“Love hurts.” So sang the rock group Nazareth in the late 70s. I wonder if they had ever been exposed to local church life. After all, those who follow Jesus of Nazareth know this all too well. The apostle Paul certainly did.
This morning, I read what has always been to me some of the most loving, and yet some of the saddest words, in Scripture. Second Corinthians 12:15 reads, “And I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved.”
The apostle Paul wrote those words no doubt with both deep sincerity and sorrow. He had spent a long time pouring his heart and soul into the discipling of many of these believers, eventually seeing them formed into a local church. Corinth was not an easy place to minister. It was perhaps one of the most morally degraded places in the ancient world. But its sexual debauchery was exceeded only by its idolatrous paganism. In fact, the two went hand in hand, often literally, to the local temple/brothel.
Paul was not given to cowardice, for his fear of God was intense enough to ward off the debilitating fear of man. But when he first visited Corinth, it seems that, perhaps for the first time in his ministry, he had a bit of a panic attack. Though we do not know the details, it is clear that he needed a word from the Lord if he would continue his ministry there. The Lord, in a vision, said to him, “Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9–10).
Paul remained there for eighteen months and the Lord blessed his ministry in a profound way. But when he eventually departed, troubles arose.
Both of his inspired epistles to this church indicate that serious problems of sinful behaviour existed—including the presence of false apostles. They were perverting the truth and slandering Paul to the very ones to whom he had so faithfully ministered. This toxic combination of sin and slander must have cut deeply to his heart. Nevertheless, he proclaimed his love to them. He told them that he continued to hold them dear to his soul; in fact, having already faithfully “been spent” for them, he was more than willing to continue to make such loving expenditures. What I find so remarkable, and painful, is what he says next: “though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved.” Can you feel his heart? Having loved them so selflessly, he had come to experience what most who are meaningfully connected to a local church experience: the reality that love hurts.
Life is painful, and sometimes it can be especially painful for Christians who experience pain from the hand of their fellow church members. In fact, the longer that one is a member of a church, the more real becomes the experience that love hurts.
As you serve in a church—showing hospitality, discipling, visiting members in need, making meals, counselling, worshipping alongside others, learning with them, sharing joys and sorrows with them, ministering both to and alongside them—the result is that relationships are fostered and love deepens. And then—wham!—there is an upset. Perhaps it is some insensitive action or comment, or behaviour that is thoughtless and inconsiderate. Perhaps you sense that you are being killed by silence through a lack of gratitude, driven by a critical spirit. Perhaps the leadership has failed you in your time of need. Perhaps unkind words are exchanged. Perhaps it is some relational or commercial misunderstanding—like a church member selling you a car (or whatever) that turns out to be a lemon! Perhaps a blow-up occurs between members of a ministry group. I am sure that we can fill in the blanks with our own autobiographical hurt. But the point is, as we all know, church life can be painful; it can be very painful. I have had people tell me that the pain caused by believers “hurts like hell.” I understand what they are saying—but not so fast. Hell is hopeless, the church is not. So, how should we respond? Like Paul did.
Rather than run from the church (though there may, in fact, be legitimate times to leave), most of us should actually run to the church. We should, following Paul’s example, continue to “spend and to be spent” for the souls of our brothers and sisters in Christ. And the key word here is gladly. Not grudgingly, but happily, joyfully. This is how love responds.
Now, you might think that this is impossible. And apart from the Lord Jesus Christ it will be. But this is precisely the issue. Again, Paul provides a flesh and blood example.
In his first letter to this church, Paul twice exhorted them to “imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1). The latter reference makes clear why: “as I also imitate Christ.” We know from John 13:1 that, when it came to loving His disciples, Jesus “loved them to the end.” I might add, and paraphrase, that (in the light of their forsaking Him) “even though the more abundantly He loved the disciples, the less He was loved.” You see, for Paul, loving the brethren had everything to do with loving His Saviour. The same is true for you and me.
Yes, if you hang around BBC long enough, you will be hurt. You will perhaps even, though I hope not, be hurt badly. But continue to follow the Saviour and “spend and be spent” for the soul-welfare of your fellow church member. Love hurts, but not nearly as much as bitterness and hatred. So learn to forgive, learn to selflessly love and therefore to joyfully “spend” for the enrichment of others. Then it won’t be such a big deal when the more abundantly you love, the less you are loved. After all, if Jesus loves you, that is enough. In fact, when you seriously think about it, this is more than enough.