Summary: We either want to disengage from conflict situations and save ourselves the pain, or we have to absorb the guilt of being absent and causing others pain. Trust an abundant God, who is able to take our pain and express abundant love.
We serve a God of abundance and not a God of scarcity. Ours is not a dilettante deity with nothing in His hands. Ours is the God who possesses the cattle on a thousand hills, who flung the stars into space, and who has made all things – all things. All things are made by Him and all things are at His disposal. He gives His gifts in abundance to His people, and asks only that we place these things into the service of His will. He asks us to trust Him to provide us with an abundant life, and out of faith then to give back for His work. He is an abundant Lord, giving us an abundant life, and He wants from us an abundant church. We serve a God of abundance and not a God of scarcity.
Mrs. Verna Royle was very old when I first met her, an incredible 102 years of age. She was the last surviving charter member of the church I served as pastor. Takoma Park Baptist Church had been founded in 1919, and she was there from the beginning. But at the age of 89 her back had given out, and she had been put into nursing care. Now, thirteen years later, she was still in that same nursing home, and, every time I would go visit her, she said the same thing: “Oh, Pastor Smith, I don’t know why I am still here. I am in pain every day, all day. I ask the Lord to take me home, but He has not. I don’t know why I am still here, in all this pain.” I offered words of encouragement, I read Scriptures, I prayed with her, but, truth to tell, I didn’t know either why someone should stay around that long, lying in one bed in one room. Nor could I offer her a clear and convincing explanation of why she should have been in pain for so long. I knew it would be a stiff challenge, every time I visited Verna Royle, to respond to her cry, “Pastor, I don’t know why I am still here, in pain every day, all day.”
No one likes pain. No one volunteers for pain. No one but a psychopath, I suppose, deliberately inflicts pain on himself, and no one but a sadist enjoys creating pain for others. We will do all we can to prevent pain. But life often presents us with a difficult choice: either choose the absence of pain or choose the pain of absence. Either choose to be absent from the places where there is pain, living your life calmly and happily and without a care in the world; or choose to absorb into yourself the guilt and shame of absence. Either choose to let the pains of the world pass you by and live your life in the bubble; or choose to take on the painful guilt of living irresponsibly. Not a happy choice, right? But when it comes to the Kingdom of God and to His church, that is the choice: either elect the absence of pain or the pain of absence. Whichever way we go, we create pain for ourselves and for others.
Or is there another possibility? Is there a possibility connected with this God of ours, who is a God of abundance and not a God of scarcity?
Paul had been in a lengthy and conflicted relationship with the Corinthian church. I rehearsed for you last week some of the issues – factiousness, immorality, disorderly conduct, pride – the whole gamut. And Paul had dealt with these things forthrightly and clearly. By the time that he is writing this passage, he is feeling better about the church at Corinth. He even calls them fellow-workers who stand firm in the faith. So today’s passage is really about Paul working on Paul, not Paul working on the church. It is Paul thinking about his own feelings and trying to explain why he chose not to visit Corinth. He says he did not visit, he was absent, because he did not want to cause any more pain; but he also gives us a glimpse inside his own heart, where we discover that he was tired of dealing with his own pain. Paul struggles in this passage with whether he did the right thing – was it better for him to have tamped down his own pain, the pain that he felt because they had been rejecting his leadership? Or was it better for him to have stayed away and just let them work on their own issues, without his involvement? Except that that too would have been painful, painful because he would not have been able to express his abundant love for the people of Corinth.
To put it all as simply as I can: Paul is struggling, as he writes, with his own painful feelings. Has he, by staying away, dealt with his own anguish? Has he achieved the absence of pain? Or has Paul, by disengaging for a while, just deepened the pain of absence? The absence of pain or the pain of absence. Let’s work on this and see how it plays out.