"Not Losing Heart"
2 Corinthians 4:16-18
(Delivered Sunday, August 10, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
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I was with a group of men from church yesterday morning; and the subject of the apostle Paul came up. "Why is it," one of the men asked as he flipped through his Bible, "that someone hasn't made a feature-length movie about the life of Paul? It seems to me that it would make a really great one!"
And as we began to talk about it, we agreed that, if someone made an accurate movie of the life of Paul, it truly would be a great film. But it would also have to be an unusually long one. We wondered if perhaps a 'mini-series' would be better. And thinking it over, we agreed that to really do his story justice, it would have to become a whole movie franchise!
If you were to make just one movie of the life of Paul and his service to the Lord Jesus, you'd have to decide what events in his life to leave out—just to make the movie come in at under three-and-a-half hours long. But what would leave out?1 Would you leave out the first shipwreck? Or the second? Or the third? You certainly wouldn't have time for all three. How many of the beatings would you include? After all, he received forty lashes a total of five different times. They'd all make for an exciting adventure sequence; but could you pack them all into just one movie? There were also several of imprisonments; would you write them all into the screenplay? You'd obviously want to include the time that he was nearly stoned to death by an angry mob; but would you also include the night and the day he spent in the deep? And out of the many journeys; and out of the many perils in the water, or of robbers, or of his own countrymen, or of the Gentiles; or of those he suffered in the city, or in the wilderness, or out at sea, or among false brethren; which would you still have time to include in the movie?
What's more, what about all the day-to-day challenges Paul dealt with? Would you include scenes of all the times of weariness and toil he said he suffered for the cause of the gospel?—all the sleepless nights—all the days spent in hunger and thirst and fasting?—all the dreary hours spent in cold and in nakedness? And then there was all the daily concerns he experienced for the church that the Lord Jesus purchased with His own blood. Would you include all the tremendous pressures and concerns that Paul felt regularly for the people of God?
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This morning's passage is about not losing heart in our walk with the Lord Jesus—not becoming discouraged or fainthearted; or 'throwing in the towel' and quitting in our service to Him. And given all that we've just considered about Paul, if anyone would have known what the temptation to 'lose heart' felt like, it would have been him.
He himself admitted that there were times when he and his co-workers in the gospel were very close to losing heart. At the very beginning of his second letter to the Corinthians, he wrote;
But even though he almost lost heart at times, he didn't do so. In spite of the remarkable list of things he suffered for the cause of the gospel, God mercifully upheld his spirit. He goes on to write,
And so those words at the beginning of our passage this morning are very significant—"Therefore we do not lose heart . . ."
These words are not only significant but also very practical; because he then goes on in the rest of the passage to show us why he didn't lose heart.
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Now; I have felt drawn to this passage, in part, because I believe that many of us in the church family today have 'lost heart'—or are just about to do so. Perhaps you are among them.
Perhaps the pressures and trials of life seem overwhelming to you right now. Perhaps it feels as if everything in life is fighting against you; and that you have come to church this morning feeling so weary of soul that you don't believe you could take another step. Perhaps you are just barely holding it together today; and you feel that if life drops just one more thing on your plate, you'll break. And if that describes you today, I believe God has something very important to tell you from this passage of Scripture.
And another reason I have felt drawn to it is because I have personally put this passage—and what it says to do—to the test in my own life. There have been some dark, troublesome, sleepless nights in which I have gotten up out of bed, sat in a chair with my Bible, and allowed God to do business with me from this very passage. And as a result, He has used it to comfort me, bring me out of my dark hours, and give me hope in the midst of trying times. Many times when I have wanted to quit, God has used these words to give me new strength and a fresh sense of hope.
Not losing heart in the midst of our Christian life comes a result of three habits of faith. And Paul, in these three verses, describes those habits to us.
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Now; I'm going to ask that we walk through these three verses in reverse order. And the reason is simple. Verses 16 and 17 tell us, primarily, about our response in faith to what God does for us in the midst of those trials. But verse 18 tells us about an act of our own will—a resolve of our own heart and mind—to do what we must do in order to enjoy the sustaining power of the things that God does for us. And so, I believe we ought to look at it first.
To put it simply; if you and I will not make it a habit of life to do what verse 18 says to do, then we will eventually lose heart in our service to the Lord. But if we are faithful to put what it says into regular practice, we will find that it will eventually build into us a victorious hope that sustains us in our times of deepest affliction.
