Have you ever had people make what seemed like a promise or commitment to you, only to have them change their mind later? You’d already taken them at their word, and shaped your plans or expectations accordingly. Then, without warning or explanation, they take it back, or veer in another direction.
I’ve had this happen to me, and frankly, it made me leery of trusting them again. And only God knows how many times I may have done this to someone else, without even knowing it.
So imagine this situation between the apostle Paul and the troublesome congregation in Corinth. He’s written them a letter (our “First” Corinthians) saying that he’s sending Timothy to them (1 Cor 4:17; 16:10), and will come for a nice long visit himself, after he looks in on the churches in Macedonia (16:5). But after Timothy comes back from Corinth with a bad report, Paul decides to go to Corinth directly, then on to Macedonia from there, coming back to Corinth a second time (2 Cor 1:15-16). But after Paul’s visit goes poorly, he changes his mind again; he returns to Ephesus instead, and writes them a harsh and painful letter (2:1-4).
Paul already had his detractors in Corinth. Is it any wonder that they might accuse him of flip-flopping, and to take this as evidence of his unreliability? Or worse — as evidence that he can’t possibly be following the will of God?
I understand that way of thinking. As we in the United States brace for another election year, with all the trumped-up drama of who will enter the race and who won’t, we can be sure that accusations of flip-flopping will fly. The message, of course, is that people who do this lack character and a commitment to principles, making them untrustworthy as leaders. And sometimes, of course, the accusation is at least partly true: flip-flopping may be a sign of anything from political pandering to garden-variety flakiness.
But not always.
Paul’s opponents take him as being, at best, wishy-washy, and at worst, duplicitous. Even his supporters must have been confused. But his self-defense in Second Corinthians is an odd one: instead of beginning with the reasons for his actions (though he’ll say more about this a little later), he essentially tells them, “My conscience is completely clear before God, because I have always been straightforward with you and have acted with complete integrity” (2 Cor 1:12).
I don’t know that I’d be able to say that to anyone.
But Paul does, because he knows that he always says what he means and means what he says. Situations change, and plans change with them — but not Paul’s commitment to speaking the truth. More on that in the next post.