2 Corinthians 4:16-18 “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Every Christian is prone to lose heart, even this great apostle Paul. Earlier, at the beginning of this fourth chapter of his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle has written that he refused to lose heart (v.1). He was amongst those favoured sinners in this world who had received mercy from the living God. The wonder of that never left him, so whatever Paul would meet in life during the course of his ministry, however crushed he might be by trials and providences, such events could not destroy him. “We do not lose heart,” he said in the very first verse, and now at the end of this chapter he repeats the very same words, “Therefore we do not lose heart” (v.16). But here he gives us some reasons for this confidence. In our text we find three great strata of granite rock, as it were, on which any Christian can most assuredly build his life in this world and in the world to come. “Three foundations for Christian encouragement,” we would call this sermon.
1. We Do Not Lose Heart because We are Being Daily Inwardly Renewed.
“Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (v.16). The Christian lives in a universe of contrasts. He lives in a visible creation and that is all he can see with his physical eyes, but he fixes the eyes of his faith on an unseen eternal world. He is body, but he is also soul. He once was old man under the dominion of sin, he now is exclusively new man under the authority of Christ. Yet this new man encounters within himself the power of remaining sin – the ‘flesh’, but he is given victory over it day by day by the power of the regenerating Spirit which is located at the very control centre of this one new man. So within his own life the flesh and the spirit constantly war one against the another.
Paul in our text conceives of the Christian as comprising two distinct selves which concept is slightly different from the flesh/spirit contrast. There is a reality which he refers to as the outer self, and he means by that all that his body and mind and affections are experiencing of the temptations and contaminations and mortality of this present evil world. But he speaks also of the inner self and he means by that all that he has become through being joined to Jesus Christ. By this he is referring to his new status in Christ, his divine resources and the energy of the Holy Ghost which is working mightily in him, the redeemed and reborn child of God. By this impartation he has become a partaker of the divine nature. So these two ‘natures’ or, better, ‘selves’ characterise every single Christian. What he is outwardly, and what he is inwardly. The Christian can quote the words of the Lord Jesus and apply them to himself, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” and he cares nothing about charges men make that he has fallen into dualism. He will be safe with the divisions the Lord himself has made. Yet the Christian is one man. He is no spiritual schizophrenic. All the followers of Christ live within these dynamics throughout their lives. They know that there will never come a time while they are in the body when they will be exclusively the inner man. On their last day on this earth they will be groaning because they are still remain outer man as well as inner man, and on their death beds there will be the spiritual warfare. But not for much longer!
When Paul looks at what he is according to his outer self he realises that he is wasting away. Of course this is true physically. His body is getting older. He doesn’t bounce back so quickly when he has been laid low. His brain cells die and are not being renewed. He is more forgetful. His eyesight is not what it once was. He cannot walk as far in one day as he could. His body has been damaged by all the sufferings he has endured for the sake of the gospel. Paul could see that the work of the gospel was killing him. He was old long before his time. He made no attempt to hide that from himself or others. He was a broken man at an age when others were fighting fit. But he as to his outer man was also exposed to fierce temptations. He finds within himself the seeds of every sin – anger, jealousy, lust, greed, retaliation, bitterness, self-pity, reluctance to pray, cowardice to speak and a spirit of self-righteousness, so the evil that he would not do he finds himself doing. The good he knows he should be doing he find himself avoiding. That is the condition of every Christian. We are weak and dying men. We groan; we sigh; we cry, “O wretched men that I am!” We experience a fight with principalities and powers and the rulers of the darkness of this world. We have to pray, “Lead me not into temptation and deliver me from evil.” The believer often finds a thorn in the flesh troubling him. It throbs away. It is a fearful distraction, so insignificant and yet so demanding of our attention. Outwardly the Christian is wasting away, and you would think that he must certainly lose heart.
