When God created man it is said he formed him from the dust of the ground and breathed into his body the breath of life, and the man became a living being (Gen. 2:7). We each have both physical and spiritual qualities about us. We have that which is made from the dust and we have that which was breathed into us by God.
As bipartite beings made of both flesh and spirit, we are still, however, a unit. We are holistic. There is a mind-body connection. In other words, when I am experiencing physical pain, or sickness, or discomfort then that impacts my soul, my spirit, and my psyche. When I’m not eating as I should or exercising as I should I can get inwardly depressed. Likewise, when I am sick or tired then I find that my emotions are not as stable or controlled as I wish them to be.
The inverse is true as well. When I am depressed, or worried, or stressed it takes its toll on my body. My immune system is compromised. I feel tired and weak. I lack energy.
This mind-body connection that we have works in the positive as well. We can often improve our mood by getting our heart rate up. Likewise, a change in perspective and emotional outlook can release brain chemicals and hormones that make us feel better physically.
Paul understands this link and he also knows that external trials, afflictions, persecutions, and hardships that may be wearing us down physically may also be wearing us down spiritually. He is speaking as one who has endured many physical assaults. His body has endured beatings, and imprisonment, and hunger, and nakedness, and extreme temperatures, and discomfort. He has gone without sleep. He had his feet and hands in stocks. He knew physical pain.
And he knew this had the potential to drive him spiritually and emotionally insane. How discouraging must this all have been for him? It had the potential to wear down his soul, to break his spirit, to unsettle his emotions, and to lead to spiritual depression. But it does not. He does not lose heart. Why not? It was all a matter of perspective.
While difficult circumstances, afflictions, and trials may be taking their toll on us physically, they do not have to be wearing us down spiritually or emotionally. We can be internally resilient and even experience personal development and renewal in spite of those things which batter and bruise us physically. However, it requires that we have the proper perspective.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18,
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 Corinthians 4:16-18 ESV)
Paul was somehow able to manage that mind-body connection in such a way so that his external afflictions and bodily persecutions and trials did not negatively impact his inner man, his heart, his mind, his emotions, and his soul. In my case, just the opposite is true. I don’t experience too many physical ailments or external discomforts or outer afflictions, but it’s my inner man that often threatens the health of my outer man. It’s my lack of emotional resilience, and my worry, and stress, and my mind that sometimes seems to never shut off that often affects me physically.
Paul explains to us here how he’s able to keep that from happening and how he’s able to remain emotionally strong and not lose heart, even though external circumstances seem dire and even though his body is often racked with pain, and affliction, and trials. And in doing so he gives us three perspectives that help us not to lose heart when we face afflictions.
Perspective #1: Our physical body may be weakening, but our spirit is being renewed.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16a).
He acknowledges that his physical body is weakening. In fact, it is wasting away. Paul is literally spending his body for the sake of Christ. The persecutions that he has experienced are taking their toll. As Indiana Jones says, “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” Paul’s body had a lot of mileage.
It’s possible that someone may be listening to this someday who has experienced a lot of mileage due to their commitment to Christ. Some may have been jailed, or persecuted, or tortured for their faith. Where I am in the western world I have not yet experienced the kind of physical pain and suffering that many have throughout the centuries and still do today.
Perhaps for most people listening to this, the persecution is more emotional, but it has taken a physical toll. Or perhaps the affliction is not due to any specific persecution at all, but its perhaps due to some physical ailment or sickness that you have. We all live life in a fallen world that is affected by sin, and some may be suffering from a disease, perhaps cancer, perhaps a physical handicap, perhaps old age. Your body is just wearing out and wasting away.
You know how easy it is to allow that external physical ailment, whatever it is, to control you emotionally and spiritually. Please know that while it can, and often does, it does not have to. Paul says that while his outer man is wasting away his inner man is being renewed day by day. Spiritually and emotionally he is getting stronger and stronger. His external afflictions do not cause him to lose heart and yours do not have to cause you to lose heart either.
In Ephesians 3:16 Paul prays that God would “Grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” He prays for inner strength when outer strength is failing. Psalm 73:26 says, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
These were not just words for Paul. We see his example in the book of Acts. Once he was beaten with rods, thrown into prison, with his legs in stocks, yet he was singing hymns in the prison in the middle of the night!
He took the saying to heart: “What won’t kill me will only make me stronger.” He was able to develop an emotional resilience because external pressures and the fact that his external strength was failing forced him to draw upon an internal spiritual strength which came from God himself. The more his physical muscles failed him the more he had to make use of his spiritual muscles and so the more his spiritual muscles grew. His inner self was being renewed day by day even as his outer self grew weaker, and weaker, and weaker.
