“As unknown, and yet well known...” (2 Corinthians 6:9).
Paul had a roller coaster relationship with the church in Corinth. They loved him. Then they hated him. They admired him. Then they belittled him. Like the ocean tide, the Corinthian believers were up and down in their estimation of the apostle.
Paul's Paradoxical Ministry
At one point in 2 Corinthians, Paul detailed his ministry to them. He wrote of various pains he'd endured: afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger. What fun! They had attached themselves to other teachers and leaders who wouldn't suffer a hangnail for the gospel's sake, so his list was a way to demonstrate the legitimacy of his apostleship. Christ had sent the guy, and he was willing to pay the price.
After listing his hardships, Paul listed a few character traits. He wrote of different ways God shaped him: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God. He was a godly man and, in comparison with some of the unsavory types the Corinthians thought worth following, Paul would've stood out for his character and walk with God. Unbelievably, some will follow leaders with the integrity of a vacuum cleaner. They don't care, but the church in Corinth should've.
Then Paul started in on some events he'd endured. Each event had a contrasting experience. He'd lived both sides of the coin so many times. The power of righteousness for the right hand and the left, honor and dishonor, slander and praise, treated as an imposter, yet true. Paul had gone through it all. Then, this little nugget: "As unknown, and yet well known."
Public, but Not
Man, I get this one. Unknown, and yet well known. His life was a massive and public display of God's grace and faithfulness. Everything he did was under inspection. People knew him. All over the world, believers and politicians and persecutors knew Paul (or Saul) of Tarsus. Some hated him, some loved him, but many knew him.
Or did they? He was known, but he was also unknown. Many thought they knew him but didn't. He was a mystery. Who could know a man like this? One could see his passion but have no idea about it. His love for Christ was known, but entirely unknown, for most people had no clue how deep it ran.
Someone might point to a goldmine and say, "There's gold in them hills." They know, but they don't know. They have no idea how much gold lies there, and where the vein which leads to the mother-lode might be found. Paul was that goldmine. Everyone knew gold was in there, but hardly anyone knew how much.
And the man was so often alone. He had his team, but how often would they have been able to keep pace with him? His gifts and knowledge and pursuit of God was off the charts. They knew him, but did they?
He felt he was known, yet not. He sensed an aloneness in his ministry for the gospel. I don't know if he every buckled to the temptation Elijah felt, the temptation to believe he was the only and last messenger for God. I do know he wrote about it though. It was on his mind. He recalled how Elijah wasn't alone, but God had preserved 7,000 who hadn't bowed their knee to Baal (Rom 11:4). I think Paul loved that story. He wasn't alone after all. God has his remnant.
Endure Through the Valley
The complexity of being known, and yet unknown, or unknown and yet known, can be painful for any believer, and any servant of Christ. You toil and spin and work and labor. Publicly, you speak of your life and values and actions. People think they know you, and they do, but not completely. Only God can know you that way. He is the only one able to get into the tunnels and caverns of your heart and soul. His Spirit searches you and knows your thoughts and dreams. He knows you better than you know you. To him, you are entirely known, naked before him.
I love this phrase from Paul, for I am not one who enjoys the attention. I know I must speak and teach and write, that like Jeremiah, if I refused to speak, his word would be like a fire in my bones (Jeremiah 20:9). I must do this work. And the work is a privilege. I feel so fortunate. But I don't really enjoy being known. I am not in need of eyeballs and attention. I just want people to know the Jesus I speak of and learn the words of the God I love.
And in the course of that work, I become known. I must share of experiences and weaknesses and temptations and failures and successes. I must declare God's greatness and faithfulness in my own life and, as I do, my life becomes known. But it is also unknown. As any leader will tell you, there is something about the position which makes you solitary. It's more than that, though, it's that you, in your service for Christ, are not known. Some think they know you, but they can't possibly get the full picture. Constantly, you are taken out of context, partially known, but the partial view skews reality. You become accustomed to being misunderstood.
So I love the statement from Paul: "Unknown, and yet well known." He was down with it. He realized that's how it worked. He was ready to move into this paradox.
My prayer for every pastor, leader, writer, and servant of Christ is that they'd push forward through this valley. On one side lies being well known. On the other side lies being unknown. Pay it no mind. Push forward to the knowledge of Christ, for he knows you and loves you and uses you for his glory and honor. Keep pressing on with him.