When You Are Misunderstood

2 Corinthians 1:12-2:4

Are you guilty of assumicide?

That’s a word I discovered this week. It’s what happens when you make false assumptions about others so that you can portray them in the worst possible light. Michael Andrus says we do this all the time:

We are so prone to be suspicious. When we become offended or hurt, we immediately begin to look for evidence that someone did us wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I have done that in my marriage or in my parenting. But I can tell you how many times it’s been done to me; I keep track of those things. I’m being a bit facetious, but not much. It’s really amazing to me how often I am quick to assume that someone has it in for me (from the message “When Your Integrity Is Impugned”).

Assumicide leads to the death of relationships because we end up believing the worst about others. We’ve all been guilty of drawing wrong conclusions on the basis of tiny scraps of evidence:

He didn’t call back so he must not want to talk to me.
I think she’s trying to ignore me.
They never hire people like me.
That church is so unfriendly.
How could he be a Christian and act like that?
I saw her in a bar. She must have a drinking problem.
I’ll bet they are sleeping together.
He’s probably a jerk at home too.
I don’t like him. I don’t know why. I just don’t like him.
She’s full of herself.
You can’t trust someone who dresses like that.
He’s a hypocrite.

On the other hand, if you are the victim of assumicide, it’s very hard to fight back against false assumptions. Few things hurt more than being misunderstood by our close friends. The closer they are to us, the greater the pain. When that happens we discover a lot about ourselves. How we respond when we’ve been misunderstood tells a great deal about the depth of our Christian faith.

We’ve all been guilty of drawing wrong conclusions on the basis of tiny scraps of evidence.

Our passage brings us face to face with a strange situation that at first glance doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal. The apostle Paul found himself in trouble with a church he had founded in the Greek seaport of Corinth. From Acts 18:1-18 we know that he spent 18 months in Corinth winning people to Christ and establishing the church. After he left a faction arose in the congregation that questioned his leadership. They challenged his authority, insinuated that he wasn’t a “real” apostle, attacked his character, and accused him of using the Corinthian church for his own gain. The troublemakers succeeded in turning most of the church against him.

And their chief complaint was this. Paul couldn’t be trusted because he had changed his travel plans-not once but twice. He hadn’t come back to visit the Corinthians as he said he would. That proved he was a fickle man whose character and message could not be trusted.

Just remember this. It started over something small. That’s how it usually happens. Someone didn’t greet us in the hallway, they didn’t answer our email, they didn’t invite us to their party, they didn’t show up for an appointment. Or we heard they said something negative about us. Or they didn’t laugh at our jokes. Or they suddenly seem cold when they used to be glad to see us.

Little things.
Small stuff.
Petty complaints.

From a tiny spark of discontent a mighty flame of unhappiness grows. That flame soon becomes a wildfire that threatens to destroy a relationship. Congregations have split and friendships have ended over things that started very small but grew all out of proportion.

Let’s check out this passage to see how Paul responded to a misunderstanding that threatened to destroy a friendship and a local church.

I. Our Actions May Be Questioned.

From a careful reading of 1 and 2 Corinthians it appears that Paul made three different decisions about his trip to Corinth:

1. He planned to go to Macedonia and then to Corinth. We find that in 1 Corinthians 16:5-7. He plans to pass through Macedonia and hopes to spend the winter with them in Corinth. He doesn’t want it to be a brief visit but a longer time so that he can minister to them. He qualifies it all by saying “if the Lord permits” (1 Corinthians 16:7). But that trip never took place.

From a tiny spark of discontent a mighty flame of unhappiness grows.

2. He later planned to go to Corinth, then to Macedonia, and then back to Corinth. He mentions this in 2 Corinthians 1:15-16. “I planned to visit you first so that you might benefit twice" (v. 15).

3. Finally, he decided to postpone his trip altogether. “I decided that I would not bring you grief with another painful visit” (2 Corinthians 2:1).

What’s going on here? That question is hard to answer because we don’t have all the details regarding the trouble that threatened to overwhelm the church in Corinth. But this much is clear. Paul’s opponents used his changing plans as a way to attack his credibility. “See, you can’t trust him. He calls himself an apostle, he says he’s coming but he never shows up."