But that is only half the story: “yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” Every single Christian is also making daily progress in the new life. His trust in God is stronger. His convictions about the gospel are deeper. His wisdom in knowing himself and the troubles of others is more profound. His resistance to sin is more determined. Paul appeared to be a fading sick old man, but inwardly he was being effectually transformed day by day. His youth was being renewed like the eagle. Paul could remember clearly certain men and incidents from thirty years earlier as if they had happened yesterday. He had memorised entire sections of the Scriptures and could repeat them to old age. He could shrug his shoulders at disease, decay and death and get on with the work of God. When everyone else left him he knew the Lord was standing by him. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he would say.
Now let us ask what are some of the areas that Christians are being inwardly renewed day by day.
i] Trusting the Bible. The young Christian reads the Bible because God has created a desire within him to do so. You remember Mary Jones walking to Bala in her bare feet to purchase her own copy of the Scriptures in the Welsh language. She would have been fascinated by the ministry she heard each Sunday which took her through chapters of the Scriptures and which explained the teaching to her, and drew out lessons and applications that she might have missed. So she longed for her own Bible and finally got one from the hands of Thomas Charles himself. She would read a passage and she would ask it questions: what does this tell me about God? what promises does God make to me in these words? what duties does he require of me? The more she read the more she understood. She began to remember whether certain statements were on the right or left pages of her open Bible, at the top or bottom of the pages, left or right columns. And as she became familiar with the Bible she grew in appreciation of its beauty and perfections. “O how love I thy law!” she would feel. Like the psalmist in the first psalm her very delight was in the law of the Lord. Her knowledge of her Saviour and his great redemption was constantly being renewed by her growing familiarity with the Bible. The more she read the more she found she could trust the Bible. Even the prepositions of Scripture became important to her. When she became an old lady keeping bees and selling the honey (giving the money to the Bible Society) she still treasured the Word of God. She lived by every word that had proceeded from the mouth of God that is found in the Scriptures. The Christian is inwardly renewed day by day by trusting in the Bible.
ii] Learning Contentment. We bring our own fallen personalities to Christ. We are restless, frustrated, angry, discouraged, ambitious people. It is not easy for us to become contented with the ways God deals with us. There were the early simple answers to prayer in the provision of a sunny day, or a ticket for the big game. Then God begins to test us – the delays, the unanswered prayers, the heartache, the opposition, the falls. What coldness of heart and unhappiness we discover within us. We want to plead as an excuse for our restlessness our own special personalities and needs. We say that we can’t help acting as we do. Other Christians we judge to be more docile while we are naturally fiery and leaders. We have vision. We are dynamic. Let others be content to be foot-soldiers we would be generals. Then God presses us with the duty of contentment with the chores he gives us to do, where he sets us in life, what roles he calls us to fulfil, what the mundane tasks and duties he sets for us might be. He teaches us to submit to him. He may let us have our own way, and then how painful an experience that is. He enables us to look into the cup he gives us to drink and to say, “Let this cup pass from me, nevertheless not my will but thine be done.” Increasingly we are renewed as we learn contentment with God’s good and perfect will.
iii] Evangelistic Earnestness. During Paul’s last imprisonment he was still the world’s greatest evangelist. He was conscious that the palace guard had heard the gospel through his being in jail adjoining the palace in Rome and that made his years in chains sweeter (Phils. 1:13). He wrote letters counselling Timothy and Titus that indicated how alert he was to the needs of their churches on Crete and in Ephesus. He never chafed at the terms of the great commission. He was dying for men and women to be saved. He said, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race” (Roms. 9:3). That was his spirit. It was purified and made more holy as he entered old age. So often we see evangelism as the province of the young, but the young are not best equipped for it. They are good followers but not good leaders. But do they have examples to look up to in those who have been Christians for many years? Are the old ones only full of warnings of wild evangelism than being actual examples of true evangelism? Are those retired men rather cynical about their own youthful zeal, that it was foolish and immature? Of course, much of it was. But does that excuse those who have been known by God for forty years never giving a word of witness, never inviting anyone to the services, never praying for anyone personally to be converted. We are not encouraged merely to criticise those ungodly aspects of what the world calls ‘evangelism.’ We only have the right to involve ourselves in every form of biblical evangelism.
