read 2 Cor. 4. Are Christians good or bad? The question is relevant not just to the Christian who is struggling with sin; it’s relevant to the non-believer who wonders what’s the point of Christianity if all the Christians she knows are just as “bad” – and perhaps even “worse” – than she is. What’s the point of being a Christian if it doesn’t make you “better”? The answer yields a sweetness even greater than we can imagine.
In this chapter, Paul at times seems to present himself as the kind of super Christian the rest of us find off-putting. He makes assertions of strength that make the rest of us want to run and hide. Paul says that he and his companions “never” give up; we cringe because those words remind us that sometimes we do give up. Paul says that they “never” distort the Word of God; a Christian reader will fear that sometimes we do sugarcoat the gospel. Paul says that they “tell the truth” before God; we worry we don’t. Paul says that they don’t preach about “themselves” but instead that Jesus is Lord; we shrink back, hearing echoes of our own voice boasting not about God but ourselves. Paul says that they were the “servants” of other people; we wince, knowing that far too often we’ve expected others to serve us.
Then when Paul gets to his beautiful poem about suffering, we freeze in our tracks, hoping we’ll never get tested in this way because we doubt we’ll feel so brave:
“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.” 2 Cor. 4:8-9.
So what’s the story? Is Paul Mr. Perfect? Or is he talking about a different way of looking at humans?
If you read these assertions in the context of the whole Bible, there’s no way Paul could be saying that he is like this all the time. He aspires to this. I’m sure he achieved it more than most of us. But he was not perfect, nor could he have been. The gospel that Paul says he “never distorted” was the gospel of salvation through grace alone. Over and over, the Bible asserts that no one is good except God. No human can be good enough to deserve heaven. The prophet Isaiah said our good deeds are but “filthy rags” before God. Even if we do the right thing, unless we do it to glorify God we’ve sinned because we’ve done it for the wrong motive – to glorify ourselves. See e.g. 1 Cor. 13. Only the sacrificial death of God himself on the cross could have made a way for imperfect humans to live with a perfect God. That’s why Jesus said he was “the Way.” There is no other. Paul says this over and over: “it is by grace you have been saved, and not works, lest any man should boast.” If we truly believe in Jesus, our behavior WILL change. But such outward change is only the sign of the inner change of the heart, and we humans are not to judge each other. For instance, for a convicted murderer who was beaten and reviled his whole life to do just a tiny good deed – perhaps to say a kind word to a cruel security guard – might be as admirable in God’s eyes as if a naturally selfless man with kind parents gave away all his money. Only God sees hearts, and only He can judge what constitutes a “good” deed.
So in the context of a gospel of grace, these assertions of Paul become not boasts of perfection but instead a declaration of faith in the face of frailty. They strike me as an almost desperate cry of belief to shut out an inner voice of doubt. It is as if Paul is appealing to God’s truth in order to silence the part of him that wants to slip into lies. It sounds like he is holding up a fist, silencing his temptation to distort the truth. He is clinging to God like a shipwrecked man. His words, rather than being boasts of himself, are rather encouragement for all of us. He encourages us that trouble won’t crush us. He exhorts us not to despair. He reminds us God never abandons us. How did Paul know we need these reminders? Because he was a human like the rest of us. He must have been tempted to give up. He must have been tempted to despair. But He clings to the word of life. He is here begging us and himself not to “look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” 2 Cor. 4:18. We are all tempted to look at our troubles. We all need encouragement to look to eternity instead.
For proof, we hold onto Paul’s central claim in this chapter: “we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.” 2 Cor. 4:7. It’s a famous verse and with good reason. The great treasure is God’s light. God’s glory is shining through our imperfection. And the more cracked the jar, the more the light inside can shine through. Because of God’s kindness, the more we fail, the more room there is for God’s grace to work through us. We become sweeter the more we learn to rely on God instead of ourselves. The more we mess up, the more we grow. God’s mercy isn’t an excuse to live a sloppy life. Instead, God’s kindness makes us weep when we fall short, and it shapes our hearts into people capable of loving others instead of judging them.
That perhaps, is why Paul repeats himself and says twice: “we faint not.” (v. 1 and 16). Success and failure, hope and despair, one succeeding the other. We turn, like swallows in the air or snappers in the sea. Up, down, side to side, as the wind and current bear us forward. That is the Christian life. We bend and weave, listening for the sound of God’s voice, being raised up by the encouragement of others, clinging to the kindness of our Lord.