Well, that is a problem, isn’t it? Keeping your word is hugely important for all us, but especially for spiritual leaders. It’s all about integrity, consistency, proving yourself trustworthy, showing up on time, and doing what you said you would do. If people feel like they can’t count on you, how will they ever listen to what you have to say?

Paul’s answer comes in three parts:

1. My conscience is clear (v. 12).
2.
I haven’t hidden anything from you (v. 12).
3.
I haven’t tried to deceive you (v. 13).

In his comments on this passage, William Barclay says we might add a new beatitude to the list: “Blessed is the man who has nothing to hide." Sometimes all you can do is to simply speak the truth about your own heart. If that’s not enough, talking for hours isn’t likely to make a difference. In times of trouble I have often prayed this way, “Lord, let your will be done and let the truth come out.” That prayer satisfies the heart because it is a prayer for God’s will to be done, not my will. I usually have an idea of how I think things should work out, but my ideas do not equal God’s will. So in praying that prayer, I am implicitly admitting that my understand is flawed, that I see things from my point of view, and that God’s will is very likely to be different from my own perception. And it’s a prayer that God will bring the truth out by any means he chooses.

II. Our Words May Be Twisted.

Paul doesn’t try to hide his change of plans. It’s true that he had changed his mind several times, but whether or not the Corinthians could understand it, his only concern was for their welfare (“Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm” 2 Corinthians 1:24). He wanted to come and see them but only if his visit would bring about healing and spiritual growth.

“Blessed is the man who has nothing to hide."

But what about the charge that he is inconsistent? Did he just say “Yes, yes” and then “No, no” just for the fun of it? (v. 17). Paul says, “Check out my message. It comes from God and he never changes. His message to us is always ‘Yes,’ and we his people say ‘Amen’ to all of God’s promises.” Everything God promises will come true.  As D. L. Moody said, “God never made a promise that was too good to come true.” Look at the amazing things God has done for us in Christ.

1. He anointed us (v. 21).
2.
He sealed us (v. 22).
3.
He gave the Holy Spirit as a deposit (v. 22).

He did this so that we might stand firm in Christ, never wavering, never blown away by the winds of adversity, never swept away by the changing tides of life. It happens that I am writing these words on a Sunday night. Two days ago Matt Chandler, pastor of the Village Church, a large multisite church in Dallas, underwent very serious surgery to remove a tumor from the right frontal lobe of his brain. I mention this in part because Matt is a rising star among the younger pastors in the United States. In just seven years he has led the Village Church from 150 to over 6000 in attendance. And he has done it with very strong preaching that is authentic, biblical, accessible, and drenched in the sovereignty of God. Before he went into surgery, Matt (who is only 35 years old) recorded a brief video that was played in all the services this weekend. You can watch it on the Internet. I would summarize it as a ringing statement of his confidence in God. After talking about Hebrews 11 and the life of faith with its glorious victories and its difficult trials, Matt says that he knows some people have always said, “What do you know about suffering?” But now he can speak directly to those people and say, “I am so glad he counted me worthy of this.” A man in his position might lose it all. There are no guarantees for him or for any of us when we go under the surgeon’s knife. Matt acknowledged that he and his wife wept and prayed together before the surgery. He has hugged his children and kissed them. And with what faith did he approach his surgery on Friday?

“I get to show that he is enough. I get to praise and exalt him and make much of him."

“God never made a promise that was too good to come true.” 

He added that he would love to live to be 70 and drink coffee with his wife. He would love to walk his daughter down the aisle. He would love to see his son grow up.

“But none of those things is better than him.”

He closed by expressing his love for the church, and then he simply said,

“I am not afraid . . . My hope is that you would see that he is good in all things . . . He would never send us anything that he does not provide strength for.”

That’s a man standing firm in Christ. That’s the difference that comes from knowing Christ deeply and intimately and walking with him daily. That’s exactly the sort of foundation God wants to build in the lives of all his children.

What difference does it make to know all these things? It certainly matters when we face a life-changing crisis, but it matters just as much when we are misunderstood and our honorable words are twisted and our changing plans are made to appear sinister in some way.