The first thing we must learn to do in times of affliction and discouragement is . . .
1. KEEP OUR FOCUS ON THE ETERNAL THINGS (v. 18).
The verb that Paul uses to describe what we are to do means "to view intently", or "to keep one's eye on". And it's in a form of the verb that speaks of a continuous action of habit. Literally, all that he says in verses 16-17 assumes that we are "not continuously looking intensely on the seen (things) but on the not-seen (things)". "For the seen (things)", he goes on to explain, "are temporary, but the not-seen (things) are eternal."
I think a good illustration of what Paul is saying is found in the experience of Peter. Do you remember the time when the Lord Jesus came walking to the disciples on the water, while they were in a boat in the midst of a storm? They were terrified; but Jesus greeted them with the words, "Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid" (Matthew 14:27). And do you remember how Peter said, "Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water"? Jesus did so; and Peter walked on the water to go to the Lord!
Now; so long as Peter kept his eyes on the Lord, he did fine. But the Bible tells us that "when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, 'Lord, save me!'" Jesus did save him; but He then added the gentle rebuke, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" (vv. 30-31). And if I may, that serves as a good example to us of how important it is that we diligently work to keep our focus on the right things in the midst of those trying 'storms' of life.
When Paul says that we should not make a practice of keeping our focus on the things which are "seen", I believe he means the aspects of trials and afflictions that seem to destroy the "outward man"—the circumstances of life that we suffer in this temporal body. We need to recognize those difficult and painful things as really happening; and we need treat them in an intelligent and realistic way. But they are not to be our main focus. They are not to be what we look at 'intensely'. If they are the only things we concentrate on and devote our main attention to, then we will sink under the weight of it all. We will lose heart.
Instead, Paul says we are to make sure that our main focus is on the "unseen" things—the things that are eternal. What are those things? One of them, we can be sure, is the Lord Jesus Himself. Peter wrote of Jesus, "whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8). We're to keep our spiritual focus on the unseen Lover of our souls; "looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls" (Hebrews 12:2-3).
We're also to keep our focus on our rich inheritance in Christ. Peter also wrote;
Paul himself kept his focus on the unseen inheritance that awaited him in Christ. At the end of his life—as he sat in a prison cell, awaiting his execution—he was able to write;
Another "unseen" reality that we need to keep our focus on in such times is our own future glorification with Jesus. Our "life" is not ultimately here on this earth—where all the troubles and trials are. Our life is hidden in the heavenlies in Christ; and that's where our focus needs to be. In Colossians 3:1-4, Paul wrote;
Similarly, the apostle John wrote; "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is" (1 John 3:2).
This first step takes a great deal of work. It takes a resolve of the will. Sometimes, it's almost a battle! But I can't stress its importance enough! We must grab hold of ourselves and make ourselves focus on the unseen things; because they are the things that are eternal and that will never change. They are the things we are to anchor our hopes to in the storms of life. They are the things that sustain our spirits in times of trial.
When we're in a time of trial and testing, we need to get away, meet alone with the Lord, open our Bibles, and ask, "Lord; help me to see what it is in this trial that I am focusing in on. Is it on the seen things or is it on the unseen things? I need Your wisdom to deal with the realities of this trial that I can see; but help me to keep my main focus on the eternal truths that I can only see with the eyes of faith. Help me to know, and put my trust in, what your word says are the unseen things that remain true in the midst of this trial."
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Now; that's the part that's entirely up to us. That's the decision we must make—to keep our focus on the eternal things in the midst of the trials and afflictions of life, and of disappointments and discouragements in ministry. And the rest of what Paul says in this passage has to do with simply placing our trust in what God Himself does in the midst of those trials and afflictions.
Once we have resolved to keep our focus on that which is eternal, Paul then goes on to show us that we must . . .
2. REMEMBER THAT PRESENT AFFLICTION HAS AN ETERNAL PURPOSE (v. 17).
He writes in verse 17 to tell us something that we could never know unless God, in mercy, had revealed it to us. He says, "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory . . ."
Now; Paul calls that affliction "light". And that might seem like an insensitive thing to say when we're in the midst of it. Affliction doesn't feel "light" at all. In fact, it feels downright burdensome, and heavy, and almost unbearable! But what an amazing thing it is that Paul—under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—tells us that, from eternity's perspective, it's "light". That gives us a hint of how glorious our future in Christ really is—if those trials which seem so heavy at the time are "light" by comparison! The apostle Paul once put it very plainly for us when he wrote, "for I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18).