Satan, as Paul reminds us here, is “cunning.” He is “the god of this world.” He loves to mire us in the opposite of what Paul claims for us. Satan wants us to faint. He wants us to give up. He wants us to distort the gospel. Satan doesn’t want anyone to hear that God saves through no good works of our own. Satan wants us to try to be self-reliant, because Satan knows that means we will be Satan-reliant. It’s our default setting. We are wired to be slaves to sin. We are born with rebellious spirits. We each have a “flesh” that longs to rule. Our first gasp of air is a grasp for power. We claw our way to the one ring to rule them all.
But that ring destroys us. We keep gasping for breath, fish out of water, wondering why we feel so desert dry.
God made us to swim in the river of life. He made us to be God-reliant. There is no such thing as self-reliant. It’s a trap, and Satan has set the bait. We think we are the masters of our own universe when we choose not to accept God’s invitation to worship Him. But we are instead doomed to serve a wraith lord. We humans are worshippers. That’s how God made us, so the state of being we call “independent” is instead to be idol worshippers, craving everything our eyes can see and our ears can hear.
It is to choose what Emerson described as lives of quiet desperation.
We hear the desperation rising up out of the conversation of the people around us: “I feel anxious … I’m a little depressed … what’s the point … ha, ha …hopeless … alone … unloved… but, you know… betrayed … misunderstood … that’s how it goes … slandered me … abused me … cheated on me… that’s life … my anti-anxiety meds … have another drink … everybody does it … my daughter’s in rehab for anorexia … he wants a divorce … I lost my job … my stomach hurts … it’s not so bad … he said he never loved me.” These are the words we use to try to describe the state of anxiety in which we are mired without repreive when we live without God.
The answer is so easy, because God did the work to redeem us from our desperation.
That’s why Satan does his un-level best to block our ears. Satan “blinds” us, Paul says. He “veils” the truth from our minds.
But what Satan fails to realize is that his weapons backfire.
The very fog in which Satan binds us forces us to flail like blind men, grasping for some kind of a firm hold.
God’s laws guide us. They are our plumb line. They show us the way.
Because whenever the Bible presents a plumb line, two things happen simultaneously. First, when we hear about a golden standard, our hearts keen because we know we don’t live up to that standard. But at the same time, our hearts yearn, because we want to live up to that standard. That’s one of the ways the Bible is “alive”. It moves through our hearts like a doubled edged sword, cutting through our denial and exposing both our humans flaws and yet also our God-like image. We are made in the image of God, all of us, and yet we are fallen. That’s how the Bible presents us. That’s the answer to this good-bad question.
So we keen. We keen at the beauty of the law. We keen at how we fall short. And we keen for the sweetness of the God who made these perfect standards, who is in fact made of these standards. And we weep when we take it in that such a perfect God can love us, does love us, can do nothing but love us.
We start to want to love Him back.
Why shouldn’t we? We’re made in His image. We want to be as loving as He is.
Our hope lies not in trying harder to be good, or in judging others as bad, but instead in entering into a loving relationship with God. This relationship means that all things work for our good. Paul says here: “Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever.” 2 Cor. 4:16-17.
Here’s the secret to a Christian’s success. The more Satan takes from us, the exponentially more God gives us. So when, like the Grinch, Satan steals our toys, God gives us the ability to sing even without all the things we thought we “had” to have. If Satan takes even our voice, we start to sing on the inside. And this inner peace, this exuberant sweet joy that bubbles up inside of us, is, we discover, life. The water of life flows from the throne of God into our hearts.
We are fragile earthen vessels, jars of clay. We break. Our pride shatters into a thousand shards. Our idols fall. But the more we “die” to ourselves and to what we think we want and need, if we turn to God in our keening instead of ourselves, the more we find what we wanted was available to us all along: God’s love.
And that is the point of being a Christian. To love the one who loves us all. It will last forever. It is good. And in Him, we are very good. So we can stop asking the wrong question and instead enjoy our lives. Because the deepest cry of Paul’s heart is true. God never abandons us. He always tells the truth. And He always loves us. Always. Even when we’re not so very good.
posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on March 27, 2014.