My hope is that you would see that he is good in all things

Some people will choose to misunderstand no matter what we say or do. To them we have no answer except to say, “Our conscience is clear. We have done what we could. And we rest our reputation with the Lord.

We will never “stand firm” in our own strength when trouble comes our way. I’ve often said that “good theology will save your life,” and this passage amply proves it

Get to know the Lord.
Make God’s Word the standard for your life.
Rest in his love.
Revel in his righteousness.
Think about his greatness.
Give glory to his name.

When others twist your words, do not despair. Speak the truth, explain yourself clearly, and then entrust your future with the God who knows you through and through and in Christ who has anointed you, sealed you, given you the Holy Spirit, and promised to guide you.

If we trust in him, the time of chaos will pass, and we will be stronger for having gone through the struggle.

III. Our Motives May Be Challenged.

His critics thought Paul was some sort of fickle, fly-by-night preacher, the kind who is always on a power trip, a control freak who enjoys having his acolytes sing his praises. When he didn’t show up when they expected him, what else could they conclude but that he didn’t love them?

If we trust in him, the time of chaos will pass, and we will be stronger for having gone through the struggle. 

To that Paul says, "I call God as my witness that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth” (v. 23). He stayed away so as not to have an angry confrontation. That’s why he made up his mind not to make another painful visit to them (2 Corinthians 2:1). He wrote them a tough letter (apparently lost to history) in which he boldly confronted his critics. Now he says, “I said what I needed to say and I wrote what I needed to write so I won’t do anything right now.” Then he adds a surprising revelation of his own heart for these young believers who viewed him with suspicion:

“For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you” (v. 4).

As hard as it may be for some of us to hear, we can’t always solve every problem in the world.

Some people won’t listen.
Some people love to argue.
Some people have already made up their minds.
Some people have an answer for everything.

Evidently that was the situation in Corinth. Because the church was so rent with factions, and because Paul had already sent them a very stern and painful letter, writing with tears streaming down his face, and because he knew the situation was inflamed, he decided not to come to Corinth.

We can’t always solve every problem in the world. 

Talk about countercultural wisdom from the Lord. Paul knew that his personal presence in Corinth at that moment and in that situation would only make things worse. This isn’t a blanket rule for every time and place. It’s a principle to keep in mind. Sometimes you need to meet and hash it out. Sometimes you need to back off, give people space, give them time to think and pray and discuss, and give the Holy Spirit time to soften hearts.

I’m fascinated by the way this passage ends. Speaking of the difficult letter he wrote to the Corinthian church, he says, “I wrote that letter in great anguish, with a troubled heart and many tears. I didn’t want to grieve you, but I wanted to let you know how much love I have for you” (2 Corinthians 2:4).

It was a hard letter that Paul didn’t want to write.
It was a hard letter that the Corinthians didn’t want to read.

But he did and they did.

Here’s the mind-blowing part. He wrote the letter so they would know how much he loved them. I’m not sure they “felt the love” as they read his stern words. But love must be both tough and tender. In this case, Paul’s tough letter proved how much he loved them. If I shout at my son, “Watch out!” to keep him from being hit at a car, do I love him or do I hate him? I love him so much that I will risk raising my voice and scaring him in order to save his life. That’s love just as much as hugging my son and saying, “I love you."

Love must be both tough and tender.

So now Paul decides to wait for God to work. In order not to stir up trouble, he decides not to come to Corinth at this moment. Here we see true Christian maturity at work. He has no desire to stir them up further. He only wants to share in their joy when he does come. And he does plan to visit. He says so in verse 2 (“when I do come”).

But for the moment he will wait.

Waiting can be hard, perhaps the hardest discipline of the Christian life. When I look back at the mistakes I’ve made in the ministry, many of them have come because I would not wait. Too many times I’ve jumped in like the proverbial bull in a china shop, trying to fix everything according to my own vision of right and wrong. This is not an argument for apathy or disinterest but rather an argument for “active waiting,” which is what David meant when he said, “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;  do not fret-it leads only to evil” (Psalm 37:8).

If God is God, he can be trusted to do right.
But he doesn’t work on my timetable.

It’s worth noting what Paul doesn’t do in this passage:

He doesn’t avoid the problem.
He doesn’t call names.
He doesn’t assume motives.

