Speaking of Faith
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Do you ever feel pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted and struck down? If so, you will be in good company with the author of our passage for today’s sermon. The apostle Paul’s life certainly doesn’t make him a poster boy for any “health and wealth” gospel. Paul is no stranger to pain and misery. Throughout this second letter of Corinthians, we find accounts of Paul experiencing all kinds of afflictions from beatings, shipwrecks and other near-death situations. But Paul seems to take all of this as par for the course in a life of faith. That’s why he can identify with being pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted and struck down. In fact, this is the list he makes just prior to our text we have today. Only he doesn’t list these afflictions alone. He adds to each one a “but not” statement: “pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor.4:8-9). The eyes of faith do not blind us to suffering but enlighten us to see that suffering doesn’t get the last word. For Paul, and all who live a life of faith, all afflictions can be acknowledged with a “but not” attitude.
With this “but not” attitude Paul begins our section of 2 Corinthians with, “It is written.” Paul does not attempt to speak about suffering and affliction apart from what is written in the Scriptures. We will do well to follow suit. Our sufferings can often speak so loudly that we get confused and lost in the noise. When we are struggling with being “pressed on every side,” we can read what is written to help us not be crushed. If we are “perplexed,” God’s word speaks a wisdom that keeps us from falling into despair. Are you being persecuted? God’s word speaks to us personally with the reminder that we are not abandoned. And if you are struck down, there are plenty of accounts of renewal and resurrection to remind you that you will not be destroyed.
Now let’s look at what Paul wants us to hear from what “is written”:
“I believed; therefore I have spoken.” (2 Corinthians 4:13)
This is a quote from Psalm 116:10. The rest of verse ten adds, “but I was greatly afflicted.” Psalm 116 is part of a section of psalms known as the Hallel psalms. These psalms depict the righteous who suffer but who rely on God as they cry out to him in their affliction. Faith, even during times of great affliction, enables us to speak to God and to speak to others about God. Paul has been having to defend his calling and authenticity as an apostle and therefore his calling to proclaim the gospel. In the culture of Corinth—as well as in our culture today—suffering and affliction would not be considered as evidence of someone worth following or listening to. Paul is referring to this psalm to establish that his speaking the gospel flows out of the same faith those of the psalms were speaking from. In other words, it is not “success” and culturally approved status that enables one to preach the gospel. It is faith in the one who is faithful and has called us to speak. In fact, speaking about the goodness of God and his faithfulness to us while we are in a trial is a huge testimony that God can be trusted. It’s one thing to praise God when things are good, but quite another to praise him when pressed, perplexed, persecuted and struck down.
Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. (2 Corinthians 4:13-14)
Paul here finds solidarity with the psalmist as having the “same spirit of faith.” Notice he is not pointing to his own faith as qualifying him to speak. Faith itself is from the Spirit just as it was for the psalmists. Paul, the psalmists, and you and I are participants in that same faith. We may ask, then, whose faith are we talking about? Whose faith are we participating in? That would be the faith of Christ. Only Jesus had perfect faith in the Father, trusting him completely even as he suffered death on a cross.
This is the “same spirit of faith” given to the psalmist, to Paul and to you and me to participate in. We do not, indeed cannot, produce our own faith. It is a gift of the Spirit. And notice the connection of belief with speaking. Speaking the gospel is possible only because of this belief that comes as a gift from God in Jesus Christ. So, proclaiming the gospel is grounded in the faith of Christ, not in one’s own success or superiority. This kind of “faithful” proclamation does not point to one’s own faith or an attempt to work up faith. Rather, it speaks of the one who is faithful, Jesus.
In this faith, Paul also finds solidarity with the Lord Jesus and with other believers. Notice how his language is very communal. He uses “we” instead of just “I” as he writes. The solidarity he finds with Jesus, that includes others, is in the resurrection. Because we know that the Father will raise us up in Jesus’ own resurrection, our tongues are loosed to speak, even when life looks like it is on the brink of death. Paul mentions how this will benefit us, namely that grace will spread, resulting in thanksgiving to God. Thanksgiving is a form of speaking; faith and speaking are connected.
All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 4:15)
The benefit Paul is speaking of here is our access to the Father through the faith of Jesus. It’s a reversal of the fall of humanity (Genesis 3). Jesus’ gift of forgiveness through his death, and his gift of life through the resurrection, enables us to be in personal and intimate relationship with the Father. This is something glorious to be thankful for. This is not just good news for some future time when we will talk with God face to face, but it is good news for us right now in the present day. That is true even when we find ourselves pressed, perplexed, persecuted and struck down. Even during our times of great sorrow and suffering we can still speak to the Father in faith, knowing that he hears us and will answer. We can also speak to others about this God in whom we trust. Our circumstances do not deceive us into thinking the Father is not trustworthy.
Because of this Paul can boldly say, “Therefore we do not lose heart.” For Paul, that is not just trying to put spin on a bad situation. He’s not saying just grin and bear it or offering some trite, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps comment. He has a real and solid reason to not lose heart—the reality of what God has done in Jesus Christ for the sake of the world. Because of this Paul wants us to know that we will look at our sufferings very differently. He uses comparative language to make his point:
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, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Paul is not making some dualistic statement here that discards our bodily existence in favor of some ethereal “spiritual” existence. Paul knows and teaches the real hope of a bodily resurrection. What Paul is doing is contrasting that which is temporary with that which is permanent. This is clear with our last verse for the day:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. (2 Corinthians 5:1)
The faithfulness of God frees us to not put our faith in things that do not last. They are only “earthly tents” made for temporary purposes. This is a word of encouragement where we do not lose heart as we experience suffering. Compared to the eternal and weighty reality God is building in us, we can see our troubles as “light and momentary.” I don’t know how often our troubles feel “light and momentary” when we are in them, but that is indeed what they are, especially compared to what God will complete in us. When we “fix our eyes” on this reality then we will be free to speak in a way that brings glory to God in our troubles. Imagine how little weight we will place on things and circumstances that would normally weigh us down. Whether it be our bodies and health, our homes and finances, our cities and our nations or anything else that is temporary, we can hold onto them lightly. When they become hardships of the kind Paul is listing, they cease to have any power over us that can keep us from speaking to God or about God. We will still be free to call out to God knowing he is faithful and good to us and we will be free to speak to others about the gospel that has set us free.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- Can you relate to the description of being pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted and struck down? Share any examples of this in your life.
- What did you think of Paul’s “but not” attitude from 2 Corinthians 4:8-9? “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” What are some “but nots” you can think of for any troubles you may be facing right now?
- Discuss the connection between faith and speaking. How does faith in God free us to speak to him and about him?
- Discuss how thankfulness, praise and speaking to God while in a trial bears witness to God’s faithfulness even more than when things are rosy.
- Does it seem possible to see your troubles as “light and momentary”? Why does Paul put it like that? Is he out of touch?
- Discuss how fixing our eyes on what is permanent and not what is temporary can keep us from losing heart.