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Hard Conversations

Published: 3 years ago- 14 March 2021
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If you are anything like me, sometimes there are conversations which you just dread having. The prospect of having to bring up something painful or embarrassing with Fiona, or tackle one of the girls lovingly about something, or to raise an awkward issue with a work colleague, or gently expose a character issue with a student – when I know a conversation like that is looming, I can feel my stomach tightening, and my anxiety levels rising. As we start to talk, the tension is palpable… but once it’s over, there is a massive sense of relief. Not that everything is sorted, nor even that we can just forget the whole conversation ever happened – there may be lots of things to follow up or work through – but the pressure has been released, we can all heave a sigh of relief, and at last, we can start to allow our minds to turn more to what comes next. I think that’s where we’re at at MPC, and it’s certainly where we’re at in 2nd Corinthians. As we reach chapter 7, and move past the halfway point in the letter, there is a significant change of mood. It is as if Paul has said the hard stuff, and now visibly relaxes, and opens up even more, in what is just about the most touch-feely passage in any of his writings, as he starts by saying in verses 1-4…


Sit back and feel the warmth in verses 2-4: Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one. 3I do not say this to condemn you; I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. 4I have spoken to you with great frankness; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds. Now Paul isn’t just ignoring the issues they’ve had – he reminds them again that he has acted with complete integrity. He hasn’t been too harsh (that’s the ‘wronged’ bit), he hasn’t led them astray by teaching them wrong ideas (the ‘corrupted’ bit), and he hasn’t been a greedy user who exploited them. There are no glaring contradictions in the way in which he speaks, writes, leads, teaches and serves; no gaping holes between what he says and what he has and hasn’t done. So, it seems, he regularly examines himself to check on his tone, his content and his motives. He pursues integrity. He’s committed to being the real deal. But that’s not the main focus of what he’s saying here. This is: Make room in your hearts for us… . you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. 4I have spoken to you with great frankness; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds. I love the fact that this is how Paul speaks to the church that seems to have cost him the most intense, longest-lasting headaches. This is what loving each other looks like. The language of making room for each other implies that other people take up space – our headspace, our emotional resources, but Paul says let’s shift things around to make sure there is always space for one more. And there’s nothing shallow or banal about this love – for Paul, it means being willing to live or die with or for people. It means being so invested in other people that when they flourish, we do too. Their progress spurs us on. Their perseverance encourages us because we care. And in a remarkable phrase , Paul says even when things are bumpy between us, our joy knows no bounds. Why does he say that? He says it because, as he’s about to explain, despite their propensity to pay too much attention to passing philosophers, despite their stubbornness, he has heard enough good news about the church in Corinth, that he is absolutely overjoyed. It seems that the extent to which we ‘make room in our hearts’ for other people controls the depth of our joy, of our enjoyment of life in church. Now I have to say, that’s an idea which goes completely against the flow of life in the English-speaking world. I’m reading a book by an old College friend at the moment called The rise and triumph of the modern self’, which charts how over the couple of hundred years, there has been an inexorable shift from focus on a shared sense of the common good to a preoccupation with self-expression and self-realisation. As a society, we are less interested in what’s right for us as a whole and instead are focused on what I say is good for me. So I get to marry who I want. I get to choose my gender and my pronouns. And if you make me feel bad, then you must be stopped. The self is king. Which is what makes life in the church so utterly different – because my joy, my is not grounded in my preferences, but on your flourishing! So let’s make room in our hearts for each other! And just in case we missed how important this is, Paul explains that he doesn’t just treat the Corinthians like this, he is deeply committed to Titus as well. Look at how he speaks about Titus in verse 5: For when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn-conflicts on the outside, fears within. Normally, Macedonia was one of Paul’s favourite holiday destinations, but not this time – he was stressed about the Corinthians, and stressed about Titus, who hadn’t shown up. But when he did, listen to the sense of relief: 6But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, 7and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever.This really is a win-win situation for Paul. Titus shows up, and that thrilled him, and he showed up with news that the Corinthians, rather than having rejected him, cared deeply about him. He really does care. And to top it off, Paul took real joy in Titus’ delight in the Corinthians in verse 13 – In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you. Do you hear how invested Paul is in both Titus and the Corinthians? This is what it looks like when we make room in our hearts for each other. And I love the little footnote in verse 14: Paul, it seems, had been talking Titus up to the Corinthians – which, in a fallen world, is always a bit risky! I remember boasting once about how friendly our church in Dublin was. Which was fine until another minister came to visit, and not a single person spoke to him or his wife, which he was quick to tell me in an email on Monday morning. But Titus came through for Paul with flying colours: 14 I had boasted to him about you, and you have not embarrassed me. But it turns out that Paul hadn’t just boasted about Titus to the Corinthians, he had boasted about the church of Corinth to Titus – and it all came off, much to Paul’s relief! But just as everything we said to you was true, so our boasting about you to Titus has proved to be true as well.15 And his affection for you is all the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him with fear and trembling 16 I am glad I can have complete confidence in you. Remember this is the Corinthians he’s talking about! Of course, this isn’t easy. Of course it’s demanding. Making room in our hearts for others like this is opening ourselves up to a lifetime of concern – to sleepless nights, and painful conversations, and anxious waits as we invest in each other and care for each other in ways that are costly and time consuming. In case you hadn’t worked it out yet, the hardest thing about church is always people. It doesn’t matter how extroverted or introverted you may be, it doesn’t matter how much you like the person or you struggle with them, making room for people always drains energy and sucks up time. Loving people is hard. In fact, it’s so hard, that the only thing that can help us to do it is the cross-shaped love that Jesus has already lavished on us. And in the same way that financial investments can fall as well as rise, investing in people is a long-haul activity, with all kinds of painful fluctuations along the way. But this is what Jesus himself does for us and calls us to do with him. So are we up for it? On Friday morning, I read something written by an English pastor called Richard Sibbes at the beginning of the 17th Century. Sibbes wrote ‘Our discord is the enemy’s melody… . and the weakness of human nature is such that there can hardly be a discovery of any difference in opinion without some estrangement of affection‘ which is why the Lord Jesus calls us not to settle for anything less than making room in our hearts for each other. So let’s do it. And as part of that,


