The burden of suffering, the weight of glory

Photo by Master Isolated Images. Courtesy of freedigitialphotos.net
Photo by Master Isolated Images. Courtesy of freedigitialphotos.net

Suffering, mental or physical, is burdensome. We feel weighed down: our hearts are heavy, our shoulders stooped. And it may seem to go on forever.

In those circumstances, it’s natural to pray that God would take our suffering away, and there’s nothing wrong with this. But Paul, who patiently bore the burdens of his apostleship, gives us another alternative. In Second Corinthians, he writes:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:16-18, NRSV)

“We do not lose heart.” That’s the language he used at the beginning of the chapter, pushing aside the natural discouragement that otherwise would dog his ministry. Having written candidly about his difficulties, having spoken of a life of dying in the light of resurrection hope, he drives home the essence of faithful vision.

He pushes the metaphor of death: On the outside, we’re decaying right through. Oh, but on the inside…Every day, we’re being renewed; every day is another step toward God’s glorious future!  He even speaks of his troubles as being “slight” and “momentary.” But this isn’t minimization on his part. He’s not saying, “It’s nothing; I’m fine.” He characterizes his affliction in this way only in comparison to the weight and eternality of the glory that is being cultivated in him through his suffering, not in spite of it.

Paul has what theologians call an eschatological perspective: he sees the present in terms of God’s future, his suffering in terms of promised glory, signs of which can be glimpsed even now. This is the essence of faith, as the writer to the Hebrews recognized: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1, NRSV).”

In part, Paul is chiding the Corinthians: Stop judging by external appearances; look for what God is doing on the inside!  But in so doing, he is also reshaping their faith, redirecting them from the temporary troubles of this life to the signs of eternal life to come.

Without hope for the future, it is our suffering that feels weighty and eternal, and the glimpses of glory that are light and momentary. We can ask God to remove our suffering. But we can also ask God to help us find our hope, to look beyond the temporal to the eternal, beyond what is seen to what is not.

Show me your glory. That’s a prayer he’s answered before. And he will answer it again.