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What we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. (2 Corinthians 5:11)

Today we look at another pressure that causes many to lose heart. I want to speak today especially to all the parents who endure the pain of a son or daughter, or perhaps another family member who has nothing good to say about you. You have done your best to love your children and provide for them but for some reason a son or a daughter has turned against you. Nothing you do is ever right. There is an antagonism even a hostility towards you.

I want to speak today to all of you who have been loyal to a difficult task, loyal to a difficult spouse, loyal to a difficult friend. But you have been taken for granted and presumed upon. The good that you have done has scarcely been recognized. The sacrifices you have made seem to count for nothing. Sometimes you feel that you have been treated with contempt.

I’m speaking today to the person who lives under the constant pressure of unrealistic expectations. You are held by others to an impossible standard and nothing you do is ever good enough. Perhaps you are living in the shadow of another person to whom you can never match up. The weight of spoken and unspoken critique is crushing to you, and often you feel that you are losing heart.

If you have ever been harshly judged or unfairly criticized, if your motives have ever been questioned, if you have ever been despised, patronized, or ridiculed this message is for you.

2 Corinthians is the most personal of all of Paul’s letters. He speaks about himself more here than in any other letter, and clearly he is uncomfortable in doing so. To understand what was happening here, you need to know a couple of things, and here’s the first:

Paul Loved the Believers at Corinth Deeply

Paul went to Corinth and gave himself to a ministry of pioneer evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. It wasn’t easy. Paul was thrown out of the synagogue, so he started up some kind of house church with a man by the name of Titius Justus, and he stayed on in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching the word of God to the believers there (Acts 18:11). The bonds between Paul and these people ran deep.

He had risked his life to bring the gospel to them.

We were the first to come all the way to you with the gospel of Christ (2 Cor. 10:14).

Paul must have been tempted to lose heart, because this was when the Lord spoke to him in a vision: “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:10).

He had personally led many of these people to the Lord.

For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel (1 Cor. 4:15).

He had extended himself in tireless effort on their behalf.

I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls (2 Cor. 12:15).

He loved them, sought their good, and wept over them.

I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you (2 Cor. 2:4).

Some Believers at Corinth Had Become Critical of Paul

It’s clear that some people made too much of Paul, “I follow Paul” (1 Cor. 1:12), and he hated that.  This was the last thing that Paul wanted, so he asked them, “Was Paul crucified for you?” (1 Cor. 1:13). What is Paul? Only a servant through whom you believed (1 Cor. 3:5).

Some made too much of Paul, while others went the other way. So Paul says to them, “It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you” (1 Cor. 4:3). These were the people to whom he had brought the gospel. He had led them to the Lord. Now they were making judgments about him and their judgments were not kind. Whatever Paul did, they thought the worst.

Here are some examples of the catalogue of criticism Paul was getting from these Christians he had loved so much and done so much for, and extended himself for in many ways.

1. He’s unreliable

I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea. Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. (2 Cor. 1:16-18).

Paul had a change of travel plans, which he explains later in chapter 2. But the people who had it in for him seized on that and said, “There you are. You can’t rely on him. He says one thing and he does another.” The mud gets thrown at the wall and some of it sticks.

2. He’s unimpressive

They say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak” (2 Cor. 10:10).

In other words, “He writes these impressive letters under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but his bodily presence is weak.” For all his relentless drive, Paul had a very tender spirit. For all his courage in the face of suffering, he was not a naturally confident person.

Paul says (in 1 Cor. 2:3), “I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.” These are not the words of a massive personality who sucks the air out of the room.

3. He’s ineffective

They say… “His bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10).

Rhetoric was an art form, especially among the Greeks in the early world. People would go out to hear the accomplished rhetoricians put on a performance. It was great entertainment.

Paul didn’t do that. He spoke plainly. He simply taught the Word of God. He says, “I… did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1). Paul describes his own speaking as “the open statement of the truth” (2 Cor. 4:2).

The fault finders pick up on this: “He isn’t a big personality and he isn’t even a good speaker.  What have been the results of his ministry? People respond to the really gifted speakers. But Paul’s speech is of no account.”

4. He’s proud

We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart (2 Cor. 5:12).

This business of “commending” is all over Paul’s letter. It seems that the critics accused Paul of making too much of himself. The truth was that it was other people who made too much of Paul, not Paul himself.

This put Paul in a difficult position. He felt that he had to say something in response to the criticism, so that the good people of Corinth would be able to answer the critics. But he knew that anything he said would be used against him by the people who had it in for him.

5. He’s out of his mind

If we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you (2 Cor. 5:13).

Evidently, some people were saying that Paul was out of his mind, “There’s something wrong with him you know.” The fault finders had run up quite a catalogue of criticism: He’s unreliable! He’s unimpressive! He’s ineffective! He’s proud! And he’s out of his mind!

Paul feels like a father toward his children, but these are difficult children. With all that he’s done for them: He brought the gospel to them, he discipled them, and he loves them – most of them are ungrateful. Many are unkind. Some are downright cruel.

How did this happen? A warning against the sin of slander

A powerful force had laid claim to the minds and hearts of these people. Paul refers to them as the “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5). People who have a critical spirit usually pick it up from others. Bad company ruins good character. That’s why the Bible says, “Blessed is the man… [who does not sit] in the seat of scoffers” (Ps. 1:1).

If you hang out with people whose habitual conversation is to criticize, it will change your character. Don’t hang out with people whose habitual conversation is to tear others down. Don’t hang out with people who are habitually critical of the church or its leaders. If you do, it will rub off on you and you will lose the blessing of God.

