Minimizing Mess, Maximizing Grace in Relationships
Topic: Relationships Passage: 2 Corinthians 12:11–12:21
Grace Community Church
May 30, 2021
Minimizing Mess, Maximizing Grace in Relationships
11 I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. 13 For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!
14 Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? 16 But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit. 17 Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps?
19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved. 20 For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. 21 I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced. 2 Cor. 12:11-21
With your permission I am going to take a little applicational license this morning. Paul is making his closing arguments so a lot of what he says, he’s said before, so rather than drill down verse by verse, I’d like to take this opportunity to pull back, see the relational mess going on between Paul and the Corinthian believers and learn from how Paul wisely and graciously navigated that mess.
If you watch many TV shows, you’re probably used to a show opening up with a voice saying, “previously on [whatever the show is]” and they show clips to remind you what happened. Well, previously in 2 Cor. Paul was worried that he had hurt his relationship with the church in Corinth, then in chapter 7 he breathes a sigh of relief when Titus confirmed that things were good between him and the Corinthian church. But then in chapter 10 he starts to defend his ministry all over again, and going into chapters 11 and 12, he uses stronger words than ever to undercut the false apostles, rebuke those who are listening to them, and prove his credentials as a true apostle of Jesus Christ.
So were things good with them or not? Yeah, they are (chapter 7). But maybe not (chapters 10-13). Let’s just say, it’s complicated. There are ups and downs and ups and downs in their relationship. There’s mess, there’s grace. There’s messy grace.
There’s no doubt God had poured out His grace on Corinth. When it came to spiritual gifts they were second to none. If you were sick and wanted to be prayed for healing, go to Corinth. Don’t go to Galatia, they’d probably circumcise you! Go to Corinth – they had the spiritual gifts going on.
But after they prayed and you got healed, you’d start to see other things going on in the church.
I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. vs. 20
Did you catch that list? That’s serious stuff! If you went to Corinth’s website, under “what to expect when you visit” it would list quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, disorder. “honey, we’re going to try out the Corinthian church, better pack some heat!” Notice it’s all relational sin. No one quarrels with themselves. Or is jealous of themselves. Relational. But there’s more (verse 21):
21 I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced. Vv. 20-21
That’s all moral sin: impurity, immorality, sensuality. There’s relational sin, and there’s moral sin. I’ve heard people say, “I want to find a New Testament church”. Might be good to ask, which part are you looking for? The quarreling? The gossip? The sexual immorality?
I actually find this a bit encouraging. Because it tells us that relationships can be messy even when Jesus is in them. Churches can be messy even when Jesus is in them.
I’ve been in churches consistently since 1975. Church has been an important part of my life all that time. I’ve seen grace over those 46 years. I’ve seen my share of mess. And I’ve been a mess-maker at times.
I got an email this week from a woman who as a teenager attended Lamb’s Chapel with her family in the 90’s. She’s now on staff at an Acts 29 church and she and her family are doing well, but she wondered if we could do a zoom call because she had some questions about what happened during that time, which eventually led to her family leaving the church. In many ways, and for many reasons, it was a messy time and I contributed my fair share to the mess. There was mess, there was grace. Now, 20 some years later, I see more of the grace, but at the time, it was the mess that seemed bigger.
Some people see the mess and say, this Jesus thing isn’t real. The church is too messed up. I got hurt in church, or I see so much hypocrisy in the church, or there’s no love in the church. They think because there’s mess, there’s no grace. The Bible tells us that because we are sinners saved by grace, where there’s grace, there will also be mess until Jesus returns.
But by the grace of God, we should work to minimize the mess and maximize the grace. Minimize the hurt, the quarreling, the gossip. Maximize the love of Christ between us. That’s the heart of God for His people, and few people radiate the heart of God more than the apostle Paul. Three points from his example to help us minimize the mess and maximize the grace in Grace Community Church.
- Don’t give up easily on relationships just because they get messy
Someone might ask, which verse do you see that in? All of them! This whole letter! Paul didn’t give up on them. He kept on talking to them. Kept on loving them. Kept on appealing to them. Kept on correcting them.
There’s nothing easier than to give up on a relationship when it gets messy. When conflict comes, someone accuses us, disappoints us, misunderstands us, the easiest thing is to just walk away.
But when we walk away the minute there’s a conflict, we miss the opportunity for God to do some of His best work in those relationships. Relationships don’t become strong by never having conflict, they become strong by working through those conflicts to the other side.
If you want to bond two smooth surfaces to each other, you want to rough them up a bit before you glue them. Roughed up surfaces will form a stronger bond than smooth surfaces. Likewise, friendships bond together more tightly when there’s been some scratching between the two people but they work through to the other side.
Love deepens when we go through hard times together and get to the other side. It gives us opportunity to forgive – and be forgiven. To accept someone flaws and all – and be accepted flaws and all. Deep inside, we all want to be part of a community where we can be flawed and still be loved and accepted for who we are. That takes not giving up easily on relationships when they get messy.
