When things go wrong

We sang that great old hymn ‘standing in the promises’ last Sunday evening. Someone famously joked that many Christians spend their time ‘sitting (idly) in the premises’ rather than ‘standing on the promises’ – and I suppose that makes us smile because there is more than a grain of truth in it! Paul begins this seventh chapter of 2 Corinthians with this “Since we have these promises”. So what promises has he in mind? We look back to chapter 6 to find out: “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty”. What a promise that is! This promises believers a relationship with the Lord Almighty; an intimate relationship of father and children. The God who called the universe into being, who created the immenseness of the world and the complexity and beauty we see in nature becomes our father! This calls for a response from us. In this chapter, Paul gives clear direction for the response this demands and then describes what happens when the response to this promise falls short.

  1. Be clean

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a meeting at work – not the most interesting meeting I might add. I was wearing my favourite blue suit. The trouble with favourite blue suits is that you tend to wear them every day and they very quickly take on a ‘well used look’! For some reason I happened to feel the elbow on the right arm and discovered to my concern that the fabric had work so thin that a surprisingly large hole had appeared. I thought I looked the part – collar and tie, nice dark blue suit – dressed according to my status within the office, but there I was with a gaping hole in my jacket elbow!

We are granted remarkable status. We are God’s children and we stand on remarkable promises that are God given, but so often we look as though we have no part with God – our appearance does not match our standing in Christ. Paul says, ‘let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit’. You may well say that we are already pure and that when we believe in Jesus we are cleansed from sin, so why the need to purify ourselves?  Do you remember when Jesus was with the disciples not long before he was crucified, he took a towel and a bowl of water and started to wash the feet of the disciples. This was not just an act of kindness, but was a demonstration of a great principle. After washing the feel, Jesus said, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. There’s a lesson for us too there! But do you remember what happened as Jesus worked his way around the room? When he reached Peter, that outspoken and impetuous fisherman, Peter said with an air of incredulity, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” and went on to say, “No, you shall never wash my feet!” I think I understand what was on Peter’s mind. It just didn’t feel right at all that the master should wash Peter’s dirty feet! Jesus’ response to Peter is quite pointed: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” That’s pretty clear – Peter, stop fussing around, I’m serious about this. Peter just couldn’t help himself and replied with a child-like but quite touching reply “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” He seemed to be saying, well if this is all about being aligned with you then let’s go the whole hog, because I really do want to be wholly part of you! That’s a great response, but what did Jesus say in reply: “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean,” What could this mean? When we believe in Jesus we are cleansed. Our sin, past, present and future is forgiven – we are made clean. We’ve had a spiritual bath – Paul in his letter to the Romans (see chapter 5) explains that just as through one man, Adam, we were all made sinners, so through one man, Jesus, we may be made righteous (clean). But here’s the problem, we all too readily pick up dirt on our feet as we ‘walk’ through this world. I suspect that sometimes this is a passive thing and we don’t always realise what’s happening, but sometimes it’s active and we know full well what we’re doing, whichever, Paul says in view of the promises we have let’s purify ourselves from all the stuff that contaminates body and spirit. How can we approach God with un-confessed sin? Clean yourself up says Paul.

Next he says, “perfecting holiness out of reverence for God”. My mother used to always say ‘practise makes perfect’. As believers we have a new life force within us. God has given us a new heart of flesh rather than stone a heart, the law of God is written on these new hearts. But we still retain our old sinful nature. The two don’t get on well at all! They’re in constant conflict. Feed the old nature and sin will result, feed the new nature and righteousness will come. We are invited to walk in the sphere of the Holy Spirit and as we do we will not feed the sinful nature. This takes practise. Holiness is a funny word, but all it means is to be set apart for God. We have a cutlery drawer. In it we have every day cutlery – inexpensive stuff bought from Ikea. But we have a good set too – it’s set apart for use on special occasions. It’s kept in pristine condition in a separate drawer. This is the picture, we are to practise being set apart for God’s special use. If he came to your house would you serve him up with the old cheap cutlery? In view of God’s promises we set ourselves apart for his special use.

  • Who would be a leader?

