Tough Love.

But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.

For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote to you out of much affliction 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. – 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4 ESV

Even as an apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul did not see himself as spiritually superior to the Corinthians. He viewed himself as their ally and an asset to their spiritual development. He claims, “we work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24 ESV). He, Silas and Timothy were tools in God’s hands, used by Him to assist the Corinthians in their growth and development. And in spite of some of the issues going on within the church in Corinth, Paul still felt like they were firm in their faith. This made his decision to delay his visit, fully based on the will of God, much easier to make.

But there was another reason he postponed his visit: to keep from causing them pain and sorrow. Evidently, Paul had made a second visit to Corinth some time between his original one when he helped establish the church there. It was on this second visit that he had to deal with some particularly difficult circumstances taking place in the church. This occasion had caused great pain. Being reprimanded is never easy. And having to be the one to call them out had not been enjoyable for Paul either. So, he says, “I decided that I would not bring you grief with another painful visit. For if I cause you grief, who will make me glad? Certainly not someone I have grieved” (2 Corinthians 2:1-2 NLT). It hurt Paul to have to reprimand those whom he loved. This reveals his pastor’s heart, his deep care and affection for the believers in Corinth. They were his children in the faith and he had a deep and abiding love for them and felt a strong sense of responsibility for them. 

Instead of paying them a potentially painful visit, Paul decided to write them a letter. “That is why I wrote to you as I did, so that when I do come, I won’t be grieved by the very ones who ought to give me the greatest joy. Surely you all know that my joy comes from your being joyful” (2 Corinthians 2:3 NLT). The letter, now lost, was evidently quite blunt and caused Paul “great anguish” to write. Having to write it caused him great sorrow and left him in tears. But it was necessary and written in love. It was Paul’s hope and desire that the Corinthians would take seriously the painful rebuke and loving reprimand found in his letter and do something about it. What he had written had been for their good and he longed for them to listen to his words and change their ways. Otherwise, when he did finally visit them, it would be another painful reunion.

While Paul loved and cared for the Corinthians, he loved them too much to allow them to continue in sin. His affection for them was based on the love of Christ and his knowledge that he was responsible to God for their spiritual welfare. Paul did not enjoy or take pleasure in hurting them. He simply wanted to see them enjoy all that God had in store for them, made possible by the death of Christ on the cross. Later on in this letter, Paul gives them an explanation for the harsh nature of his previous letter.

I am not sorry that I sent that severe letter to you, though I was sorry at first, for I know it was painful to you for a little while. Now I am glad I sent it, not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death. – 2 Corinthians 7:8-10 NLT

Paul found joy in their repentance, not in their happiness. To refrain from telling someone the truth just because you don’t want to cause them pain is not love. It is a twisted form of hate. To knowingly allow them to continue in sin is cruel and makes you an accomplice in their sin. You are actually enabling their sinful behavior through you silence. Too often, as Christians, our fear of losing face or friends keeps us from saying what needs to be sad. But Paul believed that holiness was far more important than happiness. Our love for one another is best expressed in our unwillingness to tolerate sin in one another’s lives. Which is why Paul told the Colossian believers: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16 ESV). Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3 ESV). Solomon wrote, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:3 ESV). David wrote, “Let the godly strike me! It will be a kindness! If they correct me, it is soothing medicine. Don’t let me refuse it” (Psalm 141:5 NLT).

Tough love is tough to pull off. It is difficult to confront those whom we love. It caused Paul pain to say what he had to say to the Corinthians. But it was necessary. It was the godly thing to do. He told the Corinthians that he wrote the previous letter “to let you know how much love I have for you” (2 Corinthians 2:4 NLT). When we care for another believer’s holiness more than we do their happiness, we truly love them. When we’re willing to risk their rejection in order to bring about their repentance, we truly love them. When their relationship with God takes precedence over their friendship with us, we truly love them. Faithful are the wounds of a friend.