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Widening a Closed Heart

Paul’s love for the Corinthians shows us that our hearts can widen towards others, even in the face of great hurt.

Nov 15, 2016

Hurt closes hearts. When someone hurts you deeply your heart that was once warm towards them now feels cold. You longed to see them, to be with them, to share life with them, but now the thought of being around them brings pain, fear of being hurt again, and perplexing questions of why and how they could wound you so badly.

As Christians, we often have a nagging feeling that we’re not “allowed” to just avoid someone who has hurt us for the rest of our lives. We know that we should probably try to treat this other person kindly, at least politely, but does it have to be more than that? Does God really expect that we could once again feel genuine warmth towards them?

Perhaps for years a wife has not felt loved by her husband. She consistently thinks that he doesn’t understand her. He seems to disregard her opinions. She continually resolves to be a “good wife” to him and a loving mother to the children, but with each oversight and insult she closes off more and more of her heart to him. She longs for a husband who knows, understands, and loves her; and yet after years of hurt she gives hardly any of herself for him to know and love. She no longer shares her feelings with him. She is willing to care with her hands, but there is nothing left in her heart. Isn’t that enough? Or, does God somehow call her to open up her heart?

Or maybe a longtime friend was going through a really hard time. You poured yourself out for him. Long phone calls, meetings over coffee, many shed tears, pleading prayers and carried burdens. Yet one night he tells you it isn’t enough, “You just haven’t really been there for me,” he explains, “I know you’re busy and all, but I’m really going through a lot.” Subtle comments about your inadequacy and questions of your care continue to come and eventually he quits returning your calls. After a few months you learn that he’s attending a different church. You see him in the grocery store or while dropping your kids off at VBS and you feel a coldness of heart. You can smile and be polite, but is it possible that you could really care for him again?

Paul’s Hurt

The Apostle Paul was no stranger to relational pain and spurned love. It seems that some were always openly critical of his life and ministry (Philippians 1:17). In 2 Corinthians we find that, despite his deep love for the Corinthians as brothers and sisters in the faith, even they had become influenced by his critics and began to think the worst of his intentions and actions.

The accusations of his critics abounded. He was insincere (1:12; 2:17), lording his authority over his converts (1:24), and tearing others down (7:3a; 10:8b; 13:10). They claimed that he was inferior in knowledge and unskilled as a speaker (10:10; 11:6), his financial requests were suspect (7:2; 12:16), and his apostleship was a sham (12:12; 6:8; 11:13). They implied that he had crafty motives and was taking advantage of people (12:16-17) – even that he was “out of his mind” (5:13). It is hard enough to have someone accuse you of such things, but it’s another thing altogether when even your friends start to believe them. In the face of such misunderstanding and hurt Paul had every reason to close his heart towards the Corinthians.

Paul’s Response

Yet incredibly we see that rather than their coldness pushing Paul away, he grows in warm affection for them and continues to open himself up to them in love.

“We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also” (2 Corinthians 6:11-13).

Paul’s love for the Corinthians shows us that our hearts can widen towards others, even in the face of great hurt.

Have you been misunderstood, maligned, or accused of selfish intentions when seeking to genuinely love? The Apostle Paul was as well. His example shows us, though, that it does not have to lead to having a callused heart or one guarded in a thick-walled fortress. God is able to work in us in such a way that we can have a heart still “wide open” in love towards those who have pushed us away.

The Call to a Widened Heart

Paul not only models this in his actions, but he also commands the Corinthians to do the same. Paul says that they had become “restricted in [their] own affections” (6:12), and he calls them to “widen [their] hearts also.” He reaffirms this idea in 7:2, “Make room in your hearts for us.” He is not merely calling them to “treat him nicely” but instead to widen their affection for him. As a loving father can expect his children to reciprocate that love, so also he calls them to love him like he has loved them (6:13).

Has your heart grown cold towards brothers and sisters in Christ? The Apostle’s call is to us as well: God wants to widen our hearts – even towards those who have hurt us. What does this look like? How does this happen?

Marks of a Widened Heart

The call to a widened heart can feel ambiguous. We know that the relationship doesn’t feel right, but what it would look like to truly respond in love is not clear to us. Fortunately, Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians gives us a glimpse of a widened heart. As we look through 2 Corinthians we find three main ways that Paul models genuine love in the face of criticism, mistrust and pain.

