people, we end up with all kinds of problems.
Wherever you have people, you have problems.
Someone may object, “Sure, churches have problems. But no church could ever have all the problems you mentioned. That’s impossible.” And that list does seem fantastic, for how could a church survive all those things? Here’s the surprise. I didn’t make that list up. That’s from a real church. Not one in the United States. That’s a real church in the New Testament. It’s a description of some of the problems in the church at Corinth. And so the question “What would you do if” becomes very crucial because one local church faced all those things and more.
I’ve already suggested one answer: ignore the problems. But that’s usually not the best answer because it doesn’t help the people struggling with various issues.
It’s clear that Paul didn’t believe in running away from thorny problems. He believed in facing them straight on. That’s why he wrote 1 Corinthians. It was difficult, heart-breaking, and brutally honest, but he did it. He told them the plain truth even when they didn’t want to hear it. When we come to 2 Corinthians, written just a short time later, most of the problems he discussed in 1 Corinthians aren’t even mentioned. They had been faced and dealt with biblically so Paul never brings them up again.
Paul didn’t believe in running away from thorny problems.
But there was one piece of unfinished business. It was the matter of a man living with his father’s wife (See 1 Corinthians 5 for details). It was a sin so heinous that even pagans would not do it. In his first letter Paul had ordered them to throw the man out of the church. They had done it. Later the man had repented. Now he wanted back in the church and the people would not let him back in, which is understandable if not charitable. So in 2 Corinthians 2, Paul declares, “The man has suffered enough. Let him back in” (vv. 5-11).
A few chapters later Paul looks back on the whole process of dealing with the church’s difficult problems. He reflects on how it made him feel, how it made them feel, and the good things that came from it. We find that personal reflection in 2 Corinthians 7:8-13. These verses contain a vital perspective for 21st-century believers who would rather duck the hard issues of life.
In our day of mushy love and cheap grace, when we redefine sin instead of calling it what it is, we need to regain the biblical perspective. Love means telling the truth even when it hurts. These verses flesh out three implications of that principle.
# 1 Telling the Truth Often Hurts.
Look how Paul says it in verse 8: “Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it-I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while.” This is why so many people would rather ignore problems. It’s not easy to be blunt knowing that you risk rejection and misunderstanding. Sometimes people just don’t want to change. So it’s easier all the way around to keep our mouths shut. Paul has a biblical balance. He didn’t enjoy exposing their problems. He wasn’t a troublemaker who felt good when they felt bad. At first, he regretted his frankness because he wanted their love and acceptance. But he risked it all for their ultimate good. Telling the truth can be painful for the one who tells it.
Sometimes people just don’t want to change.
Not only that, but this verse makes it clear that telling the truth can be painful to those who hear it. I don’t know about you, but I like compliments. I would rather be complimented any day than have someone I know come up and tell me where I’ve gone wrong. But as I look over my life and remember the times when people close to me told me the truth about my faults and failures, I can testify that I grew more from those times than when someone simply complimented me on what I had done. Sometimes it has come from a phone call, sometimes from a casual conversation, sometimes from a letter in the mail. I never like it at first, I never want it, and it always goes down hard. But if the truth is spoken in love, even if it is tough love, I will end up saying, “Thanks. I needed that.”
That much we already know. And if I stopped here, I would justify our natural aversion to getting involved with other people. It’s often painful and frustrating on every side. So we don’t do it.
# 2 Telling the Truth Changes Lives.
Here’s where the rub comes. We see a brother or sister faltering along the way. Many times they don’t even know what’s happening. But we do. We see the invasion of sin in their life. And we say, “I don’t think anything can change them.” Maybe, maybe not. But our only chance is to go to them directly, tell them the truth, and see what happens. Why? Because telling the truth changes lives.
There are two responses a person can make. Paul explains it in verses 9 and 10:
Now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death (vv. 9-10).
I had a chance to visit with a friend going through cancer treatment. Every month he went to the hospital for very difficult chemotherapy. He looked pretty weak to me so when I asked what those treatments were like, his wife said that the treatments made him sick for a week to ten days after each one. The monthly visits were almost as bad as the cancer itself. Yet that was the only hope of cure. That’s what Paul is saying here. The only lasting solution for spiritual problems in the body of Christ is to confront them head on with the truth. But that truth can be painful to hear. And it may cause one of two things to happen.
First, there may be sorrow that leads to repentance and salvation. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret” (v. 10). So maybe someone comes to me and says, “Ray, you’re way off base.” That makes me mad because I know I’m not off base. I know I’m right. I go home fuming and Marlene says, “Honey, what’s wrong?” I say, “Somebody said I’m way off base.” My wife (who is very wise) looks at me with a little grin and says, “What if they are right?” Now it’s two against one, so I go into my room and stew for awhile. Eventually the light dawns, and seeing what I fool I really am, I confess my sin to God, make things right, and with God’s help change my life. What is all that? It is the end result of truth-telling. It made me sorrowful, but that sorrow forced me to evaluate my own life and get things squared away with the Lord and with the family of God. How do I feel in the end? I have no regret. It’s like swallowing a tablespoon of castor oil. I hate it going down, but in the end I have no regret.
Second, there may be sorrow but no real change. I may not respond well to the truth someone tells me. That’s what Paul means when he says “worldly sorrow brings death” (v. 10). What are the signs of worldly sorrow?
Dejection: “I’m sorry I got caught.”
Defensiveness: “It wasn’t my fault.”
Self-justification: “You just don’t understand the situation.”