Perspective #2: Our current temporal afflictions are preparing us for eternal glory.
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17).
If you know anything about the persecutions of the Apostle Paul, then you know that his afflictions were anything but “light” or “momentary.” They were actually very heavy, and burdensome, and they constantly seemed to be with him wherever he went.
Paul is not minimizing his hardships here. In fact, in other passages, he finds it necessary to list the multitude and the magnitude of his sufferings.
However, by comparison with the eternal weight of glory that was being prepared for him, and that he was being prepared for, he considered his current affiliations light and momentary. Perhaps Paul took to heart and applied what Peter had to say about this. Peter wrote,
“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6-7 ESV)
Again, Peter writes,
“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10 ESV)
What Peter is exhorting us to do, and what Paul did by example, is to look at present afflictions from the perspective of eternity. With that perspective, this sickness, this ailment, this disease, this pain, this affliction, this persecution is only a little while, light, and momentary. Most of us can endure anything if we know that it is only for a season and a time and moment. And that’s all anything we experience here on earth is. It’s just for a little while longer.
In Romans 8:18 Paul says,
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18 ESV)
In that same chapter, Paul talks about all creation groaning because of the state of decay that it’s in. And folks, that is the state that all of our bodies are in. We are all dying. As I write this, I am three days from my 40th birthday! I really don’t even know how to process that. It’s crazy! I still feel like a little kid. Some would say I still act like a little kid. But the miles are starting to add up.
But even though all creation is dying, in decay, experiencing atrophy, experiencing entropy, order is moving toward disorder, physically speaking, the second law of thermodynamics, however, those of us who are in Christ can have just the opposite. Internally, spiritually, emotionally, relationally with God and others, we don’t have to lose heart. We can be being renewed (present tense verb). We can be getting stronger, and younger, and healthier, and holier, and happier every single day.
And from the perspective of Paul, it seems as if there is a causal relationship between the light momentary affliction which he is currently experiencing and the weight of glory that is to come. What he is currently experiencing is preparing him for it. It is working patience in him, Christlikeness in him, endurance in him, and proven character in him. Far from wearing him down spiritually, it is building him up and making him stronger. And so, he can do as James writes, “Count it all joy” when he encounters various trials, because the trying of his faith works endurance. Physical weakness can lead to spiritual strength.
Perspective #3: Our hearts are set on that which lasts, not upon that which is temporary.
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 Corinthians 4:18).
Paul does not lose heart, not only because his inner nature is continuously being renewed, and not only because it is preparing him and fitting him more fully for the glory to come, but because his heart is set not upon what is seen, but upon what is unseen.
What are some things that are seen? Health. Comfort. Houses and lands. Wealth. Physical attractiveness. Folks, physical afflictions have a way of taking these things all away. These “seen” things are so transient. They are so temporary.
If your heart is set on your looks, you’re probably going to despair when the chemo turns your skin pale and your hair falls out. If your heart is set on comfort, then you’re probably going to despair when they throw you into prison for speaking the truth. If your heart is set on houses and lands then you’re probably going to despair when trying to find a cure for your little girl’s rare disease forces you to sell it all. Afflictions, trials, sicknesses, and tribulations all have a way of manifesting where our hearts are and where our treasure is.
In order for Paul to be emotionally resilient, and spiritually strong, and internally joyful even though his world and even though his body were falling apart, he had to have his eyes not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen. He had to walk by faith and not by sight. He had to believe that all things work together for good, even though he couldn’t see it. He had to believe that God was in control, even though he couldn’t see it. He had to view his life from God’s point of view. Like the men and women of Hebrews, he had to view the invisible city from afar and appropriate that which was promised to him by faith. He had to fix his eyes on Jesus, the author, and finisher of his faith. He had to set his mind on things above and not on things on earth (Col. 3:2).
While difficult circumstances, afflictions, and trials may be taking their toll on us physically, they do not have to be wearing us down spiritually or emotionally. We can be internally resilient and even experience personal development and renewal in spite of those things which batter and bruise us physically. However, it requires that we have the proper perspective. We must realize that while our physical body is wasting away, our eternal soul is being renewed. We must recognize that our present suffering, whatever it may be, is temporal and is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory. And we must redirect our eyes from this world and the things that are in this world and shift them to God and to eternal realities.
“Do not love the world,” we are told in 1 John 2. “For the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”