By virtue of their calling, pastors live very public lives, even when they might personally prefer their privacy. Often, they have the sense of living under the sharp scrutiny of their congregations, knowing that anything they say or do can easily be misinterpreted. Because of this, they may wonder how much of their internal world they can safely reveal. Even the most calm and seemingly unflappable of pastors may be struggling with some private turmoil.
It’s remarkable, therefore, that the apostle Paul is so transparent with such a troublesome group as the Corinthians. One might argue, of course, that he has nothing to lose: people have been stirring up trouble in his absence, and his every action has already been twisted into evidence of his untrustworthiness. His opponents accuse him of weakness, and point to his sufferings as a sure sign of failure and God’s disfavor.
How might we respond in such a situation? For his part, Paul doesn’t hide his weaknesses. Instead, he is honest about his suffering, all the better to illustrate that the way of Christ, the way of apostleship, is to find God’s strength in the midst of weakness.
That’s the context of a simple report like the one below:
When I came to Troas to proclaim the good news of Christ, a door was opened for me in the Lord; but my mind could not rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said farewell to them and went on to Macedonia. (2 Cor 2:12-13, NRSV)
As discussed in previous posts, Paul had withdrawn from Corinth under duress, returning to Ephesus. Subsequently, he sent Titus to Corinth bearing a letter of rebuke. Paul couldn’t return to Corinth until they straightened themselves out, so apparently planned to meet Titus in Troas, to hear his report of how the Corinthians had received his letter.
But Titus didn’t come, and Paul was worried.
Paul had been to Troas before; it was there that he received a vision calling him to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10). And in the passage above, he suggests that God had opened up a great opportunity for preaching the gospel. We should probably understand this to mean that God had given him great success. But for all of Paul’s passion for the gospel, he remained ill at ease — so much so that he left behind a successful mission to move on to Macedonia.
Was he worried about Titus? Possibly: depending on the time of year, Titus might have experienced some rough seas on his voyage. Or was Paul worried about the report that Titus would bring? The possibility that he might be anxious for such news shows just how important it was for Paul personally to know that the Corinthians had come around to a right way of thinking (we won’t hear until later how happy Paul was to receive Titus’ good report — cf. 2 Cor 7:5-16).
Paul is willing to be vulnerable with this difficult congregation, precisely because he wants them to understand the relationship between weakness and being an apostle of Jesus. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that pastors disclose every emotion, every stitch of worry. There are ways of being transparent that serve more to call attention to ourselves than to give glory to God.
But we need to consider the extent to which, in our local congregations, we share an understanding of the God who works powerfully through our weakness. And trust me, Paul will have much, much more to say about this as the letter continues.