“Great is my boldness of speech to you; great is my boasting about you.” (2 Corinthians 7:4, AT)
Paul has had to say a great many difficult things to the church at Corinth, beset as they were by sins of arrogance, sexual immorality, and factionalism. He had chided them many times about the immaturity of their faith, despite their constant boasting in their (self-declared) spirituality. Apparently, he had even had to write them a letter (now lost to us) that caused them sorrow (verse 8), though thankfully that sorrow led them to repentance.
One can only imagine how much stress the Corinthians caused Paul. No doubt he had many moments of exasperation, frustration, indignation. I’ve had moments like that (as a parent, friend, teacher, pastor, colleague), and I’m quite confident you have too. When that happens, what temptation do we face? One of the first on the list, I think we can agree, is the temptation to speak poorly of whoever is currently exasperating you! How easy to vent (not an activity Scripture commends to us), perhaps couched in the false piety of sharing a prayer request. That’s why I find what Paul says here so interesting. It’s a difficult passage to translate (in part because it’s poetically phrased), so I’ve given you a woodenly literal translation above. What exactly is Paul saying here?
I think the key is in the change of preposition. When speaking to the Corinthians, Paul offers frank speech. He tells it like it is—lovingly, of course, but true Christian love does not shirk from speaking hard truths (witness: Nathan, Isaiah, Jesus). But when speaking about the Corinthians, Paul offers . . . pride? How can that be? It seems Paul has such confidence in the Spirit’s sanctifying work among the Corinthians, that he knows they will turn and trust again. He speaks with confidence, even boasts to Titus (who is on his way to Corinth) about what his friend will witness among this young church.
J.B. Phillips, in his paraphrase of the New Testament, renders the verse thus: “To your face I talk to you with utter frankness; behind your back I talk about you with deepest pride.” I love that. What a marvelous standard for us to hold ourselves to whenever we speak of our brothers and sisters in Christ. (That’s not to say that we can speak uncharitably of unbelievers behind their backs, but that we cannot boast confidently in what God has promised to do in their lives.) If we need to rebuke sin, then let us do so to the person directly, with frank (but humble) speech. But when we talk about that person to anyone else, let us do so with glowing praise and the utmost confidence in God’s grace active in their lives.
The next time you’re feeling exasperated by someone in the church (your spouse? child? friend? fellow volunteer? the person singing out of tune behind you?), keep this rule in mind: to their face, loving frankness; behind their back, deepest pride.