“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:16–18).
The Goal: The Steady Heartbeat of Faith
One of the primary aims of this post is that you would not lose heart. Though the hearts of the entire world are melting with fear, I want my heart, and I want your heart, to continue beating with the steady rhythm of faith in Jesus Christ. The Christian’s pulse should be different than the world’s pulse. The world’s pulse is irregular. It races with fear in trying circumstances, it and slows down with complacency in peaceful circumstances. The Christian’s pulse, on the other hand, is constant. Its pace does not alter in changing circumstances.
So that is the goal: maintaining steady faith and not losing heart. However, that is easier said than done. Furthermore, while we desire not to lose heart, we are not always sure how to keep our hearts from melting along with the rest of the world. When I read in the Bible, therefore, a sentence like, “So we do not lose heart,” I stop in my tracks and start digging, because I want to know why the author (in this case, Paul) does not lose heart. What keeps his faith and joy steady?
The word “So” signals the reason has something to do with what Paul said before. It means “therefore” or “because.” The first clues, then, to the secret of not losing heart are found in the preceding verses, verses 7–15. In these verses, you first discover what the secret is not. Paul’s steadfastness of heart is not because of pleasant circumstances. For Paul says, “We are afflicted in every way…perplexed…persecuted…struck down…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus.” That sounds pretty bad. Yet at the same time, Paul and his companions are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed. Why?
Your Weakness in Affliction Makes Much of Christ
One reason is because Paul knows carrying the death of Christ in his body is at the same time manifesting the life of Christ in his body (v. 10–11). In other words, what is happening is happening “for Jesus’ sake” (v. 11). Paul’s affliction serves to glorify Jesus, which is exactly what Paul desires more than anything else.
This is what Paul says to the Philippians while he is in prison. He can rejoice while in prison because his imprisonment is still advancing the gospel (Phil. 1:12), Christ is still being preached (Phil. 1:18). His life and death is all about making much of Christ (Phil. 1:21). So what makes much of Christ makes Paul glad. Paul knows God placed his treasure in jars of clay to reveal his surpassing power and so glorify his name (2 Cor. 4:7). God wants to show the value of the treasure (which his God), not the container (which is us). Paul, therefore, does not lose heart, because his heart beats to glorify Christ, and his affliction serves this purpose. Even in affliction, then, his heartbeat is strong.
The Sight of God’s Strength in Your Weakness Extends Grace to Others
Another reason is because his affliction also serves to strengthen others. The manifestation of Christ’s strength in Paul’s weakness strengthens other Christians. “So death is at work in us, but life in you” (v. 12). Again, “knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (v. 14). “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (v. 15).
In that last verse, these two reasons come together. Paul’s suffering is for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of other believers. As Paul suffers, Christ displays his sufficient and sustaining power to preserve Paul for resurrection life. And as others see Christ’s preserving power in Paul, they gain confidence in Christ’s preserving power for them; they see their hope of resurrection life as they see Christ’s resurrection life in Paul. In this way, Christ’s grace in Paul extends to others, leading others to give thanks to God, and so glorify God. So Paul does not lose heart! His suffering serves to glorify Christ and sustain others.
Your Affliction is Working with a Purpose
But there is a third reason Paul does not lose heart. And this reason comes in the rest of verse 16 through verse 18. Paul does not lose heart because it glorifies Christ and extends grace to others. But also does not lose heart because he knows his affliction is doing something in and for him. For at the same time his outer body is wasting away (the word translated “wasting away” means to destroy), his inner self (his spirit/soul/heart) is being renewed. In other words, he does not lose heart because his heart is actually being strengthened by his affliction. He may be dying physically (from the moment we are born, we are moving toward death), but his spirit is always being strengthened.
This is the wonder of spiritual life. Physical birth is the beginning of death. You are always getting older, and eventually getting older will mean getting weaker. Your birth begins the process of wasting away. But spiritual life is the exact opposite. When you are spiritually reborn, you begin the process of continual renewal. You are renewed day by day.
We learned in Matthew 6:34 that each day brings its own trouble. But we also know from Lamentations 3:21 that each day also brings new mercies. And the interaction of mercy meeting trouble serves to strengthen the Christian each day. Just as muscles grow in size and strength as they experience resistance and tearing, so Christian faith grows in size and strength as it meets trouble but is supplied with mercy.
But there is another way the Christian is renewed each day. In Colossians 3:10, Paul says, “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” The new self is renewed in knowledge of Christ. So one of the ways we receive soul-strengthening mercy each day is by learning more of Christ, feeding upon him by faith as we read his word.
One source of fresh mercy each morning is a fresh look upon Christ in his word. This serves to renew you. But the resistance is also necessary. And this is what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Now, the affliction is not light and momentary in the sense that it is in itself a small thing. No, affliction in this world is massive. But not when it is compared to eternity. An entire lifetime looks like a breath when compared to eternity. A four-hundred-pound weight is light when compared to a mountain.
But Paul is not only maintaining heart because the affliction is light and momentary when compared to the eternal weight of glory he will receive, he is maintaining heart because he sees that the affliction is itself preparing the eternal weight of glory he will receive. It is purposeful. It is working. In other words, Paul does not lose heart because he knows the affliction he faces is never meaningless and is always productive. Every second is purposeful. Every second is working to prepare him for eternity. The fire causes him pain, but the pain is not the purpose. It is not a random fire raging in the forest. It is the fire of a forge, a fire intentionally started to create something that will last.
Look at the Unseen by Listening to What You Can Hear
Christian, you never experience meaningless suffering. The only kind of suffering you experience is purposeful. And that purpose is to prepare an eternal weight of glory, an eternal weight of glory that will make all your affliction one day appear light and momentary (although it does not feel that way now). And so you will not lose heart when you stop looking at what you can see (which is the affliction) and start looking at what you cannot see (which is the preparatory work being done within you and the eternal weight of glory that is yet to come). What you can see will one day pass away. But what you cannot see will last forever.
How, then, do you look at what you cannot see? You look by listening. You cannot see the weight of glory. You cannot see the internal work of preparation. But you can hear the sure promise of both in God’s word. So as you listen to God’s word, you see the unseen, and you do not lose heart.
Reverend Neil Quinn is the Senior Pastor (and Church Planter) of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, MI. He is married to Leandra and has three children – Brielle, Corin, and Talitha. Neil received his M.Div from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.