There is a curious statement by Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians:

2 Corinthians 12:21: "I am afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced" (emphasis added).

Paul is obviously fearful about this encounter. Why would God "humiliate" (humble?) him before the saints at Corinth? What purpose might this serve?

  • Both KJV and YLT have 'God will humble me' 'among' or 'in regard to' you. Which bears a very different meaning to 'humiliate'. Thayer states of ταπεινόω Strong 5013 to make 'level' or 'passive' and also translates (LXX) where a soul afflicts itself in fasting.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 6, 2021 at 20:41

4 Answers 4


The operative verb in 2 Cor 12:21 is ταπεινόω (tapeinoó) which, according to BDAG has four basic meanings:

  1. to cause to be at a lower point, lower, eg, Luke 3:5.
  2. to cause someone to lose prestige or status, humble, humiliate, abase, done especially to slaves, eg, (a) with focus on reversal of status, Phil 2:8, 2 Cor 11:7, Matt 23:12, Luke 14:11, 18:14. (b) with focus on shaming, 2 Cor 12:21.
  3. to cause to be or become humble in attitude, humble, make humble, eg, Matt 18:4, 12:12b, Luke 14:11b, 18:14b, James 4:10, etc.
  4. subject to strict discipline, constrain, mortify, eg, Phil 4:12.

Thus, in the view of BDAG, the meaning of ταπεινόω (tapeinoó) in 2 Cor 12:21 is "cause someone to lose prestige or status ... with focus on shaming". Paul is also afraid of this development. Paul is essentially saying that he is afraid of visiting the church of Corinth to find that his previous labors among them have been wasted and find great sin in the church from backsliding etc. This would humiliate him greatly.

Paul states this explicitly later in the same verse when he says why he would be humiliated, "and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced"

Gill makes this point as well -

my God will humble me; instead of rejoicing in the fruit of his labours, that they were not in vain, he signifies that he should have great sorrow of heart; and whereas he had promised himself much pleasure and comfort in visiting them, it would be the reverse; and inasmuch as he had boasted of them to others, he should be ashamed:

The Expositor's Greek Testament has a similar idea -

2 Corinthians 12:21. μὴ πάλιν ἐλθόντος μου κ.τ.λ.: lest when I come, my God should humble me again before you, sc., because of the scanty fruit of his preaching (as had been the case on his second visit), and I should mourn for many (observe, not “all”) that have sinned heretofore, i.e., before my second visit, and did not repent, i.e., after my second visit (we thus retain the force of the aorist part; for μετανοέω see on 2 Corinthians 7:9, and for μετανοεῖν ἐπὶ cf. Joel 2:13, Amos 7:3), of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they committed.

  • Very astute response. Thanks for the clarification. +1.
    – Xeno
    Jul 6, 2021 at 22:43

The believers to whom Paul preached the Gospel, to a certain degree - (and a very significant degree, for Paul even calls himself their "father" since he gave them new birth in Christ through this preaching /1 Cor. 4:15/) - are his husbandry, his cultivation, his children. Now, if he sees that his cultivation bears no fruits and disappoints him, this disappointment he calls "God humiliates me through your fruitlessness". As a coach of a football team is humiliated if his team loses, so Paul feels himself humiliated if his cultivation, his children in Christ, bear no fruits.

But why God? Does God humiliate anybody? Whenever we use any term with reference to God who is infinitely good, then all terms change semantics. Yes, in a way God humiliates, for He humiliates the proud (Psalm 18:27), He inflicts a punishment of heavy illness even upon Paul (2 Cor. 12:7), but all this He does out of love, in order to help a haughty person to repent and become humble, and in the second instance, to prevent Paul from becoming haughty by the excesses of divine revelation in him.

So, here also, Paul glories himself in his cultivation, in the people Christianized by him, but he fears that it is possible that his expectations may deceive him and his glorying himself will belie itself, and by this God will humble, humiliate him, so that he may work even harder for edification of the church, not glory himself too hastily in them, but be more realistic. Thus, even this humiliation will be for benefit of Paul and the church of Corinth, but Paul proleptically writes to them so as to avoid this humiliation and have them rectified.


Paul fears that his critics will seem be vindicated

If we consider the context of these verses, it's clear that Paul is extremely frustrated with the Corinthians. This will be his third visit and they still don't seem to understand certain basic principles. In 1 Corinthians, some are following Apollos, some Peter, some Paul. They are disorderly in church. Some of them are suing each other. Most important for this particular question is the penchant for immorality. Some thinks their freedom from the Law means they can go with prostitutes without endangering their salvation. One man is even having sex with his step mother. (1 Cor. 5-6)

Some of these issues are still a problem now, as Paul prepares for another visit. So he says, as the OP mentions: "I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced."

If these practices have continued, it would be particularly humiliating for Paul in the context of an immediate challenge to his authority from the "Judaizers," against whom he rails in chapter 11 and 12 in similar tones to his letter to the Galatians:

Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one-—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. (11:22-23)

Paul goes on at length to let his audience know how truly disturbing it is to him that this church, which he considers to be his spiritual children, has been partly seduced by a false doctrine, and his authority is not fully accepted:

I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these superlative apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you in all patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. (2 Cor. 12:11-13)

Why would Paul be humiliated?

Let me propose: the reason that Paul would be particularly humiliated by continued sexual sin in the Corinthian church is that this type of immorality hit very close to home. It would tend to confirm his opponents' criticism of his doctrine. For Paul:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. (1 Corinthians 6:12)

For Paul's critics, the moral commandments are not only "helpful," they are essential, especially the commandment against sexual immorality. His opponents must have harshly criticized Paul's idea that Christians are free from the requirements of Law but will naturally live moral lives as fruits of the spirit. Moreover, subjecting oneself to this particular moral law taught by Moses was not only a demand of the so-called Judaizers, it was agreed to by Paul at the Council of Jerusalem, according to Acts 15:20.

For the Corinthians to continue in immoral practices would cause Paul great humiliation, as it tended to undermine one of his basic teachings: that being "free in Christ" would naturally bear the fruits of the spirit in the form of a moral life. This humiliation would be especially painful for Paul, given the apparent challenge to his authority in Corinth by teachers who held that the Jewish prohibition against sexually immorality must be upheld in the Christian churches.**


The Greek word ταπεινόω (tapeinoō =G5013) means to humble, abase, or bring low.

The quotation in the question is unique to the NASB version, where the English word "humiliate" is used in the technical psychological sense:

Humiliation is the abasement of pride, which creates mortification or leads to a state of being humbled or reduced to lowliness or submission. It is an emotion felt by a person whose social status, either by force or willingly, has just decreased. — [Humiliation - Wikipedia] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humiliation)

However it gets translated into English, Paul's fear is that even though he thinks he has been successful, he will end up looking like he has failed.

It isn't literally God causing this feeling, but Paul worrying that God will think less of him.

And it may very well be Paul's rhetorical way of making the readers feel bad about their part in what has happened there (as described in the previous verses). This would be much like the way a stereotypical "Jewish mother" expresses guilt and pain over something in the hope that her children will realize that they are the ones that should be feeling the guilt and pain, not her.

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