Our Light Affliction?
Perhaps some of you here, after reading verse 17, are thinking, "Whoever would call affliction 'light' must have been a person who knew very little about what affliction really is. Whoever would call affliction 'light' must have been a person who lived a very sheltered life. If he had suffered as I have, he would not have written about 'light affliction.' This man must have been in perfect health, perhaps too young, and too naive, to really know what pain and hardship is." "Yes," says another, "and if he had to stand by the open graves that I have, and if he had to mourn the death of loved ones, as I have done, he would not have written about our light affliction."
Now, if this is what you are thinking, you are mistaken. The man who wrote these words was probably afflicted more than any of us sitting here today. The list of his afflictions that the apostle Paul gives us is staggering, "beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews 39 lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among the false brethren; I have been in labour and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure"(2Cor.11:24-27).
Yet, in spite of all of this, Paul describes his affliction as "momentary" and "light". In spite of all of this, Paul is able to carry on--he is able to continue his ministry. What is Paul's secret? How is Paul able to cope while enduring such tremendous suffering?
The reason Paul is able to thrive in the midst of great suffering is simple: Paul has learned not to trust in himself, but in God alone. We hear this in chapter one, verse 9, when Paul says, "indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God". And we hear it again in chapter four, verse 13. Paul has learned that the only way to approach suffering is with a "spirit of faith".
"Spirit of faith" in what Paul? Faith in yourself? Faith in God's imminent deliverance? Faith in a cloud with silver lining? No. The object of Paul's faith is found in verse 14--Paul's faith in face of suffering is based on his conviction that "He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus". Paul is able to endure his present suffering because he is focused on future glory.
Have a look at verse 16. "Therefore", Paul says--because we will one day be raised with Jesus(v.14)--"we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day"(2Cor. 4:16). Paul is not blind to his suffering. This is not some 'mind over matter' trick he is advocating. Paul recognizes that his body is "decaying". Paul recognizes, as well as anyone, the temptation to lose heart in the midst of suffering.
We know, and Paul knows, that suffering is unpleasant. Christians are not expected to pretend that it doesn't hurt. What Paul does expect, however, is that our lives demonstrate the glorious truth that suffering does not get the last word.
In Romans 8:18, Paul says, "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us". The puritan, Thomas Watson, also reminds us, 'Affliction may be lasting, but it is not everlasting'.
The reality is, however, is that when we are suffering it seems like forever. I do not wish to minimize the challenges one faces with an unrelenting illness or a broken relationship. My goal today is not to minimize suffering; my goal today is to magnify future glory. I do not want you to pretend that suffering is pleasant, rather, I want you to be able to say with Paul "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us".
In the same vein, Paul concludes 2Corinthians, chapter 4 by reminding us that "momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison"(v.17).
Now, when Paul says that our affliction is "momentary", he does not mean that it lasts for only fifteen minutes. When Paul says that our suffering is momentary, he means that it only lasts a lifetime. And a lifetime, of course, is only momentary when we compare it with eternity.
The apostle Paul suffered for many years, but that suffering was put into perspective by focusing on what is "eternal" rather than what is "temporal"(v.18). Paul understood that his afflictions would not outlive this present life. Paul did not lose heart because he looked forward to a time when his afflictions would come to an end--permanently.
Not only does Paul consider his afflictions to be momentary, but we also see that he refers to them as being "light". Come on, Paul, your afflictions were hardly "light". You have been imprisoned, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, hungry, exposed--how can you say that your affliction is "light"?
When Paul says that his afflictions are light, he does not mean that they are easy or painless. He means that compared to what is coming they are as nothing. To consider suffering "light" one must compare it to the "eternal weight of glory". Compared to the coming weight of glory, our afflictions are like feathers in the scale.
Now I admit that, in our day and age, Christians who are serious about their contemplation of heaven are often ridiculed by others and accused of having one's 'head in the clouds'. Yet, we should be reminded that Paul commands us to have 'our head in the clouds'. In Colossians 3:2, Paul commands us, "Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth."
For Paul, the key to enduring his suffering was his contemplation of heaven. Paul, like any person, felt the sting and pressure of suffering, but when he compared his sufferings to that future blessedness awaiting him in heaven something changed. As John Calvin comments, "(Contemplating heaven) makes light that which previously seemed heavy, and makes brief and momentary that which seemed of boundless duration."
Serious contemplation of heaven's glory is not idle foolishness, it is an essential Christian discipline.
Unless we engage in the serious contemplation of our future state of blessedness, we will miss what God is doing in the midst of our present suffering. Paul says that, "though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day." Paul starts with something bad--our outer decay--but he ends with something good--the renewal of our inner man.
Paul goes on to say that, "affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory". Again, Paul begins with something bad--our affliction--but he ends with something good--the eternal weight of glory. We detest are suffering, to be sure, but we must never detest what our suffering is producing in us. "Affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory".
The Bible is clear on this point: in the midst of our suffering, something good is taking place. Our challenge, of course, is that "the decay is visible, and the renovation is invisible"(Calvin).
If we were given a choice in the matter, my guess is that no one here would choose to suffer. I include myself in that statement. And while none of us would ever choose to suffer, we must never lose sight of the blessed thing that suffering produces.
Samuel Rutherford said that when he was cast into the cellars of affliction, he remembered that the great King always kept his wine there. Charles Spurgeon said that those who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls.
If we are ever to regard our suffering as momentary, if we are to ever regard our suffering as light, we must always have in view the rare pearls God intends to uncover, we must always have in view the choice wine God intends to serve us, we must always have in view the infinite value of our eternal relationship with Jesus Christ.
This is our hope in suffering. And unless our attention is fixed on this eternal hope, our suffering is likely to break us.
Friends, do not lose heart, our "momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison". Thanks be to God. Amen.