Shouldn’t the righteousness of God become ever brighter as the years of our pilgrimage pass? Shouldn’t God’s love for sinners become increasingly amazing to us? You could pick out two evangelistic sermons from Spurgeon’s ministry, one preached at the beginning of his ministry in 1856 and one preached at the end in 1891 and it would be a challenge to tell which was which. The same passion, the longing for men and women to be saved, the freeness of the offers of grace, the pleading with sinners to come to Christ was there at the end of his ministry as it was at the beginning. In all the controversies he endured and the illnesses he bore so bravely the inner man was being renewed in evangelistic earnestness day by day. Remember those great last words of his hero, George Whitefield, the night before he died in 1770: “Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work, but not of thy work. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for thee once more in the fields, seal thy truth, and come home and die.”
iv] Victory over Sin. There are certain sins that beset certain Christians most easily. Perhaps you have a moroseness of spirit, a critical attitude to others, a self-pity, a pride, a sharpness of speech, lust, prayerlessness, self-importance, a mistrust of God’s ways, a readiness to speak but not a willingness to hear, a love of alcohol, rage, smugness, an unforgiving spirit, a readiness to take offence, pompousness, self-importance, a refusal to bear the burdens of the weak, a love of a high position and an unwillingness to hew wood and draw water, a meanness, and so on. The most fearful state a Christian can be in is when he turns a blind eye to that very sin that so easily besets him. He refuses to acknowledge that this is his own great weaknesses. Then what can be done? Must he carry this sin with him to the grave? It will mar his testimony, and spoil his usefulness. The salt will lose its savour. A shade will fall over much of the light. Should not every Christian cry mightily to God that he discover his own heart? “Show me myself!” Then his inward man will begin to be renewed. Can we sing from our hearts Francis Bottome’s hymn:
Search me, O God! my actions try,
And let my life appear
As seen by Thine all-searching eye –
To mine my ways make clear.
Can we sing these other anonymous words from our hearts?
Show me myself, O holy Lord;
Help me to look within;
I will not turn me from the sight
Of all my sin.
Aren’t those biblical sentiments? “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup” (I Cors. 11:28). There might be a certain sin that is preventing us being used by God as we could be. He cannot entrust us with a greater work because we are already vain enough concerning the success of some little work. We are not growing in knowledge because the small sum of knowledge which we do possess has made us puffed up. God will not lead us into counselling because he cannot trust us in personal relationships. Yes, we are fit and healthy in so many aspects of the Christian life. We are responsible parents. We are regular at the means of grace. We are orthodox in our faith, but in this one area sin has the total mastery of our lives. How would you describe your condition if in one area of your life, in one organ, or one limb, there were some untreated disease? “I am a sick man,” you would say, and you take no comfort from the doctor point out to you all the other 99 parts of your body that are perfectly healthy. If we are going to be renewed in the inner man day by day then it certainly must be in this area of victory over that personal sin. “Show it to us all, Lord! Grant that not one here shall go on at this poor dying rate! Reveal to us what we are and take us to the Lamb of God for confession and cleansing and to the Spirit of God for renewal. Give us grace to mortify it by the Spirit and to look unto Jesus for strength.” So we slowly and steadily gain victory over the sin that so easily besets us, but we are ever vigilant. That is another way the inward man is being renewed day by day.
