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In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul states:

  • 1 Corinthians 2:3-4a: “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom..." (emphasis added).

Paul also conveys other clues for us in his Second Letter to the Corinthians:

  • 2 Corinthians 10:9-10: “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible’” (emphasis added).

And, again, in the same letter, Paul admits to his difficulty:

  • 2 Cor. 11:6: “But even if I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge; in fact, in every way we have made this evident to you in all things” (emphasis added).

Why would Paul exhibit weakness and fear and much trembling, delivering unskilled, contemptible speeches? Could these be symptoms of stage fright that might account for such symptoms?

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    Stage-fright for Paul? Not likely! He is morel likely referring to his weaknesses and thorn in the flesh. Look at the way he writes.
    – Dottard
    Sep 15, 2021 at 11:44
  • @Dottard Thanks for your comments. These passages seem to convey a fear of public as all the symptoms are that of someone very fearful before audiences. In Acts, Luke, as Paul's close companion, would never expose Paul's personal affliction, but would leave that up to Paul himself. I'm a bit surprised you don't see this, but to each his own.
    – Xeno
    Sep 15, 2021 at 19:20
  • I agree that these are symptoms of stage fright but they are also symptoms of other conditions as well. Apart from these isolated comments there is no evidence of fear of public speaking anywhere else. These are more likely the result of general hostility to Paul's message.
    – Dottard
    Sep 15, 2021 at 21:11
  • It is possible. Although stage fright does not have to mean unwillingness., just difficulty starting out. One could probably speak about degrees of “stage fright”. If Paul had it it was obviously a light one, easily overcome. In other words, eagerness spreading good news beats apprehension. Oct 17, 2021 at 11:32
  • Quite possibly, and why would it matter? Aug 27, 2022 at 0:27

3 Answers 3

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Paul was describing a self that seemed completely inconsistent with the impression that his actions gave and that he promoted in his own teaching. However, there is no contradiction. He was simply describing how he felt in his flesh (Romans 7:18).

He had negative feelings and emotions, but he didn’t let them dominate him. Instead, he walked in the reality of who he was in the Spirit. The end result was that in his actions, he was not weak, fearful, or trembling. However, this wasn’t because he didn’t feel those things. He had learned not to live according to his own feelings but to let Christ live through him (Galatians 2:20).

The reason Paul described his natural feelings was to remind the Corinthians that he didn’t rely on himself when he ministered to them. If he had, they would not have seen the supernatural confirmation of the power of God that he described in 1 Corinthians 2:4. Therefore, they shouldn’t reject his instruction, because it wasn’t him that was speaking, but God speaking through him.

This would be the equivalent of someone today saying “they are all talk” or “they are all blow and no show.” Paul’s enemies had taken his meekness as an opportunity to say, “He just talks big, but he can’t deliver.” Paul was serving them warning that if they didn’t repent, he would be just as strong in person as he was in his writings (2 Corinthians 10:11).

It is hard to imagine a man who changed the world through his words being contemptible in his speech. It must be kept in mind that Paul was quoting his critics. It is possible that this was not an accurate evaluation.

Paul did say in 2 Corinthians 11:6 that he was rude (Greek - “IDIOTES”–“an ignoramus” [Strong’s Concordance]; word from which we get “idiot” [American Heritage Dictionary]) in speech, but he made it clear in 1 Corinthians 2:1-4 that it was by choice that he didn’t use “excellency of speech or of wisdom.”

Paul chose to speak so plainly that one would need help misunderstanding him. It is most probable that Paul’s speech was just plain by design, not inferior, as the word “contemptible” would suggest. Some “pseudo-intellectuals” of Paul’s day were just trying to discredit Paul’s message by criticizing his ‘lack of big words’.

Any inadequacy that Paul may have had in his speech (Corinthians 10:10) was more than compensated for by his knowledge. Paul’s revelation knowledge of God and His Gospel was so powerful, it changed lives.

Paul also used miraculous demonstrations of the Holy Spirit to persuade the people so that the Corinthians had gotten the full manifestation of what God had put in Paul. There are more ways to communicate the Gospel than just in word only.

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On the issue of stage fright, I can identify with Paul. He could have been when he was younger but not anymore. Still, when he was older, he was not an eloquent speaker in terms of stage showmanship. As a computer science professor teaching before my students, I can identify with that as well.

1 Corinthians 2:3-4a: “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom..."

This was part of his sensitive emotional/psychological makeup. It was genetic. He could not change it.

There were occasions that he did quite well, e.g., Acts 17:

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him.

These were some of the best debaters in the world in the most sophistical city on the planet at that time.

Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.”

Facing these formidable intellectuals, Paul didn't back down.

21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

These were professional orator.

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus

The famous Areopagus where people argued about anything.

and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

There were no signs of stage fright here. Paul spoke confidently. In the end:

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33At that, Paul left the Council. 34Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

These were non-trivial people who were convinced by Paul's argument.

Could Paul be describing stage fright in 1 Corinthians 2:3 (cf. 2 Cor. 10:9-10, 11:6)?

I doubt it. Paul described his spiritual humility before Jesus' Good News. Also physically, he might have suffered from stage fright when he was younger but not anymore.

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It doesn't have to label Paul's body language as "Stage fright" when you know what Paul was actually frightened of. A famous verse from Paul was well describing his mindset on preaching, it is in 2 Cor 12:9-10 (NIV);

9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

He was bearing the burden of the gospel, as he said earlier in 1 Cor 9:16 (NIV);

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!

What actually frightened him was he did a poor job. When he confronted the differentiated, deflated, hostile Corinthians, he tried hard to make the right word, not to push the Corinthians to the false teachers, not to deepen the conflict with them, while staying firm on the gospel with strong words and commands. I would say, this requires incredible wisdom to display weakness and strength alternately, to maintain his influence and power.

Paul had a strong character by nature, and God need this kind of person to fulfill His mission. However, God also need him to be humble, for in Zechariah 4:6 (NIV) God said;

This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.

Surely Paul's work took a full credit from the Spirit.

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