Because Paul is committed to loving men like Titus and churches like that at Corinth, then it is hardly a surprise that he is also willing to say what needs to be said – even if it is deeply unpopular. And why does he do it? Paul does it because he knows that this kind of loving honesty is a further step to sharing in real joy. Look back with me to 7:8, where Paul talks again about the difficult letter he had written them. He has mentioned this several times, of course, but this time, Paul reveals that he knows how they responded to it: 8Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it-I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while-. Does he sound conflicted? A bit – but the message is clear. He didn’t want to hurt them, but knew it was better for them if he spoke the truth, painful though it was. John Chrysostom in the 4th century wrote, ‘Like a father who watches his son being operated on, Paul rejoices not for the pain being inflicted, but for the cure which is the ultimate result.’ Either way, Paul said what he had to, and the result was repentance and joy – 9yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. So are you ready to say things which are hard when necessary? To say what needs to be said to bring people to their senses, and bring them back to God? Are you ready to gently and lovingly call sin sin for the good of your brother or sister? That is basically what Paul did in the ‘painful letter’. He tackled a really difficult and messy moral issue in the church. And why did he do it? To make sure that it didn’t drive a wedge down the middle of the church and damage the work of the gospel in their lives. As always, his main concern was actually the church of God in Corinth, as he called them right at the start of the letter – which is his point in 7:12: So even though I wrote to you, it was neither on account of the one who did the wrong nor on account of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are.By which I think he means that they would realise just how much they share in Christ, if Paul loves them enough to speak the truth. That’s why he can say 13By all this we are encouraged. He took the plunge, said what needed to be said, and the outcome was so healthy. And the takeaway for us? From this point on, having made room in our hearts for each other, let’s be prepared to say the hard thing lovingly – to say what needs to be said for, and to do it for the sake of the Lord Jesus himself . Let’s be real with each other. I should just add a couple of caveats – first, do remember that you might be completely wrong, and second, don’t expect people to thank you for your honesty – because they almost certainly won’t – at least not straight away. We are people who instinctively blame others for our problems. That has a long and embarrassing history, stretching all the way back to Adam’s conversation with God in Eden after he had sinned ‘because of the woman you put here’. We need to remember that – straight-talking, especially when it comes to our sinfulness is rarely appreciated , not least because we are wired to blame someone else – but if we love each other, then we will commit together to this kind of reality – not least because this is the way to shared joy, Which is exactly what Paul says in verses 10-13.


