If we are crazy, it’s for God’s sake. If we are rational, it’s for your sake.
— Paul (2 Cor 5:13, CEB)
That seems like an odd thing to say. Literally, the contrast is between being “beside ourselves” and being “sober-minded.” But what does Paul mean?
It may be that the his opponents in Corinth were actually accusing him of being crazy. That’s why the NIV translation of the first part of the verse reads, “If we are ‘out of our mind,’ as some say, it is for God.” The translators have added the words “as some say” to suggest that Paul is echoing someone else’s words and then answering the charge.
Given all the things of which Paul seems to have been accused, this seems plausible. His whole life as an apostle, which was more about suffering and sacrifice than praise and prestige, was just too different from what his detractors thought it should be. Perhaps more to the point, it was too different from what they wanted for themselves.
But we’re still left with the question of what it meant for Paul to be “beside himself.” Are we talking about some garden-variety craziness, irrational zeal, or something else? Many commentators agree: in using the term “beside ourselves,” Paul is referring to ecstatic spirituality, whether speaking in tongues or some other experience.
Recall that a major issue in First Corinthians was the distribution and use of spiritual gifts. The Corinthians prized speaking in tongues as evidence of who had won the spiritual gift lottery. But that bias was creating unrest in the congregation and chaos in worship in a way that edified no one.
In response, Paul divulged what must have come as a surprise to many: that he himself spoke in tongues — more than any of them did! — but prioritized instruction and edification (cf. 1 Cor 14). Tongues could be a wonderful expression of spirituality in the context of one’s private prayer life, but in public, whatever was best for building up others was to be preferred.
Thus, what Paul is saying in Second Corinthians may be something more like this: I know my opponents prize showy spirituality, and they’ve questioned whether I could truly be an apostle when I don’t look as “spiritual” as they do. It’s not that I don’t have such experiences — I’ve just chosen to keep this between me and God. What you need from me as your pastor right now is something different: self-control and reasoned argument.
If this is the right reading, the implications for us are clear. There are both private and public dimensions to our lives; necessarily, our spiritual lives are both private and public too. The question is this: to what extent is the public expression motivated by the desire to impress?
Or to put the matter from the opposite direction: to what extent are the things we do as Christians motivated by love? As we’ll see in the next post, that is the driving force behind Paul’s vision and ministry.