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 at 20:41

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 at 22:43

The believers to whom Paul preached the Gospel are 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) - his husbandry, his cultivation. 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.


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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