So there are these spheres of renewal, and no doubt there are many more. But “outwardly we are wasting away” (v.16). There is absolutely no escape from that. The older Spurgeon once described his feelings about this in these words, “For my own part, I would have remained a young man if I could, for I fear I am by no means improved by keeping. Oh, that I could again possess the elasticity of spirit, the dash, the courage, the hopefulness of days gone by! My days of flying are changed to those of running, and my running is toning down to a yet steadier pace. It is somewhat cheering that the Scriptures seem to indicate that this is progress, for such is the order which it prescribes for saints: ‘They shall mount up with wings as eagles;’ away they go, out of sight. In your first sermons, – how you mounted up! Your first evangelistic efforts, – what flights they were! After that, you slackened and yet improved your pace; but it grew more steady, and perhaps more slow, as it is written: ‘They shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.’ God grant that we may not faint; and if our running days are over, may we walk with God as Enoch did, till the Lord shall take us home!” Spurgeon was conscious of the outward-inward dynamics of the Christian life.
I was once sent a sweet booklet produced by the parents of a young woman called Wendy Faith Moxham from Purley after her premature death at the age of twenty-one. They loved her daughter, and her last years had been a grand testimony to the sustaining strength of her Saviour providing his own comfort to her. People encouraged them to write about her faith in Jesus. The power of the words of our text were being worked out day by day in her own experience as a young woman. Her body was wasting away but she was being inwardly renewed. Wendy kept a little “Quiet Time” book and in one of her last entries she wrote these words which seem to sum up Paul’s teaching perfectly: “It is wonderful to know that whatever the circumstances, they are all in God’s almighty hand. However depressed I feel, I still feel the firm Rock beneath me, which gives me inward peace.”
Those simple and sweet sentiments from a dying girl prove exactly this truth of what Paul is saying here. In every single one of God’s own people, “inwardly we are being renewed day by day”. It is happening. Inward renewal is effectual in all the elect. It does not hang upon some Christian ‘secret’ of gaining the victory. God has made up his mind that his servants will be changed from one degree of glory to another by the Spirit. It must happen, and as we look ahead we must do so with great confidence. When we feel that our Christian life is going round in circles we must say to ourselves that God has promised us inward daily renewal, and we must look for every indication that this is happening and thank him from our hearts.
So the first foundation which delivers us from losing heart is to acknowledge that though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day, and that we ensure that this is happening.
2. We do not Lose Heart because Our Troubles Achieve an Eternal Weight of Glory.
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (v.17). Paul has in his mind a great pair of scales, and on the one side he sets all his present troubles, and on the other side he sets future glory. He first puts on the scales all the brutal treatment he has endured – the years he spent in prison, the floggings, the brushes with death, the lashings, the stoning, the hours he has gone hungry and thirsty, dressed in rags, being cursed, persecuted, slandered, becoming the scum of the earth. But there is more trouble to pile on top of all that. He adds the great pressures he endured when in his heart he felt the sentence of death, the deadly perils he experienced, homeless, working hard with his own hands, the three shipwrecks, the night and the day in the open sea. But there are still more troubles to come. He adds all the dangers he has passed through, the dangers from rivers in flood, the dangers from ruthless bandits, the dangers from his own countrymen, the dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the country, dangers in the sea, dangers from false brethren. But there is even more trouble to pour on top of this side of the scales; the pressures and concerns which every single congregation gave him whether in Corinth, in Galatia, in Thessalonica or anywhere else, and the weakness and the inward burning with holy indignation and loss of sleep which these concerns produced.
All these are the apostle’s troubles. Just one man’s load of troubles. You would feel Paul’s mortal frame could not endure them, that he would simply collapse under their weight. But how does he look at this great pile of troubles? They are ‘light’ (v.17), he says. It is the word his Saviour had used. “My burden is light:” Jesus had promised it would be so. “Yes,” Paul agrees, “all that the Lord has given to me to bear for him hasn’t been too heavy at all! It has indeed been light!” Then he adds this, “And it is momentary” (v.17). Does the weight-lifter complain that the bar and weights were heavy? “What a weight!” Of course not. He expected nothing less. He is a weight-lifter, not a snowflake lifter! He lifted it up above his head, held it there, didn’t buckle at the knees and then he dropped it to the ground. He did not expect to carry it around all day. It was a momentary burden. Christ had carried the weight of guilt and shame of the apostle Paul and millions like him, and he had called on Paul to take up his cross and follow him. Should Paul expect a nice padded rucksack full of sponges when Christ was crushed beneath that holy judgement of God?