Things had gone badly wrong in Corinth. A situation had arisen that was entirely wrong and it was affecting the health as well as the reputation of the church. Paul in his leadership role had responsibility to point out this sinful behaviour with a view to restoring purity. This he had done, but it was not an easy task and it caused him pain and worry.  How would the Corinthians respond to his direct and pointed letter? Things could easily have been made worse: the Corinthians were already divided about Paul’s right to act as an apostle – had his letter done more harm than good? These were the agonies in Paul’s mind. Not only that, but he was travelling and having arrived in Macedonia, Paul was going through a tough time. He describes his situation as follows: “When we came to Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn – conflicts on the outside, fears within.”

But this all changed with news from Titus. Paul had sent Titus to Corinth to find out how things were going. The plan was to meet up with Titus in Troas. Troas is on the Agean coast of North West Turkey. But it seems that Titus was not in Troas when Paul arrived there. You can imagine the frustration this must have caused. No sign of Titus and thus no news from Corinth.  But Paul did meet up with Titus in Macedonia (just across the water from Troas). As noted above, Paul was going through dark days in Macedonia, but at last he met up with Titus. Here’s what Paul says: “But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus”. Notice that Paul gives thanks to God for Titus! Please note God uses ordinary people like Titus to help other people. Are you bringing comfort to the downcast? Please note the reason for Paul being downcast. Many people are downcast because they are not living lives that please God. Don’t expect other Christians to bring you comfort! The road to comfort lies in repentance (more of that in the next section). But if you are an exhausted and harassed Christian be thankful for the comfort that God brings through other believers – and remember you may be ‘a Titus’ who brings comfort to other believers!

The news from Titus was good – Paul’s harsh letter had had the desired effect. Titus brought warm greetings to Paul from the Christians in Corinth. He brought news of the Corinthians’ longing to see Paul, their deep sorrow and their concern for Paul’s welfare. From being downcast, Paul was filled with joy.  Jesus told a story about a lost coin and the rejoicing when it was found. He said “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Amidst his troubles, Paul rejoiced in the news of change in the hearts of the Corinthians.

  • Putting wrongs right

Paul wrote his harsh letter to elicit a change in the behaviour of the Corinthians. We have wonderful promises from God but in spite of this we can wander off and do things that are utterly at odds with the promises we receive. Paul’s letter was intended to turn this situation around; and it had the desired effect. The letter had made them sorry and this sorrow had led to repentance.

There seems to be three parties involved in this situation. First, the Corinthians who were at fault; their fault seemed to be in sanctioning a grossly immoral situation in the church. Second, God: the sinfulness of the Corinthians was an offence first and foremost to God. Third, the apostle Paul, he was the spiritual father of the Corinthians and he was God’s agent in confronting the Corinthians with their sin. Paul’s letter caused him great personal anguish. If the Corinthians rejected it, then he was personally affected as his relationship with the Corinthians would probably be forever damaged beyond repair and furthermore the relationship of the Corinthians to God would remain broken.

The letter lead to sorrow on the part of the Corinthians and hurt too – they were hurt that their spiritual father had been so harsh. There seems to be two types of sorrow: one ‘godly’ and one ‘worldly’. I have seen people in sinful situations show great sorrow, but it seems to be a sorrow for themselves, sorrow that they are uncomfortable with a difficult situation, but there is no real desire for change  – this is worldly sorrow and it is unproductive. In fact it is destructive and leads to death. Like worldly sorrow, godly sorrow also relates to difficult circumstances, but in contrast godly sorrow elicits a  change in behaviour to bring relief from the sorrow – this is repentance. The Greek work translated repentance is metanoeo, which means to change one’s mind. In the bible repentance often seems to be associated with avoidance of judgement or relief from the consequences of sin. In verse 10, Paul said “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death”. The repentance of the Corinthians brought salvation. This should be seen as a rescue from the consequences of sin; a broken relationship with God and Paul their spiritual father, damaged reputation of the church and a general disruption to the life of the church.

The outcome was a happy one; sorrow lead to repentance and repentance lead to salvation. For Paul personally this was a great relief and brought many benefits: Paul was encouraged, delighted, glad and had a renewed confidence in the people.  Titus was happy, refreshed and had a greater affection for the Corinthians. 

In view of God’s promises, let’s purify ourselves from all that draws us away from Him and if we have sorrow let’s ensure that it’s a godly sorrow that leads to repentance.