Young people, do not hang out with those who are always bad-mouthing their parents. It will rub off on you, infecting your heart. Eventually it will come out of your mouth, and you will offend God and sin against the fifth commandment – honor your father and your mother.

Imagine having breakfast with someone who is coming down with the flu. He sits down opposite you in the booth, and then he starts coughing and spluttering, “Oh I’m very sorry,” he says, “I am coming down with the flu.”

You start thinking, “If I sit here much longer, I will probably get it too!” That’s what it is like when you are in the company of someone with a critical spirit, the person who thinks the worst of others, the person who pulls other people down.

Augustine, the great African church leader from the fifth century, felt so strongly about this that he had these words engraved on the table in his home,

Whoever loves another’s name to blast,
This table’s not for him; so let him fast. [1]

Augustine was saying, “If you want to tear other people down, you are not welcome at my table, and I am not interested in sitting at yours.” A conversation that makes people think less of another person is not one that you want to be part of.

We owe it to each other always to make the kindest judgments, always to think the best of others. Make more of a person’s virtues than their faults. Make more of a person’s strength’s than their weaknesses.

Don’t be a critic. Don’t be a fault-finder. Never assume the worst. Love abhors the statement, “There’s never smoke without a fire.” Love always hopes. So when you hear something unkind about another person, love says, “I hope that’s not true.”

Love is patient and kind, so even where a person is at fault, love remembers that my faults are many, and since Jesus has been patient and kind towards me, the least I can do is be patient and kind towards the faults and failings of others.

How Did Paul Respond? Grace under Fire

Put yourself in Paul’s shoes. You risked your life to bring the gospel to these people. You personally led many of them to the Lord. You extended yourself in unrelenting effort on their behalf. You love them, you have sought their good, and you have wept over them.

But many of them are ungrateful, most of them are critical, and some of them are downright cruel. They say that you are unreliable, unimpressive, ineffective, proud, and out of your mind. How does that make you feel? That’s awful! How are you going to respond?

One way is to fight fire with fire. Paul doesn’t do that. Another is to say, “I am so out of here! I’m off to Thessalonica or Galatia, anywhere but here!” And another is that you simply lose heart. You turn in on yourself and say, “What is the point?” And a darkness begins to settle over you. Paul didn’t do any of these things. Here’s what he did, and what you can also do.

Maintain a clear conscience

For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you (2 Cor. 1:12).

I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me (1 Cor. 4:4).

A clear conscience means that you are not aware of any controversy between you and God. The sin you are aware of has been confessed and placed under the blood of Jesus. It has been forgiven and you are at peace with God. He doesn’t hold it against you. You are not aware of anything God is calling you to do that you are resisting. You are not aware of anything he has forbidden you to do that you are pursuing.

A clear conscience does not mean that you are without sin. There may be actual sin of which you are not yet aware. And for all of us there is latent sin that can break out at any time in our lives. This is why Paul says, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:4).

The aim of a Christian in this life is to hold to faith and a good conscience (1 Tim 1:19). That’s why the prayer at the end of Psalm 139 and the confession that comes from it is so important: “Search me O God, and know my heart… See if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:23-24).

Find peace because God knows your heart

What we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience (2 Cor. 5:11).

The order here is important. If you have a bad conscience, the fact that God knows you will not bring comfort and peace, in fact that ought to disturb you!

If you have a dispute with God today, if you are resisting his authority over your life, holding out on what you know he is calling you to do, or pressing ahead with what you know he forbids you to do, the best thing you can do is to bow before him in confession and repentance, because no one who fights against God ever wins!

But when you have a clear conscience, the fact that God knows you brings great peace: “What we are is known to God!” Paul says, “And I hope it is known also to your conscience.” In other words, “I hope you know in your heart that the things people are saying are not true. But whatever you think, what we truly are is known to God!”

This will help you when you face criticism. When others look down on you and say all kinds of things against you, you can say with Paul, “Others may think I am unreliable, unimpressive, ineffective, proud, and even out of my mind. But what I am is known to God. God knows me.”  Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.

Draw strength from the love of Christ

The love of Christ controls us (2 Cor. 5:14).  

Think about what Christ endured from sinful men. Here’s the Son of God, and he comes into the world and he touches and heals people, and what do they say about him? They call him Beelzebub (which means the devil; Mark 3:22). His own family said he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21). People set themselves against Jesus so that nothing he said or did was ever right or good in their eyes.

Jesus said, “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon,’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Mat. 11:16-19).

Nothing God does is ever right in the eyes of the sinner.

The disciples wanted to fight fire with fire. James and John say, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54). Peter draws his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus tells him to put it away (Mat. 26:52).

You would think that Jesus might lift up his hands in prayer to the Father and say, “Father, it’s time for the ascension. These people are selfish, ungrateful, and cruel.” But no. While we were still sinners, bad-mouthing God, Christ died for us. That’s the love of Christ!

Remember, every time you complain against God, you are finding fault with the One who loved you and gave himself for you. Don’t be a fault-finder with God. Don’t be a critic of the Almighty.

In the book of Hebrews we read these words: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb. 12:3). Then he adds this: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:4).

So people are saying that you are unreliable, unimpressive, ineffective, proud, and out of your mind, and this criticism is really hurtful to you? Is that all? Is this the extent of your suffering?  People criticize you?

Jesus shed his blood! They drove nails into his hands and his feet and strung him up on a cross.  Think about what happened to him and you will get a better perspective on your own suffering. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself and you will not lose heart.


[1] Augustine, quoted by Thomas Watson, Beatitiudes, (Banner of Truth, 1971) p. 146

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