That wrath would have kindled a hell >br> Of never-abating despair,
In millions of creatures, which fell
On Jesus, and spent itself there. (Joseph Swain)
Paul expected to carry a rugged cross throughout his life, and wondered what that was going to be like. In fact the burden turned out to be “light and momentary”. His life went speeding by. How soon it was past! “Goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life” – that was his testimony. Paul pitied the person who wasn’t carrying a cross. Such a man was a stranger to life, joy and peace. Jesus’ burdens are good for you.
How could he come to think like that? Two reasons.
i] The troubles were achieving something glorious for Paul. We could begin by saying that those troubles were weaning Paul away from the glories and rewards of the world. He could have been a great teacher and philosopher, far greater than any that Greece had every produced, but that would have meant trimming down his message, and blunting the sharp right-angles of God’s absolute sovereignty, and man’s depravity, and the sinner’s only hope lying in the Redeemer’s agony and bloody sweat. Greece would have demanded that if Paul were to join their Pantheon of philosophers. It was a price he would not pay. What were the glories of Athens without Christ? Or he could have worked for the Empire as he was a Roman citizen and climbed up through its tiers of government and become like Daniel in that Babylon or a Joseph in that Egypt. But Paul was a prophet and an evangelist, not a civil servant or politician. Rome put him in prison and there he rotted for years. Soon it would persecute with stakes and crosses the followers of the Lamb. What was the Coliseum’s glory to Paul? The troubles weaned Paul from love of all this vain world’s golden store.
But the troubles did more than wean Paul from love of the world. They really got under the skin of the apostle, and into his heart and into his very soul, and the troubles actually brought the glory of God right into the very centre of his being. They made him convinced what his chief end in life was, not having fun but glorifying God in every condition, and experiencing it in heaven for ever, and how increasingly he longed for that. The troubles worked eternal realities into his soul. You think of a skilful physiotherapist exercising a limb and working (in co-operation with a patient) a resilience and a tensile strength back into weak muscles so that joints could bend again, and they could bear a burden and carry a man along. The physio is pushing him to the very limits, stretching his abilities, and then some more, and then some more, giving him pain but also reward and encouragement and hope. It was Paul’s troubles who were his actual physio, working the reality of glory into his heart. He saw the celestial city brightly. He longed to be there with his Lord, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross despising the shame.” Just last month two very different people in separate places spontaneously said to me how much they had come to long for heaven during the past year. One had had a life-threatening illness and that had worked into his whole psyche an awareness that this world is characterised by vanity of vanities, and that life’s fulfilment can only be attained in the glory that awaits us. Troubles achieve that conviction within us. They are no accident. They do not come from mere caprice. They are not sent by the divine whim. They are divinely appointed by a loving Father. God is working glory into the Christian through the troubles he must prescribe for us. John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan observed, “If we have not got a cross, alas! we may conclude that we have not Christ, for it is the first of his gifts.”