What's more, Paul calls them "momentary". They seem, at the time, as if they're anything but "momentary"! In fact, they seem unending and unrelenting when we're in the midst of them. But from the perspective of the heavenly glory that we're destined for in Christ, they're only "momentary". Even if a man or woman were to live to be a hundred years old; and even if every single hour of every day of that long life—from the time of birth to the time of death—were filled with unending affliction and suffering; if that man or woman has faith in Christ and is destined for eternal glory, then that whole life of suffering will prove to have been only "momentary" by comparison. The apostle Peter wrote to Christians who were suffering horribly; and he told them, "But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you" (1 Peter 5:10). It's truly “suffering”; but it's only for “a while”. And when it's over, it leads to “eternal glory”.
And just as in verse 18, the main verb in this verse—"to work" or "to produce"—is also in the form that suggests something progressive and continuous. Even right now, as we're going through a "light, momentary" time of affliction, that time of trial is in God's mighty, loving, sovereign hand; and, by His grace, it is even now "working for us" something eternal.
Look at the wonderful 'parallels' this verse presents to us. That which is "light" is right now, in God's sovereign hand, producing something that is 'weighty'. That which is "momentary" is right now producing that which is "eternal". That which is described as "affliction" is right now producing "glory". And it is doing so in a way that is, "far more exceeding" (or, as it's translated in the English Standard Version, "beyond all comparison").
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; let's forever put aside the idea of "pointless suffering". For the believer in Christ, there is no such thing as "pointless suffering". There are afflictions, and trials, and times of suffering. But they are never "pointless". Far from it! In God's hand, the light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. If we remember this—as we keep our eyes on the unseen things—we will not "lose heart".
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Now; there's one more response of faith on our part to the things that God is doing through our times of affliction. And that is, that we're to . . .
3. REJOICE THAT THE INWARD MAN IS BEING DAILY RENEWED (v. 16).
In verse 16, Paul affirms, "Even though the outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day."
In Christ, you and I have two aspects to our being. And there's a sense in which these two aspects are going in two different directions. There's the outward man which is our body. It's the part of each other's being that we can all see. And then, there's the inward man, which has been made new in Christ.
Now, the outward man is constantly going in the direction of decay and destruction. There's no way to stop that; because it was only given to us by God to be a temporary dwelling place; a body that is going to one day die—even though it will later be resurrected from the grave in a glorious state that will last forever. The inward man, however, is going in a different direction. It is the part of your being that has already been made eternal. If anyone is in Christ, as Paul says in 5:17, "he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new." It's the part of our being in which we are “forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead”—the part of our being in which we continually “press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). This “new” life that you live in your temporal body is not a different life than the one you'll be living eternally in heaven. You are living eternal life right now—but in a temporal body that is meant to be set aside one day.
From God's perspective, the trials and times of affliction you and I undergo can only have an absolute impact on the outward man. It is undergoing day-by-day destruction—whether by natural processes of aging, or by the direct afflictions we suffer in living for Christ. But those same trials and afflictions do not impact the inward man in the same way. They only bring our inward man down to the degree we allow them to do so; that is, when we take our focus off the eternal things. If we keep our eyes on that which is eternal, however; and remember that the momentary, light affliction is producing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison; then the inward man will be experiencing continual, day-by-day renewal!
I believe this is what Paul was speaking of when, in verses 7-11. Even though the trials and troubles were still there and still very real to him; and even though he felt them painfully in a body that he likens to a weak, fragile "earthen vessel", he wrote;
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So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ; in the times of trial and affliction, you can take it by faith that God is mightily at work. You can rejoice confidently in the fact that, though your outward man is undergoing decay, your inward man is being renewed day-by-day. You can know, as a settled certainty, that the present time of affliction has an eternal purpose—and, in God's mighty hand, is producing an eternal weight of glory.
Paul shows us here that God is at work doing these things in times of affliction. But will you do your part? Will you make it your resolve to keep your eyes not on the things which are seen, but on the things which are not seen? Will you make it your purpose of heart to keep your focus on the eternal prize—to keep your focus on Christ Himself, on the inheritance we will eternally enjoy in Him, and the heavenly glory we will forever share with Him?
If we will do so, then no matter what else may happen, we will be able to say with Paul, "Therefore we do not lose heart."
1The following is drawn from Paul's list of experiences found in 2 Corinthians 11:22-33.
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