According to therapist and researcher John Gottman, one of the signs of marital trouble is defensiveness. You might have a legitimate complaint to make about something I said or did. But I may not be able to hear it, especially if your complaints frequently come packaged as personal criticisms. It doesn’t take long before every negative comment sounds like a personal attack, whether it was meant that way or not. Instead of listening calmly or trying to work together to solve the problem, I fight back. Put in terms that any Star Trek fan can appreciate, my automatic reaction will be: Red alert! Raise shields! Fire phasers!
Some people can even get a reputation for defensiveness, for an inability to hear even the most constructively phrased criticism. “Oh, don’t bother talking to him,” others might say. “He’s too proud and sensitive. He won’t listen to anything you say.”
But what if the complaint isn’t legitimate? Is defense still defensiveness? It depends on the motivation. Is the person protecting his or her own ego, or standing up for the truth for the sake of the relationship?
For three chapters, Paul has been defending his apostleship against the insinuations of his rivals in Corinth. As he prepares to end the letter, he brings that defense to a close:
Have you been thinking up to now that we are defending ourselves to you? Actually, we are speaking in the sight of God and in Christ. Dear friends, everything is meant to build you up. (2 Cor 12:19, CEB)
It hardly sounds like defensive language. In the previous verses, he spoke of his fatherly love for them; here, he actually addresses them as his “beloved” (CEB, “dear friends”).
But Paul knows that it’s quite possible that anything he says can be misread, particularly when his rivals are whispering in the people’s ears: See how Paul defends himself? We must have hit a sore spot.
All he can do is declare the truth. He uses something like an oath: As God is my witness, everything I’ve done, everything I’ve said, is all for the sake of building you up. He’s shown repeatedly how he hates having to engage in the kind of foolish boasting necessary to answer the charges against him. But he does it for their sakes, knowing that if he loses this battle, they are lost to the gospel.
Defensiveness, sadly, is far too common in relationships. We automatically snap at each other without listening and assume the moral high ground: Who do you think you are…? And we may be much more adept at seeing the other person’s defensiveness than we are at seeing our own. In such a situation, it becomes nearly impossible to know when the other person is defending him or herself for the right reasons.
We would need to humble ourselves to seeking the truth first.