But the troubles did more than wean Paul from the world, and more than work the glory of God deep into Paul’s life as his chief end and goal. The troubles actually served to achieve the eternal glory. Now let’s be very careful here. Our sole entitlement to the glories of heaven is through the finished work of our Saviour Jesus Christ. The dying thief went to the glory of paradise the day he died only because of the redeeming love and substitutionary sacrifice of the Son of God. He paid the full price for the thief’s sin, and bought his place at the great marriage feast above. Nothing the thief could do needed to be added to Christ’s redemption payment. So our sufferings make no contribution at all to the entry price to glory because they have been mixed with such sins as our frustration and our self-pity. Our very troubles need to be redeemed. They have no purgatorial power. But there is this – hear these words of the Lord: “Where I am, there shall also my servant be; if any man serve me, him will the Father honour” (John 12:26). The glory before us is in part the Father honouring us who have been his faithful servants. Who suffered as the apostle did for his Saviour? And Jesus says to him and to all who have endured troubles bravely and meekly for the Lord, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Matt. 5:12). Do you think that Paul will be tucked away in a corner under the stairs of the mansion Christ has gone to prepare for him? Will there not be millions who will seek him out, wanting to bow their head in respect and say, “Thank you Paul for all you did and what you wrote. It kept me going, and gave me a reason for my life”? Paul’s faithfulness brought enormous troubles into his life, but these troubles achieved for him great reward.
But we can go a step further and also say this, that our troubles are the necessary birth pains of the glories before us. We with the whole creation are groaning inwardly and longing for what Paul calls the adoption, the manifestation of God’s sons for what they really are – the new humanity who now share the very glory of God the Son. As a mother has labour pains in giving birth to her children so creation is now knowing those pangs in producing the appearance of God’s sons. Glory is being achieved by these labour pains. These necessary sufferings produce the glory of the revelation of the sons of God. So you must accept the humiliations and the pains because they mean you are also going to share in the glory. Do you see why Paul pitied the man who was a stranger to cross-bearing for Jesus? He would be a stranger to the manifestation of the sons of God. Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “I always feel in much need of God’s afflicting hand.”
There was another reason also for Paul to be so positive about his sufferings:
ii] The glory far outweighs the troubles. There are these scales, and on one side has been tipped the entire weight of all Paul’s troubles, but on the other is set eternal glory. There is simply no comparison between the two. When you pour onto these scales all the glory then that side falls like a lead weight, and the troubles vanish up up and away out of sight, as if that side of the scale were empty. All the tortures and dangers vanish! All the persecutions vanish! All the pain and loss vanish up and up as the eternal weight of glory is poured onto the scales.
Consider the glory! Can I say a fresh word about heaven? Spirit of God help me! This – that we are going to see the Lord Jesus Christ. The one the fishermen saw when they looked up from their nets and he was there standing before them saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men!” They looked at him, and dropped their tools and followed him. We shall see him as clearly as they did, his face, his smiling eyes, his love for us, his awesome divinity which yet will not terrorise us. “In my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me” (Job 19:26&27).
But I tell you something more wonderful than that. When we see him we shall be like him. You can scarcely believe it. The words are so common and monosyllabic: ‘like him.’ Everyone can understand what those words mean – we shall be like Jesus. But can we begin to comprehend them? As holy as he is. As loving as Jesus of Nazareth. As full of patience, and kindness, and gentleness, and self-control. We shall love God as he does, and love one another too from our hearts fervently and purely. Our bodies will be like his. All that God can do to make his Son glorious will now be directed towards us. The loving omnipotence and creativity of God will be focused on us to preserve our own unique personalities and yet infinitely elevate and ennoble them. There will be my transfiguration when with my eyes I see the one who loved me and gave himself for me. That is our eternal glory.
I will tell you something more wonderful than that. This will be true for every single one of God’s children. Now we are at different levels of understanding, and maturity. We have personalities that irritate and grate on other Christians. There are those who say, “I could never go to that deacon for advice.” There are those who say, “That elder is too severe.” There are those who mutter, “I don’t get anything from his ministry.” That will never be the case in the eternal glory. The whole constituency of the redeemed will be as blameless as Christ himself, deeply in love with one another, and appreciative of everyone there from the least to the greatest. The grass will be greener nowhere else, nor the company sweeter. We will be utterly satisfied with the family of faith and the environment, so that every day will be as fresh as the first. We will never grow weary of our companions nor of the place. Can you think of that? Is not that the very sum of heaven, the praises sung on the holy mountain top in that land of song – that all who stand there will be as perfect as Christ himself? No temptation to reach one of you from eye, or ear, or hand. No temptation can hurt you because there will be nothing in you to foster sin. So regrets and memories cannot hurt you there at all. They would be like sparks falling into Cardigan Bay, quenched in a moment. Loved by God, washed in the blood of Jesus, freshly baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, we shall soon all meet at God’s feet white-robed and white-hearted, as perfect as our Saviour and Maker. That is our eternal glory. Can’t you understand why Paul says here that “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (v.17). ‘Far’ outweighs them – all put together they are still outweighed, he says, because they were just momentary, here today, but gone tomorrow, whilst this weight of glory is endures for ever. So that is the second reason why we do not lose heart at our troubles. They are purposive; we know that they are achieving this end.