The reason that it’s worth loving each other enough to be real, even if it makes people sad in the short-term, is that godly grief leads to real repentance which in turn leads to enjoying the freedom of our salvation in Christ. Or to put it more slightly differently, speaking the truth in love leads to repentance leads to joy. Come with me to the verses at the heart of this section – we’ll pick up Paul’s argument in verse 9: yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. 10Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. 11See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. They felt the sting of Paul’s words, they repented, they changed, and that brought him joy! The stunning statement in verse 10 is the key to understanding Paul’s soaring point here: Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. Repentance, properly understood, is the place to start the Christian life, and a place to stay, and the way to continue. In the words of one writer, ‘Only repentance is brute-honest enough and joyous enough to bring us all the way home. But how repentance could be either joyous to us or vibrantly true is a foreign idea to most of us.’ That’s so right. Repentance doesn’t come easily to us. But it is the only thing that will bring us redemption, even restoration. You can see that in the distinction that Paul makes between ‘godly sorrow’ and ‘worldly sorrow’. Godly sorrow leads to repentance and joy, and worldly grief which leads to death. But what is he talking about? How can we tell the difference? When life falls apart (and especially when we come face to face with our sin), we have a variety of options. We can choose option A, ‘Crisis repentance’ – the kind of thing that people experience when engines fail on the plane and they start making promises to a God whom up until 5 seconds before, they refused to believe in. Then we have option B, ‘Ritual repentance’ where we try to deal with our feelings of guilt by going to church at Christmas, or lighting a candle, or even giving some money to the rural fire brigade. We also have option C, ‘Manipulative repentance’, which is to put on such a performance of despair, crying ‘woe is me’ as loud and as often as necessary to elicit some sympathy from those around us (even if they happen to be the people we have hurt, thus causing the guilt in the first place). If we pull that off, then we feel better, no further action is necessary and we can forget the whole thing. The problem with options A, B and C is that they are all forms of ‘worldly grief’ which leads, according to Paul, to death. So what kind of repentance are we looking for then? Is there an option D? Thank God there is! Nowhere is this better (or more succinctly) expressed than in the Westminster Confession of Faith, published in London 1646, the document which our new elders will sign up to next week. Here’s what it says: Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace.By it, a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, [and here’s the definition:] so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavouring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments… .This is the way to relief and joy. J. I. Packer sums that up for us like this: godly sorrow involves 5 steps: discern the sin, desire forgiveness, decide to ask for help, deal with God, demonstrate change. In other words, when real repentance happens, we know. The tears are real, the words are humble, the determination is obvious, the change is real. And the joy is real. This is what flows from godly grief. This is when God has done something to us and in us. This repentance unto life. This is the repentance that leads to tears of relief and the sense of joy that flows to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection. I hope you get this, because this is one of the most distinctive things about the church of the Lord Jesus – our church family should be a community where we are so committed to making room for one another in our hearts, to being being real and honest, so invested in one another, that we’re willing to say the hard word when necessary, and when we are exposed, to showing godly sorrow that brings repentance. That’s why church should be a space in which yes we are taught, and sing and pray, but it should be a place where we weep and ask forgiveness, and gladly hold out forgiveness, so that together, as deeply broken people who are gradually being mended by Christ, we can share in his joy together. Everywhere we look in church, there should be love and care, and truth being spoken; there should be people repenting all over the place, as we taste the very joy of God. This passage sets the bar high. We are called to relationships which are rich and think, painful and exposing, confronting and challenging, but which are deeply loving, and deeply real, and allow us to share in the joy of repentance together. This is what we should pursue for ourselves, and long for in others, because from this kind of repentance, from this grief according to God, flows real change and lasting joy. And there is one more thing, which really sums up everything that Paul says in this chapter…


Here’s what he says: 13b ‘In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you… . 15And his affection for you is all the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him with fear and trembling. Paul is encouraged because of the Corinthians and Titus. Titus is encouraged because of the Corinthians. He wants the Corinthians to be encouraged because of him and Titus. It’s all about investing in, being concerned for, being encouraged by other people. The remarkable thing about the gospel of the Lord Jesus is that it turns us out from ourselves to focus on others. Because we are united to Christ by faith, because we belong to Christ, have been made alive in Christ, because he lives in us as his Temple by his Holy Spirit, then we are set up to forget about ourselves and throw ourselves into living for other people. Because of Christ himself, we make room in our hearts for each other, we’re prepared to be real with each other, together we seek real joy and transformation through godly repentance – we put each other first as God does his gospel-shaped work both in and through us. All of this, of course, is really hard. It’s hard loving people. It’s hard being honest with each other. It’s hard pushing through godly sorry to real repentance. It’s hard putting other people first. But wherever we struggle, the great news is that the strength we need, the forgiveness, the willpower, the delight, all of it is already ours in the Lord Jesus Christ – the one who both embodies and provides the solid and lasting joy which flows from the happiness of God himself. So brothers and sisters, let us run to him, and let’s love like him, that he might delight in us here at MPC, even as he enables us to delight in him. Amen.