In our relationships, we want things to be balanced. Nobody likes to feel that they’re putting in more than their fair share, only to receive nothing in return.
But the relationship between parents and children, at first, is anything but balanced. Good parents make inordinate sacrifices for their kids, often putting their own needs aside for the sake of little ones who can’t fend for themselves. And through all of this, parents don’t expect to be repaid in kind.
A little affection in return, however, would be nice. Mom and Dad can go a long way on smiles and hugs.
Paul has been dealing with continuing resistance in Corinth. Most of the believers there have come back to their senses, but there are still pockets of doubt. In his letter, he’s made perfectly and poetically clear that the trials he suffers for the gospel are not evidence against the validity of his calling. Quite the contrary: his joyful endurance in the midst of suffering shows that God’s hand is definitely upon him.
Having said this, Paul continues:
Corinthians, we have spoken openly to you, and our hearts are wide open. There are no limits to the affection that we feel for you. You are the ones who placed boundaries on your affection for us. But as a fair trade—I’m talking to you like you are children—open your hearts wide too. (2 Cor 6:11-13, CEB)
The tone is affectionate and fatherly, as one might expect from someone who responds to suffering with hope and joy. And as we have seen before, his primary concern is for them, as a parent for a child: rejecting him means rejecting the gospel, rejecting life. He’s not pouting over hurt feelings, but wanting them to stop doubting and open their hearts to him — especially since he’s about to give them some stern counsel (surprise, surprise).
Still, I wonder. Paul the apostle of grace is also a man of great passion. He is capable of deep affection, even for the people who have given him grief. And even if, as biblical scholars rightly caution, we shouldn’t read this passage as being about Paul’s need to air his feelings, he would be less of a human being if he didn’t have those feelings.
In other words, it’s true that Paul may be appealing to their sense of fairness to achieve his pastoral purpose: he wants them to heed what he has to say. But that’s not to say that he hasn’t felt the relationship to be unfair, anymore than he would deny that the things he’s suffered as an apostle actually constitute suffering. The difference is that his love for Jesus and for them allows him to continue to keep their welfare front and center.
Parents understand this. Our children will sometimes reject us, sometimes run heedlessly and headlong in the direction opposite our counsel. It wounds us personally; it feels unfair. And it can leave us lying awake at night fearing for their safety and well-being.
And yet we still love them. We still want them to open their hearts to us. As we wait, the question is whether we know what Paul knows, whether we see what he sees: that in a world loved by a God who took the ultimate injustice upon himself, anything is possible.