I say “easily” because there are times when a relationship is so damaged or so damaging that we need to put some distance between us and them. That doesn’t mean we hate them or have ill will to them. It’s just acknowledging that unless there’s a change of heart and repentance, the healthiest thing is to separate. But I think that should be relatively rare in our lives. If we have a long string of broken relationships in our life, one reason might be that we give up on people too quickly.
- Dial the pride down to zero
Nothing busts up relationships like pride. Pride is the big relationship-killer.
We learn something pretty impressive about Paul in verse 12: along with planting the church, discipling the church, and laying down his life for the church, he also performed signs and wonders and mighty works of God in the church. People were healed. Demons were cast out. Acts 19 tells us that Paul’s anointing was so awesomely powerful they would take handkerchiefs and aprons that touched his skin to the sick and they would be healed and evil spirits would be expelled. By a cloth that touched Paul!
The only other apostle who had anything close to that was Peter’s shadow could heal the sick. As an apostle, Paul was top floor, one of a kind, special. He was really something!
And yet the Corinthians are still questioning if he even was an apostle. Talk about being underappreciated.
So of course the appropriate thing here would be for Paul to stress to the Corinthians that he was really something. Instead, in verse 11 he says, I am nothing. That’s not false humility. He’s not putting himself down – he’s been putting out his credentials as a true apostle of Christ. But it raises the question why when you’d think he’d want to make it clear that he’s something, he says, I am nothing.
Why would Paul say I am nothing to the very people who are underappreciating and undervaluing him?
I think Spurgeon gets it right when he says, Beloved, I feel sure that when the apostle said that he was nothing, he meant that he was nothing in comparison with his Lord. He had seen the glory of His Master up yonder in heaven and he had preached that glory among the sons of men and as for himself, he could not find any figure to represent his own insignificance. The smallest of figures was too large for him. He dared not describe himself by the figure one and so he put down a zero and declared, “I am nothing.” – Charles Spurgeon
Paul had been to heaven, he saw God’s greatness and glory, and with the echo of that memory ringing in his mind, he couldn’t bring himself to say “I am something”. Compared to God, dial my greatness down to zero. Not even a 1. I am nothing. To do that from the heart, Paul had to dial his pride down to zero.
Pride kills relationships, and one of pride’s favorite weapons in conflict is defensiveness. Defensiveness is often the result of hurt pride. And what I’ve found is defensiveness doesn’t listen well. When we’re defensive, we’re not really hearing what the other person is saying. We’re hearing their words through a filter that puts words in their mouth and reinterprets the meaning in their words.
Defensiveness is our attempt to correct people’s opinion of us and it’s always upward. It’s turning our dial up. My wife says I’m a 3 as a husband, I know I’m an 8 ½ - she just doesn’t appreciate me. Paul Tripp tells about a time early in his marriage when his wife was expressing dissatisfaction with how he was acting as a husband, and in response he boastfully declared, “95% of the women in the church would love to be married to a man like me!” Luella answered, “well, put me down in the 5%”. Ouch!
When we get defensive in conflict or difference of opinion we tend to want to turn our dials up and other people’s dials down, and when we do that, we stop hearing what the other person is saying.
Paul was honest about the powerful apostolic calling on his life, but he could honestly say, I am nothing. Compared to God’s greatness and glory, my greatness comes in at zero. Dial my pride to zero.
- Don’t keep score
Paul gave a lot. He says he will gladly spend and be spent for their souls. As payback the Corinthians criticized, belittled, and undermined him, and came this close to replacing him with false apostles. Talk about a lop-sided score. Sometimes when you invest love and care into someone’s life, they will repay you with hurt and betrayal. If we’re keeping score, we’re gonna quit.
Relationships are meant to be two-way, not one-way, streets. Paul even asks if I love you more will you love me less? We should work for our relationships to be healthy two-way streets, but don’t keep score.
Jesus gave everything for us. Everything. He did it knowing we could never repay him back, but in a sense maybe we do. Stick with me here. Heb. 12 says that Jesus, for the joy set before him, despised the shame of the cross. What exactly was the joy set before him? It was the joy of saving us. The joy of welcoming us into his eternal kingdom. It is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. A lot of joy going on!
The price of saving us: the cross. The joy Jesus feels welcoming us into his glorious kingdom: priceless. The payback isn’t what we give Jesus, the payback is the joy he feels at what he can give us. That’s the
currency of love. That’s the love of Christ.
The more the Holy Spirit fills the church with the Spirit of Jesus, the less we will barter with each other and the more we will love each other. God doesn’t call us to keep score, He calls us to love.
After all Paul invested in the Corinthian church, spending and being spent for them, to have them treat him so shabbily, where does that leave Paul’s attitude towards them?
Does it leave him defensive? Bitter? Pulling back his affections from them? Listen to the grace in Paul’s words:
19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved.
We’re not defending ourselves, we’re speaking truth in the sight of God, and we’re doing it for your upbuilding, beloved. Such a tender, loving term.
How can we minimize mess and maximize grace in the church? In our families? In our relationships? Three good lessons from Paul: don’t give up easily on relationships just because they get messy. Dial down the pride. Don’t keep score. Or, in one word, love each other.