When Jesus talked about why some who hear the gospel don’t embrace it, using the parable of the sower and the soils, he described some who have their connection to its message choked out by the “cares of the world” (Matt. 13:22). That phrase rings true, doesn’t it? There are things we desperately want to obtain or achieve. There are things we desperately want to avoid. There are things we want to gain and things we’re afraid to lose. There are possible problems we’re afraid of and genuine problems we already have. Compared with the tangible, everyday concerns that fill our view, the gospel can seem remote, even unreal. The cares of this world can choke out the message, preventing a deep, nourishing, rooted, life-giving embrace of God’s promises.
Tim Keller talks about our detachment from God’s promises in light of the difference between audio and video. Let’s say you’re in a showroom at a local electronics store. In front of you a massive TV plays a film shot in beautiful high definition. Meanwhile, over the store’s loudspeakers an audio feed features music or advertisements. When you have video and audio coming at you at the same time, which one is more likely to capture and hold your attention? It’s video every time. You can tune out audio; it’s much harder to tune out video.
Now, every day, every one of us will face the promises of God—of mercies new each morning—and we’ll face the cares of this world, what I’ll call the problems of life. That’s not a question; that’s a given. The only question is, Which will be in video, and which will be in audio? Will our problems or God’s promises have the greater hold on our attention and our affections?
When God’s promises are vivid in our minds and warm in our hearts, the problems of life can’t compare with what we have in Christ. It’s not that the problems go away, or that we pretend they’re not there. It’s just that they can’t outweigh what we’ve been promised. But how do we get there? How do we get the promises of God in video?
Will our problems or God’s promises have the greater hold on our attention and our affections?
Believe it or not, death-awareness can be a powerful ally in this struggle. One reason the promises of God are in audio more often than video is that the problem of death isn’t in video either. It’s in crackling, distant, AM-radio style audio, and we keep the volume mostly down.
We need to recognize that our problem is far worse than we’ve admitted, so that we can recognize that Jesus is a far greater Savior than we’ve known. A clear diagnosis of the problem beneath our problems prepares us for the only worthy cure for what ails us. Honesty about death is the only sure path to living hope—hope that can weather the problems of life under the sun. We must compare our problems with death so we can compare our problems with glory.
Paul calls for this sort of comparison near the end of 2 Corinthians 4, just before he launches into a beautiful passage on longing for resurrection:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16–18)
This passage is full of comparisons. He compares the outer self, which is wasting away, with the inner self that is being constantly renewed (2 Cor. 4:16). He compares what is transient (the things that are seen) with what is eternal (the things that are not seen, 4:18). And at the center of this paragraph full of comparisons, Paul draws our attention to affliction, what I’ll call the problems of life, and the promise of glory: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (4:17).
Honesty about death is the only sure path to living hope—hope that can weather the problems of life under the sun, that doesn’t depend on lies for its credibility.
Imagine one of those old-fashioned scales. Not the sort of scale you keep in your bathroom or step onto at the doctor’s office. The sort of scale that has two plates hung from a bar that’s balanced on an arm of some kind. On one plate Paul places our affliction. On the other plate he places the glory God has promised all those who are joined to Christ. Compared with the weight of glory, our affliction is light. Compared with eternity, our problems are momentary. Really, we ask? What about job loss or broken relationships or cancer? Compared with glory, light. What about lifelong, painful disability? Compared with eternity, momentary.
Isn’t This Uncaring?
Because our experience of our problems doesn’t feel light or momentary most of the time, we need to be careful not to misunderstand what Paul means. Otherwise we risk dismissing him before we’ve seen the beauty in what he’s saying. Paul is not saying that the problems we face in this life aren’t real. He’s not even saying they shouldn’t weigh heavy on us, or be hard to push through. Paul doesn’t minimize our suffering. Instead, he maximizes glory.
Consider how we might try to minimize some sort of affliction. We might compare it with what someone else is dealing with. We might compare our exhaustion from parenting difficult children with someone else’s daily, chronic disease. We might compare our frustration with an unsatisfying job with what it’s like to live in war-torn Syria. We might say, to ourselves or to someone else, Get over it. That’s nothing compared with fill-in-the-blank. Or we might compare what is with what could be. Sure, that’s tough, but it could be so much worse.
Paul doesn’t minimize our suffering. Instead, he maximizes glory.
Paul doesn’t try to explain suffering away like we might. Suffering isn’t really his focus. He wants our eyes on glory. He wants our hearts feeling its weight. His point isn’t that our problems are light or even momentary. It’s that they’re light and momentary compared with the eternal weight of glory.
Paul can say what he says because his eyes are fixed not on what he can see but on the promises of what he can’t yet see. He’s locked in on glory the way a groom-to-be locks in on a possible engagement diamond. He’s focused on its every angle, searching out every trace of beauty, invested in it with all his resources. Paul is looking more closely at what he can’t see than at what he can see. The problems of his life are still there. They just can’t hold his attention.