Anger: “Get off my back.”
Unkind words: “Who are you to be judging me?”
Projection: “You’re not so perfect yourself.”
Many Christians are quite adept at sidestepping the truth.
Many Christians become quite adept at sidestepping the truth. Some of us make it a lifelong habit. That’s what the sorrow of the world is. It’s sidestepping the truth to avoid dealing with reality. It’s using every defense mechanism in the book so we don’t have to change the way we live.
But godly sorrow always produces a radical change. Check out verse 11:
See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.
Here are seven marks of godly sorrow:
True Christian fellowship could only be built upon a solid foundation in the truth.
First, we are quick to make things right.
Second, we are anxious to clear our record of wrongdoing.
Third, we are upset that our lives should contain such compromise.
Fourth, we are alarmed over our sin.
Fifth, we long to be restored to spiritual wholeness.
Sixth, we are concerned for the preservation of the body of Christ.
Seventh, we are ready to do whatever is necessary to make things right.
Paul saw all of that in the Corinthian church. Because they had allowed a terrible situation to fester in the church, it had taken a painful confrontation with the truth to make them see how wrong they were. But that painful episode produced godly sorrow and repentance and the seven qualities in verse 11. No wonder Paul says “At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.”
# 3 Telling the Truth Builds Love.
We discover one final implication in verse 12: Telling the truth builds love between believers.
So even though I wrote to you, it was not on account of the one who did the wrong or of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are.
Paul wrote with the ultimate goal of deepening the love between himself and the church. It’s not that correction of the incestuous situation isn’t important. It is. But Paul knew that true Christian fellowship could only be built upon a solid foundation in the truth. If he didn’t tell them the truth, they would go merrily on in their sin and the relationship would be broken. Only the painful step of confrontation would ever make them realize how much they really loved him.
Proverbs 27:6 (KJV) says “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” Sometimes the most loving thing a believer can do is to wound a friend with the truth.
That’s one of those hard sayings, but it is true nonetheless.
Telling the truth builds love between believers.
I have seen it at work in my own life many times. I saw it years ago when a Presbyterian evangelist told me I needed to show joy in my life. I saw it during my college years when the head counselor at a Christian camp told me I had done a good job for the first part of the summer but had slacked off at the end. I saw it when a friend told me I was jealous because the youth ministry was successful without me. I saw it in Texas when another friend told me I needed to develop faithfulness in the small areas of life. Sometimes it has been a note in the mail, more often just a word spoken in passing, though several times more than that. I remember once when my father told me how I had hurt my mother because of my carelessness. That one still stings almost 40 years later. And there have many other times when people I respect have pointed out my failures.
As I look back at all those experiences, two things stand out. It was always painful. I never enjoyed being corrected. But I always loved and respected the one who had the courage to do it. It was bitter medicine that made me better in the end. Why? Because love means telling the truth. Whenever we take that seriously, it will often be painful, it will always change lives, and in the end it builds love between believers. No wonder Paul ends this section by saying that “by all this we are encouraged” (v. 13). Loving people is always extremely risky business. Most of us have known what it is to have our love refused. Some of us know that intimately.
Loving people is always extremely risky business.
And that, I think, explains why we tend to run from deep involvement with other brothers and sisters in the body. It’s too risky. We may get hurt. They may not like what we have to say. Or we may not like what they have to say. It’s always easier to talk about weeping with those who weep than it is to actually weep with them.
But God intends for the church to become a body of committed, loving truth-tellers. Easy to say, hard to do. But that’s the call and risk of love, that we might pay the price and get involved with each other and take the risk to love.
Praying Through Proverbs
Several months ago while reading through Proverbs, I spent some time doing something I had never done before. One problem we face with the book of Proverbs is that the verses seem disconnected. You can have a verse about laziness next to a verse about anger next to a verse about bad rulers next to a verse about the dangers of alcohol next to a verse about the benefits of fearing the Lord. It can seem jumbled together. So to focus my own mind, I started praying through Proverbs by taking a chapter and turning each verse into a prayer. That helped me think about how to internalize the truth of that particular verse. And I tried always to include a “so that” as part of my prayer. Here are some examples from Proverbs 29:
“A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed-without remedy” (v. 1). Lord, grant me a soft heart to hear the rebukes of others so that my life may not be ruined.
“By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down” (v. 4). May I love justice more than money so that I may be strong to help others.
“If a wise man goes to court with a fool, the fool rages and scoffs, and there is no peace” (v. 9). Help me to pick my fights wisely so that I will not be embroiled in arguments all day long.
“Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (v. 20). Help me to listen more than I talk today so that I may learn from others.
It’s evidently a big deal to God how we respond to hard truth.
I freely admit there is nothing profound about those prayers. I mention it here because Proverbs keeps coming back to the issue of wisdom in giving and receiving rebuke.
It’s evidently a big deal to God how we respond to hard truth. If we are going to become healthy in this area, we need courage and we need humility.
Without courage we will never speak up.
Without humility we will never listen up.
May God grant that the truth spoken in love and received in love might heal our hearts, lead us to repentance, free us from bitterness, and unite the body of Christ.
Lord, make us sensitive to those around us.
That we might see the hurting and be an agent of healing.
That we might see the fallen and lift them.
That we might listen to words of wisdom.
That we might dare to care instead of walking away.
That we might risk misunderstanding to help others.Grant, O Lord, that our love might be like yours and go right through to the very end.
In the name of Jesus who knows us fully and loves us anyway, Amen.