Moving Towards the Other

Even though his encounters with the Corinthians have been painful, Paul continues to express a desire to visit them. Rather than avoiding he seeks to move towards them in person and through his letters.

“I wanted to come to you first, so that you might have a second experience of grace. I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia…” (2 Corinthians 1:15-16)

Our natural tendency is to avoid. We want to pull away in the face of hurt, but love enables us to move towards others even when doing so is not pleasant. Fight this natural tendency by initiating contact with the person who has hurt you. Take the time to ask how they are doing and then really listen. Find out a way you can serve them or invite them to share a meal with you. You may be surprised how far a small gesture can go in restoring the relationship.

Affirming Our Love

Paul repeatedly affirms his love for the Corinthians, even though their love for him has been lacking.

“For 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” (2:4).

“I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together…I have great pride in you” (7:2-4).

Paul shows us that a widened heart is one that can affirm love in a disproportional way. Click To Tweet

When someone has spurned our love, our tendency can be to downplay our love for them or to cease offering it. We often only hold out as much love as is being reciprocated. It is scary to offer more love than someone has for us. It’s a vulnerable feeling. It opens us up to rejection and hurt. Yet Paul shows us that a widened heart is one that can affirm love in a disproportional way. He even calls them to love him as he has loved them: “make room in your hearts for us” (7:2). This is a radical, risky request. So go ahead and tell them that you love them. Tell them that you are hurting. Even tell them that you want to make things right but don’t know exactly how to go about it. It is possible that your vulnerability may motivate them to respond in kind.

Letting Them In

The candor with which Paul speaks to the Corinthians is striking. He speaks freely with them about what is on his heart – his joys, his sorrows, his struggles (2:1-4; 6:3-10; 7:4).

“For 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” (2:4).

His affirmation of his wide heart towards them (6:11) comes immediately after he opens up to them and describes the difficulties of his ministry (6:3-10), explaining to them not only what he did, but how he felt in the midst of it,

“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (6:8-10).

As we seek to rebuild relationship it can be difficult to know what to say. Our conversation becomes relegated to small-talk. Paul shows how wide-open love involves letting the other person in on what is really going on in our hearts. Are there thoughts, feelings, emotions, descriptions of your life that can be shared with them? Willingness to let them in beyond the mere expectations of polite interaction is a sign of a widening heart.

The Making of a Widened Heart

We have seen that we are called to have a widened heart as Paul exemplifies toward the Corinthians. But what enables Paul to respond in this way? How can his heart, rather than shrinking, actually widen in the face of attack? Paul makes it clear that it is “the love of Christ” that motivates and directs his love toward them (5:14). God’s love for him shown in Christ widens his heart in the face of adversity.

Ultimately our hesitancy to open wide our hearts indicates an inadequate view of God’s heart towards us. His love is not one of action only, as if He has saved us and continues to be kind to us but He does not feel deep affection for us. The salvation that God brings is not merely of position or status, but also of relationship and delight. The Scriptures are filled with images of the Lord’s affection for his people, and yet so often we fail to believe that God’s heart is really moved with love towards us. The battle to have a widened heart is a battle to glimpse the heart of God.

“You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:4-5)

The “breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love shown to us in Christ expands a heart shrunken by years of neglect (Ephesians 3:18). It warms a heart grown cold by repeated hurt. His grace makes us people whose hearts widen when they should naturally close, and this gospel-empowered response points others towards the unfathomable dimensions of His redemptive love.

Has your heart grown cold towards a brother or sister in Christ because of how they have hurt you? Allow Paul’s call to the Corinthians to “open wide your heart also” to be yours as you consider your relationship with this person. Pray that the Lord will warm your heart with his love for you and give you the ability to overflow in love towards them. Prayerfully consider what it would look like to take steps towards a widened heart – moving towards them, affirming your love, and letting them into what is really going on in your life and heart. Seek counsel from others about what this could appropriately look like. And then pray that the love of Christ would compel you to be able to take steps of faith in opening wide your heart to them as the Lord gives you opportunity.