3. We Do Not Lose Heart Because Our Eyes are Fixed on What is Unseen and Eternal.
“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (v.18). How sad to be obsessed with what is seen, with money, and possessions, and people’s bodies, and clothes, and drink, and music, and drugs. You talk to a girl about what she is looking for in a future husband and will she give you a list of physical and economic statistics? Will she say, “Six feet tall and rich”? If she does don’t you feel a pity for her? Wait until she’s been betrayed a few times by a man like that, and then won’t she say something like this, “I want someone to settle down with, so that we can raise a family together, someone that I can trust completely, and I want to be loved by him and love him in return. I want someone to make me smile, and we will always be together.” She is talking about so many invisible things – love and faithfulness and kindness and happiness. She is not fixing her eyes on what is seen. Beauty is vain; sweet talk can be devilish. The unseen world of principles and standards and integrity and goodness and life-long commitment. That is what is important to her.
Why has drug taking become more widespread and acceptable? People are tempted to try it out through curiosity and a dissatisfaction with what they are tasting and hearing and seeing: “Is this all there is?” they ask. So they take a drug and there is a giddying collapse into sensual ecstasy that lasts a few minutes before they crave it again, chasing the high down a labyrinth of utter unreason. The heart starts pounding when they think of it. The mouth is dry. The mind just craves one puff. The credit card and the cash dispenser supplies the money. There is the search for the dealer and the shot, before, again, lungs are gasping, heart bellowing, they are utterly miserable with a comedown only another shot can quell. The horror has begun. The addict has only this world. Only his senses can satisfy him, and alone they cannot satisfy him. God has made us for himself, and our hearts are craving, craving, craving … nothing but God can fill that void. Not dope. Not ecstasy. Not cocaine. Not crack. The unseen and eternal living God, made known to us in Jesus Christ! Don’t fix your eyes on the sensual but the real spiritual world of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Paul probably lost his family, and his parents’ home when he confessed that the Nazarene was the Messiah and his Lord. They would have shown him the door and declared that he was henceforth a dead son to them. They might have held his funeral, but his eyes were not fixed on his Dad and Mum. It was a transient relationship – parents, children, husbands, wives – we don’t live for them. We love Christ more than them all. We know we shall all be eternal brothers and sisters in the world to come. There were times when this brilliant man survived by making tents, cutting them with his knife and primitive scissors, pushing a strong ivory needle and thread through sheepskins, binding the skins together, his hands rough and hard. But he was not fixing his eyes on those things as he worked, but on what was unseen. Think of the professors and teachers in eastern Europe dismissed from their schools by those dictators and delighted to get jobs stoking the furnaces in blocks of flats, shoveling coal and raking out ashes, but alive! They were keeping warm and content because they were not fixing their eyes on their mean surroundings but on future freedom for their nations for which liberties tirelessly and secretly they were working. So it was with Paul. As he thrust the needle into the leather he would think of the Kingdom of God and its glorious consummation. “Now how can I speak to this child about Jesus Christ? What is the best advice I can write to Timothy? Help me to answer this questioner who is obviously sitting here quietly not in order to watch me make a tent.”
