As with any believer, there are times in my life when the burden of trials and temptations seems to feel especially heavy. Sometimes this occurs during those singularly frightening trials that God places in our path and asks us to go through for his glory. But sometimes the weight of trials feels less like carrying one giant load and more like carrying many small burdens at one time. Recently I’ve been dealing with those day-to-day struggles that threaten to overshadow my confidence in God’s promises. The unexpected illnesses, the surprise car repair, the sick children who keep me up at night, the writer’s block when the clock is ticking, the emergency intervention at work—these kinds of sufferings wear me out. I wonder what my response should be (since I’m pretty sure I can’t just give up :-). As I was thinking about these, the Spirit kindly directed me to 2 Corinthians 4. He showed me an amazing equation meant to alter my thinking about earthly suffering.
Paul, like many before him (Job, Joseph, Jesus), was intimately acquainted with suffering. It’s hard to miss this truth as we read passages such as 2 Cor 11:23–28 (several imprisonments, beat mostly to death, lots of long hours including sleepless nights for God, stoned mostly to death, shipwrecked (x3) hanging on driftwood for a day (1x), lots of people wanting him dead or damaged—Jews, Gentiles, Robbers, etc., rarely being able to feel “safe,” and let’s not forget the ever present weight of responsibility for the churches he started [and you thought your job was stressful!]). But somehow I can read all these descriptions of earthly trials and then discount what Paul says about them. I tend to sanitize Paul and assume that he was somehow superhuman—not susceptible to normal human discouragements.
As an example of this tendency Paul seems to use a phrase in 2 Corinthians 4:17 that just doesn’t seem to set well with our ideas about suffering. He starts talking about all his difficulties as “light momentary afflictions.” Try encouraging your wife with this phrase during the middle of a difficult labor and deliver. Try it for the person whose ministry is blowing up in front of his eyes. Try it for the man who just lost his job, the children who have lost their parents, or, even for the daily grind brought about by this sin cursed world. The truth is, no one would naturally call any true suffering “momentary” and “light.” In fact, it seems that the Scripture doesn’t even bear this out, right? I think of Romans 8:22–23 for example. So what part of “groaning” doesn’t Paul understand? Why is he using this term when, nine verses before, he’s talking about being “afflicted in every way,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” “struck down,” “carrying the death of Jesus in the body” (i.e. suffering for Christ).
So what are we to make of all this?
I think we had better back up and try to understand the formula Paul uses for suffering. The formula for 2 Cor 4:17 is this: Your Affliction (X) < Your Weight of Glory (Y). That is, your affliction is much less than your weight of glory. The mathematical formula might be used, for example, of 1 < 1,000,000. (I see Liz cringing as I try to mix math and the Christian life :-) But what are the measurements for suffering? Well, by using the word “light” Paul has in mind the intensity of suffering and by using the word “momentary” (see also v.18) Paul adds the idea of duration (2 Cor 4:18). Thus, the formula is made more complete like this: The intensity and duration of your suffering is much less than the intensity and duration of your “glory.” If this formula is true (and it is), then what are some of the implications?
- For you personally, the intensity and duration of your suffering must inevitably be less than your future joy (“glory”) in heaven. In other words, the joy of heaven is not just equal and opposite to the pain right now. No, the intensity of your pain here will be overwhelmingly dwarfed by the intensity of your joy in heaven. Take all the pain you feel, imagine the same amount of joy and multiply it by a thousand. That is the joy that awaits you—that is the “weight of glory.”
- The intensity of your suffering must inevitably be far more than the greatest suffering ever experienced by any saint. This promise is for all saints of all times. Thus, not only is the joy that awaits you way more poignant than your suffering, it is way more powerful than the suffering of the greatest suffering saint of all time. Take all the pain from all Christians at all times – imagine the same amount of joy and multiply it by a thousand! Can you even comprehend such joy?!
Now we can begin to apply this truth to the various types of suffering that we experience here on earth. For instance, if I am suffering grief over the passing of a loved one how can this truth encourage me? First, if they knew Christ, then they are experiencing joy that is infinitely greater than your (real and not trivial) grief. How wonderful is that? Second, that the intense pain of separation now will pale in comparison to the intense happiness of being forever reunited in heaven.
What about physical pain (e.g Luke 8:43)? Well, when we feel the effects of sin in our earthly body we can be reminded of the glory awaiting us in the form of our heavenly bodies. It won’t just be the absence of disease and sickness, rather we will feel a type of health and vitality that can’t even be imagined in this world. Strange to think about, but true. Also, for those who suffer from life-long illness or impairments the life awaiting them will cause their (real and not trivial) earthly pain to appear inconsequential when compared to the duration of health and happiness afforded to the faithful.
Any suffering from danger here (e.g. Acts 7:57–58), will be met by the an overwhelming sense of perfect safety—just as if you were a lamb laying down beside a lion (Isaiah 11:6). Any self-sacrifice of time and energy will be overwhelmingly accounted for in the never ending delights of heaven (I Thessalonians 4:17). And emotional suffering? We are told that there are emotions felt here on earth that don’t even exist in heaven (Rev 21:4).
It is now that we realize that God wasn’t instructing us to, “by faith,” call all our suffering “light.” Rather, all of our current experiences of suffering (that which you’ve “seen” 2 Cor 4:18) should constantly call us to cast our eyes on the provision of the yet unexperienced joy that comes with glory (the “unseen” joy) on the basis of Christ (2 Cor 4:14). In fact, the mathematical term doesn’t do it justice. Paul said that the scale of comparison between our pain now and the joy then wouldn’t even register (“beyond all comparison”). It’s unlike anything on earth. It’s like comparing a single penny to the golden troves of Fort Knox—and trying to make a meaningful comparison. You can’t really do it.
So remember, our pain now is real, it hurts, but there is a gold trove of glory that waits for us when we go home to be with God forever.
[This is Liz, who jumps in and helps Paul edit his post before they go online. :) I thought that this song by Matthew West fit very well with the thoughts that Paul wrote down. So I included it!]