What you see is what you get

wallace shawnI wish the apostle Paul had a Facebook page. I just want to see what he looked like.

Descriptions of Paul from antiquity aren’t terribly complimentary. They make me think of character actor Wallace Shawn. You know — Vizzini (“Inconceivable!”) from The Princess Bride. Could Paul have looked like that? Is that really so inconceivable? Perhaps. But it might help explain his difficulties with the church in Corinth.

He writes:

Look at what is right in front of you! If anyone is sure about belonging to Christ, that person should think again. We belong to Christ just like that person. Even if I went on to brag about our authority, I wouldn’t be ashamed of it. The Lord gave us that authority to build you up and not to destroy you. I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to intimidate you with my letters. I know what some people are saying: “His letters are severe and powerful, but in person he is weak and his speech is worth nothing.” These people need to think about this—that when we are with you, our actions will show that we are the same as the words we wrote when we were away from you. (2 Cor 10:7-11, CEB)

As we’ve seen in previous posts, his opponents have been undermining his authority, portraying him as an inarticulate weakling who can only lob verbal darts from a safe distance. Indeed, the word translated here as “weak” can refer to an actual lack of physical strength, as in illness or infirmity. Paul even uses the word to describe himself (e.g., 1 Cor 2:3), especially in the context of what he will soon mysteriously call his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:5,9).

Thus, there may indeed have been something about Paul’s physical appearance that made it easy for his opponents to scoff, and convince others to do the same. But the people need to see things differently.

“Look at what’s right in front of you!” Paul commands. The verb is actually ambiguous: it can be translated either as “Look!” or as “You are looking.” That’s why the NIV has “You are judging by appearances” (with the alternative “Look at the obvious facts” in the margin). Which is correct?

In a sense, we don’t have to choose. The Corinthians are judging by appearances, and in so doing, they are overlooking the obvious. Paul is their spiritual father through his preaching of the gospel. Can they question his legitimacy without questioning their own? I can imagine Paul smacking his forehead in disbelief: Come on, people. It’s not that hard to figure out.

But that’s what happens when our stereotypes take over. Our automatic judgments can blind us to the obvious — including the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in another person’s life.

And in the situation Paul is addressing, it would also mean the Corinthians overlooking his work in their lives. More on that in the next post.