Paul could see the chains which attached him to a Roman soldier day and night. But he did not fix his eyes on them. Every link was forged by Christ and the chains were locked by his crucified hands. The chains attached him to his Lord. “How can I use this prison cell to your glory, Lord? Heaven will be doubly heaven for me if I can take with me some of these guards.” He never made the things of this world the target of his gaze, so he never lost his nerve. He never lost heart in following Christ. He would have been overwhelmed if he had become transfixed by his own mortality, obsessed by the apparent triumphs of sin, or the spasmodic encouragements of the life of a congregation. He fixed his eyes on what was unseen. John Owen says, “Herein would I live; herein would I die; herein would I dwell in my thoughts and affections, to the withering and consumption of all the painted beauties of this world, unto the crucifying of all things here below, until they become unto me a dead and deformed thing, no way suitable for affectionate embraces” (Works, Volume 1, p.291, Banner of Truth).
For months a farmer has been draining a field by hand, digging long deep trenches with a shovel and a pick, laying drainage pipes, and then filling in the trenches again, back and fore across the field in a latticework of interconnecting pipes. It is dull boring monotonous work that has to be done. “How can you keep going, Ianto?” a neighbour asks watching him throughout that long winter swinging his pick in all weathers. Ianto smiles and gestures over the hill to the farmhouse just out of view. “It’s just a few hours every day, man. At five o’clock I go home to Mari and the kids and a meal in the warm house.” He is sustained by seeing invisible realities.
This has always been the experience of the servants of God. When Paul was a young believer he read much of the life of Moses. How had he survived Egypt and all the opportunities for sin on offer as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter? How was he kept from lust and covetousness and vain glory? Listen: “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than all the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:26&27). Moses did not look at the glories of the greatest nation in the world, he looked ahead. He was not overwhelmed by the pyramids and the palaces and the power of Egypt, he saw him who is invisible – the coming Messiah. He stood in the sands of the desert and cast his lot with the people of God in their poverty and weakness. He led them out to a glorious land which he had never set his eyes upon but which God had promised to them, and he looked to what was unseen.
How important to us always to have the big picture before us, not this particular section of the pilgrimage when we have troubles from our health, or troubles from friends who have turned against us, or financial troubles, but to see what is in the distance which will put all these troubles in perspective. Don’t look at fragments or sections, look at the whole! Think of a bride on her wedding day dressed up for church and – can you believe it – she is distraught. You say, “What’s the matter?” “I have found a pimple on my wrist,” she cries. “Look at the whole picture,” you almost shout back at her, “Your dress, your veil, your flowers, your hair, all your bridesmaids, your groom, the best man, the church and its decorations, the service, the vows, the hymns, the congregation in their finery, the reception, the honeymoon. Who is going to notice the pimple on your wrist?” We have to take the big perspective always. Everything has to be judged in the light of eternity. Set all events before the reality of heaven’s glories. That is our longing each week as we gather to worship, that our eyes be drawn away from what is seen – those things which may have pulled us down this past week. They are all temporary. In the light of our mortality, standing on the brink of the wondrous sight of God, how inconsequential all else will appear.
Hasn’t there been a time when you have stood on the promenade and seen the sun setting over the Bay and the heavens golden and red? You have said to your best friend, “What a beautiful sky.” “Yes,” she says, “if only we could see behind it.” On occasions like that you can feel so near to the great invisible reality. What does the sunset touch (as Browning called it) say to us? Don’t make your heaven here! Don’t think your hell is here! You may carry fire to that unseen world where it will be unquenchable. You may carry a worm yonder where it will be undying. A temporary pit may lead to an eternal pit, but thanks be to God he has sent a Saviour. The great Fire Extinguisher! The great Worm Destroyer! A brother able to raise you up out of the pit. Look for the glory beyond! Those who are most heavenly minded have been most earthly good. What is unseen is eternal.
18th March 2001 GEOFF THOMAS