2 Corinthians 4:6-12
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
This is a beautiful, confounding passage. The image at work is the frailty of a clay vessel concealing a priceless treasure (“the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”). It is something eternally valuable placed inside something with an expiration date. We are dime store piggy banks holding within us the Hope Diamond. What Paul is getting at with this imagery is that when the jar is broken, as in suffering, the treasure becomes visible.
When we suffer, we show what we’re really made of.
The purpose of suffering for the believer, then, is to reveal this light of Christ, to reveal the image of Christ, and we do this first by suffering as he suffered, by being conformed to the image of the crucified Savior. But how do we do that? How can we actively engage, in the midst of our hurts and brokenness, in carrying the death of Jesus in our bodies so that the life of Jesus is visible in our bodies?
I look to the actual dying of Jesus for help. In his words from the cross, I see the means of dying and dying to myself in a cross-centered way.
1. Be Honest with God
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus is here quoting Psalm 22, and as I have argued in Your Jesus is Too Safe, I don’t believe God actually forsook Jesus on the cross, as Psalm 22 is not about being forsaken by God at all, but actually about God not forsaking his children. But the opening of Psalm 22 and Jesus’ words here are certainly about feeling forsaken. And in this we find the okay to be honest with God. Many times, either out of fear of the pain of further vulnerability or out of bad theology that tells us to put on a happy face or God won’t like us, we hold back from God, thinking we may leverage his healing or his comfort or his approval by sucking it up and pretending we aren’t hurting. But the psalmists don’t do this. The prophets don’t do this. And Jesus didn’t do this. You can’t hide anything from God anyway. He sees you’re hurting. Be honest with him. He can take it. Being honest with God is the way of holding no part ourselves back, the way of laying it all on the altar for his dealing. This is precisely what Jesus did, even in his anguish. We show that Jesus was real, in more ways than one, when we agree to expose all to God.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
One ironic way to embrace the power of God in the midst of hurt is to forgive those who have hurt you. Unforgiveness brews bitterness, which does not alleviate pain but exacerbates it. When we forgive our enemies and bless those who persecute us, we glorify God by acknowledging he is the sovereign Judge over all and that vengeance is his. And we highlight the treasure of Christ, who forgave all the way to death those who hate him.
3. Submit to God’s Sovereignty
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
This is the dying man’s way of saying “Not my will, but yours be done.” We may not know all the why’s of our suffering, but as Rich Mullins sang, “It would not hurt any less, even if it could be explained.” As Christians, what we can know is that God has purposed pain to remind us that the world and those of us who live in it are broken, fallen because of sin. We can know that “pain is God’s megaphone,” as C.S. Lewis reminds us, to wake up to the reality that something is wrong, that we are in need of a Fixer. And we can know, thanks to the revelation of God that is his written word, that the grand purpose of suffering for the Christian is to be conformed to the image of Christ. We can commit our spirit into the Father’s hands by ditching our pleas for fairness and trusting that God is revealing the treasure of Christ in our bodies through our bodies’ very decay. Let us look forward to the resurrection, when we will have new eternal bodies, powered by the Spirit and awash in the glory of the risen Son. Let us amen Job’s oath: “Though you slay me, yet will I trust you.” The sufferer who is able to say this makes Christ look big.
4. Center on the Gospel of Jesus Christ
“It is finished.”
The work is done. This is the great message of the good news: he has done it! (Also the final cry of Psalm 22.) We can hope in our suffering, then, that the finished work of Christ, when believed with our hearts, is a down payment on the work begun in us. The gospel tells us that we are forgiven from sin, that we stand under grace, that we have the blessed hope of Christ’s return, that we will be resurrected as he was, and that we stand to receive the inheritance of Christ’s rich presence in the new heavens and the new earth. The gospel tells us that God will be faithful to finish the work he started. So the fragility of our jars of clay is not just our winding down for the grave, but our winding up for eternity. When we center on the gospel as we suffer, we communicate as dying men to dying men that there is real hope for real people. We make Christ manifest in this witness. With Job we can declare, “Though worms destroy my body, yet in my flesh I will see God. My eyes will behold him.” And: “I know my redeemer lives and in the end he will stand upon the earth.”
If we can apply these words from the cross in our times of suffering, we can carry the cross-shaped death of Jesus in our bodies, thereby revealing that he who is the life everlasting is our true treasure.