In short, he doesn’t commit assumicide. He doesn’t do to his critics what they had done to him. He simply and clearly explains himself, his change of plans, and in the process he reveals his heart to his readers. That’s all any man can do in a situation like this.

When I look back at the mistakes I’ve made in the ministry, many of them have come because I would not wait.

How to Respond to Misunderstanding

Let’s wrap up this message with a few points of application:

1. Sometimes we will be misunderstood by our close friends. Paul clearly loved the Corinthians and knew them well. And they clearly knew him well. Yet a rift had grown between them. The same thing happens in marriage, in families, among friends and co-workers, and it certainly happens in every church. If you haven’t been misunderstood lately, don’t worry. It’s bound to happen before long. That’s part of the price of living in a fallen world. What happened to Paul happens to all of us sooner or later.

2. The best defense is an honest, clear, non-defensive explanation. Remember Joe Friday from the old Dragnet TV series? He was famous for saying, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Paul doesn’t complain, doesn’t blame, and doesn’t point fingers. He isn’t long-winded. He lays out his explanation so his readers can decide for themselves why he had not come back to Corinth.

3. We can’t control how people respond to us. Rarely will our explanations convince everyone. Sometimes even our close friends will choose not to believe us. At some point we must decide to leave our reputation in God’s hands and walk away from the controversy. “If you live to please people, misunderstandings will depress you; but if you live to please God, you can face misunderstandings with faith and courage” (Warren Wiersbe).

At some point we must decide to leave our reputation in God’s hands and walk away from the controversy. 

4. Pray for those who misunderstand you. In Sunday School recently our teacher exhorted us about reaching out to the “lepers” around us, the people who cause us difficulty or pain, the folks we normally avoid as much as possible. Then he asked, “Who are the lepers in your life?” An uncomfortable silence filled the room. No one wanted to answer that question. Finally a man spoke up and said there were some people he found it difficult to be around. Referring to the call to reach out to the “lepers,” he commented, “That’s good preaching but hard living.” Very true. It’s easy to say “Love the people who misunderstand you,” it’s hard to put it into practice. But we must do it anyway.

5. We must not return evil for evil. This is also hard, especially when your motives are repeatedly attacked. But in this we are to be like our Lord who when he was reviled did not return evil for evil. When he faced the shouting crowd, he did not trade insults, he did not try to get even, and he did not make accusations. I submit to you that this is not a natural way to live. When we are insulted, our natural inclination is to return an insult for an insult. But Jesus chose another way. As the old spiritual puts it, “He never said a mumblin’ word." “As a sheep before her shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). When he stood before Pilate and Herod, and when he faced the jeering mob, he uttered no insults, he made no threats.

When they swore at Jesus, he didn’t swear back.

When they scourged him, he didn’t retaliate.
When the soldiers pushed the crown of thorns on his head, he didn’t curse at them.
When they drove the nails in his hands and feet, he didn’t threaten them.
When the bystanders spat at him, he didn’t spit back.
When they swore at him, he didn’t swear back.

This will happen to you too. And that’s the real test of your faith. You find out what you really believe when others mistreat you. Sometimes the real test of your faith is what you don’t do. Sometimes you’ll be a better Christian by not saying anything at all.

What was his secret? How did he do it? The answer lies in the final phrase of 1 Peter 2:23, “He entrusted himself to him who judges justly." In our day we hear lots of talk about claiming our rights. That spirit comes into the church and we hear people getting angry and saying, “How dare you trample on my rights?” Most of our problems stem from claiming our rights. But the Bible turns that upside down. You aren’t to think of your rights first. You are to think of others first.

Sometimes the real test of your faith is what you don’t do. 

When you are misunderstood, repeat these four sentences:

It’s not about me. It’s not about now.
It’s all about God. It’s all about eternity.

As you read these words, I encourage you to stop right now and say those four sentences out loud. Write them down on a card, and put the card where you can see it. Try repeating those sentences every day for a week so that the truth will be tattooed on your soul.

The followers of Jesus will sometimes be misunderstood not only by the world but by other Christians. May God give us the spirit of Jesus that we might walk in his steps.

2009-12-07-When-You-Are-Misunderstood

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