January 11, 2005

Do not lose heart

I was tempted this week to follow suit with some of the other Godbloggers and engage in a little theodicy this week. But after hearing our Sunday sermon, I was inspired (no pun intended) to move in a different direction.

The sermon was titled "Seeing Forever" and was based on the last few verses of 2 Corinthians 4:

For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18)

It is tempting to look at the here and now and lose heart. The persecution of the Church - by which I mean real persecution, not those petty little annoyances from Barry Lynn that everyone complains about here in North America - in our time is unprecedented in history, even in the Roman Empire at its worst. Even with all our radar and satellite imaging, weather can still kill a quarter million souls without warning. Or on a personal level, we might be unemployed, or broke, or rejected. When our focus is on ourselves in the here and now, it is easy to lose heart.

And for Paul, in his day, it must have been easy to lose heart. As he writes to the Corinthians a few pages later, consider what he himself had had to endure for the sake of Christ (here's a list for you, Rebecca):

  • Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.
  • Thrice was I beaten with rods,
  • once was I stoned,
  • thrice I suffered shipwreck,
  • a night and a day I have been in the deep;
  • In journeyings often,
  • in perils of waters,
  • in perils of robbers,
  • in perils by mine own countrymen,
  • in perils by the heathen,
  • in perils in the city,
  • in perils in the wilderness,
  • in perils in the sea,
  • in perils among false brethren;
  • In weariness and painfulness,
  • in watchings often,
  • in hunger and thirst,
  • in fastings often,
  • in cold and nakedness.
  • Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:24-28)

But what of it? is Paul's point. His perspective was not on the external, but the internal. The outward man was perishing - helped along in his case, I'm sure, by all the abuse he had suffered at the hands of his enemies - yet thanks to Christ, his inward man was getting better.

Paul also admonished his readers to focus on the eternal rather than the temporal. The difficulties of the present day may seem heavy, he says. But against the "weight of glory," they are but a trifle.

The Hebrew Christians were suffering, and it seems as though many of them might have been motivated to pack it in and convert back to Judaism again rather than endure it. If Paul didn't write Hebrews, it almost certainly was someone who knew him and his teachings on this subject. The author concludes the great "faith" chapter, chapter 11, with another list of the sufferings of the faithful of old:

  • Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:
  • And others had trial of [cruel] mockings and scourgings,
  • yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment:
  • They were stoned,
  • they were sawn asunder,
  • were tempted,
  • were slain with the sword:
  • they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins;
  • being destitute, afflicted,
  • tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:)
  • they wandered in deserts,
  • and [in] mountains,
  • and [in] dens and caves of the earth. (Heb. 11:35-38)

And on top of all this, unlike the Corinthians (and us!) who had seen the promise of God fulfilled in Christ, these ancient and anonymous heroes had only the faith that God would someday keep his promises. And how much more, as the author says, should those of us on this side of Golgotha not lose heart? He continues his thought in the first few verses of chapter 12:

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset [us], and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of [our] faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. (Heb. 12:1-3)

One of my favourite Shakespeare plays is Hamlet, of which, God willing, I shall have more to say in the next few weeks. It happens to contain the best-known lines in all of Shakespeare's works, so well known, in fact, that they have become clichéd:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? (Hamlet III.1)

Hamlet, faced with the choice between enduring the "slings and arrows" or avoiding them by committing suicide, chooses life because he fears the "undiscovered country" on the other side of death more. Paul would have made the same choice, but ironically for a different reason. The "slings and arrows" were external and temporal. He did not lose heart because enduring them prepared his inner man for the eternal, and its rewards which far outweighed the sufferings of the present.