Widening the Heart for Freedom: Insights from 2 Corinthians

Since returning to full-time study, the renewed realisation that there is so much to be read in relation to the New Testament – and other skills to be acquired besides – has caused blogging to fall down the priority list. There has, however, been one idea in the back of my mind for a blog that, today, came to the forefront of my mind.

The seed of the idea was to write something about the heart and emotions in 2 Corinthians. 2 Corinthians is often regarded as the most emotional letter that we have belonging to Paul. His relationship with the church in Corinth was certainly rather strained, as we see that at various points in 1 Corinthians. It seems that many in Corinth questioned his apostolic authority because he was not sufficiently powerful or sophisticated (see much of 1 Corinthians 1-4, especially 4:8-13). Moreover, the church was suffering from internal confusion and division, and so, much of the letter involves Paul giving guidance and correcting practice or behaviour, which was out of line with the gospel of Christ.

The precise timeline of the Corinthian correspondence is one of the most vexed issues in New Testament scholarship, particularly in the case of 2 Corinthians. Whatever the case may be, in 2 Corinthians 2:3-4, the apostle refers to a past letter, which most scholars believe to be a lost letter[1] (“the letter of tears”) which was filled with emotion:

I wrote to 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. (2 Corinthians 2:4, NIV)

Similar, although also different, emotion imbues much of 2 Corinthians. The section 2 Corinthians 2:4-6:13 is traditionally viewed as Paul’s defence of his ministry and it concludes with these words:

We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. (…) As a fair exchange – I speak as to my children – open wide your hearts also. (2 Corinthians 6:11, 13, NIV)

This passage came into focus today because I happened to be doing my daily readings with the help of the Bible of the Year (BiOY) and I was struck by these words in Psalm 119:32, translated thus in the NIV: “I run[2] in the path of your commands, for you have broadened my understanding.”

As occasionally happens when time allows, I turned up the Hebrew, and saw that the NIV translation was rather loose here. More literally, it says something like: “you will expand my heart”.[3] My heart leapt somewhat: that sounds suspiciously similar to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:11. So, I went to the Greek translation, the Septugaint (LXX) and saw that, yes indeed, the Greek was “you have widened my heart”.[4] It seems likely that Paul was alluding to this psalm when he was writing to the Corinthians.

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I find this fascinating, but others might find this whole process somewhat tortuous (and if I had ever properly looked at the cross-references on 2 Corinthians 6:11, I would have seen this anyway…), but I believe that there is something to be said here about the connection between our heads and our hearts; chiefly this: God wants both our minds and our hearts.

I believe that God is interested in our intellect and reason. He wants all of us to develop in our thinking; desiring, above all, that we think His thoughts after Him. Some of us enjoy rigorous thinking and intellectual activities more than others, which is great: we need diverse interests – both intellectual, more practical and others besides. Being a Christian certainly does not mean throwing away our brains in some form of abandon, however wilful! Personally – and I know I am not alone – I find it worrying that society seems to be making more and more decisions based on what feels right: trusting our emotions, which may be changeable and fickle, over and above our intellect or reason.

God meets with many of us on an intellectual level, but God also wants to meet with us on an emotional level. God wants our hearts to be wide open and for nothing in our lives to be held back from Him. I know I find this immensely challenging. I would rather stick to intellectual assent and being in control. Control as order can be good and I believe God is a God of order and not chaos; but it can become limiting.

Instead, God desires that we be free, not limited. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, He asks, as it says in the first part of Psalm 119:32, that we run in the way of His commands. His ways are exactly what we need, rather than the desires of our own hearts. Some of the desires in our hearts may well be noble, but knowing my own heart, some of them are almost certainly selfish.

The more we widen our hearts to God’s ways, however, the more our heart will resemble the heart of God. Thankfully, we are not alone; and one of the roles of the Spirit is surely to help us widen our heart to lead us to freedom. Paul also recognised this in 2 Corinthians, by writing: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17, NIV).[5]

[1] I am still formulating my own thoughts on the order of the Corinthian correspondence, but the overall character of 1 Corinthians, even if the letter is somewhat corrective, is insufficient to identify it with the letter of tears. The other main theory, apart from its being lost, is that the letter of tears constitutes 2 Corinthians 10-13.

[2] No surprises why this verse might have leapt out considering how much I love running!

[3] כִּ֖י תַרְחִ֣יב לִבִּֽי – the Hebrew verb is “imperfect” here so is closer to the future in English, so I would be inclined to translate: “I shall run in the way of your commands because you will widen my heart”. This would reflect the psalmist’s hope of deliverance from his affliction (see Psalm 119:25)

[4] ὅταν ἐπλάτυνας την καρδίαν μοῦ  – the Greek verb is “aorist” here so closer to our past in English, and more helpful to the apostle Paul who claimed to have opened his heart to the Corinthians.

[5] I also found Nicky Gumbel’s comment in his BiOY (13th October) commentary particularly helpful: “Resolve to follow God’s ways in everything, but not out of a sense of obligation or guilt. Choose to run in the path of God’s commands, for he has set your heart free.”

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