An American Perspective on Christian Suffering
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;
9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;
10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
13 Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak,
14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.
15 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
2 Corinthians 4:7-15
I hear worried voices in America predicting the demise of religious liberties. Here is what they are saying:
“The price of not bowing to Caesar is going up.” “Very soon, we will be asked to declare that no human behavior qualifies as sin.” “If we refuse, we will be punished, fired, taxed, and pilloried.” “As Christians, we must prepare ourselves for social marginalization, even incarceration.”
If such prognostications are correct, we are entering disheartening times, even frightening times. How can Christian leaders guide our people into this troubling historical moment?
I was reminded of the abuse suffered by the apostle Paul who was beaten across the Roman empire from one side to the other in the first century. As seen in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, his catalogue of afflictions was extensive. How did he cope with social ostracism and public persecution? The short answer is - gladly!
Recently, I revisited Paul at his autobiographical best and was very encouraged. In 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul makes a dramatic acknowledgment saying, “...we have this treasure in jars of clay.” The treasure mentioned here is “…the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus,” the radiant ministry of the gospel of Christ. Remarkably, it is a treasure Paul himself carries about, a man who is nothing more than a “jar of clay,” a cheap and weak pot, in contrast to the infinite splendor of the gospel of Christ.
The juxtaposition of glory and gloom, treasure and clay vessel, gospel brilliance and human weakness comes with magnificent logic. Verse 7 states, “…we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” The term “surpassing power” is a translation of the Greek word huperbola, a compound word made up of two adjectival superlatives, hence a super-superlative indicating the power that God is prepared to bring to bear in our ministries is super-abundant, illimitable, so vast it defies the capacity of mere words to describe it.
How does this extraordinary power come to be present in our ministries? The main verb in verse 7 provides the answer. Most English translations assume that Paul intends to write the Greek verb fanerotha (“to make visible”) and thus that his weakness makes visible, or shows, that the power of his ministry belongs to God. But Paul actually uses the simple equative verb eimi (“to be”), which lends profundity to Paul’s teaching. This is what Paul actually says, “…we have this treasure in jars of clay in order that the power may be of God and not of us!” In other words, God has chosen to make human weakness the precondition for an expression of divine power. As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Paul’s weakness represents a necessary occasion for the exhibition of God’s power.
For Christian leaders, this begs the question: how do we maintain ourselves in a condition of weakness? How do we make sure we are jars of clay? Not surprisingly, Paul takes measures in 1 Corinthians 2:1-4 to insure that his ministry among Corinthian Christians is marked by “weakness” and “much fear and trembling.” For instance, he eschews the egotistical preaching of the popular orators of the first century who projected themselves by sheer force of delivery and self-exalting rhetorical techniques.
But there is also a sense in which Paul’s weakness is not something he can maintain fully by himself. In 2 Corinthians 4:8, Paul concedes, “…we are hard pressed in every way.” Here he uses a passive Greek participle translated literally as “…being hard pressed in every way.” Naturally, we want to ask, hard pressed by whom? Doubtless hard pressed by other human beings, but perhaps more accurately, by humans operating under the imprimatur of God. Ultimately, the participle is a divine passive, pointing to the fact that Paul is being hard pressed by God himself and this in the same way as the thorn in Paul’s flesh “was given” by the Lord in 2 Corinthians 12:7. Hence the four participial couplets in verses 8 and 9 depict a catalogue of woe permitted by God himself:
“Hard pressed in every way, but not crushed.” “Perplexed in every way, but not despairing.” “Persecuted in every way, but not forsaken.” “Knocked down, but not knocked out.”
This produces a remarkable teaching. While Paul may be driven to the edge, he is never pushed over the edge. While he may be drained of resources, he is never completely emptied. While he may be brought to the end of himself, he never reaches a final end. Rather, he arrives at a new beginning. Just when Paul thought he had no resources left, when as a jar of clay he was about to be shattered, it was precisely then that the super-superlative power of God sprang to action and strengthened him to accomplish something miraculous.
When it comes to Christian ministry, this is God’s modus operandi. The Lord makes sure that “in all ways” we are hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and knocked down so that we are by no means crushed, overwhelmed, forsaken, and knocked out. It is exactly in the trials of the four participial couplets that the power of God preserves us from ultimate defeat. And the magnificent reason for this divine preservation is so that we may be put to greatest use in ministry.
How useful? Exponentially useful!
Note what verse 10 says, “…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies.” Here nekrosis literally means, “the dying” and indicates the process of death. In verse 11, Paul repeats himself with slightly different language, “…for we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh.” Whenever Paul repeats himself in close proximity, he is imparting an important teaching.
Indeed, it may represent the most profound depiction of the Christian life and ministry found anywhere in the Bible. According to verses 10 and 11, Christians are called to share in the earthly sufferings of Jesus. While there is mystery in this teaching, one point is clear: our suffering is never meant to be an end in itself, in the same way as the death of Jesus was not meant to be and end in itself. A greater end is in view, namely, that the life of Jesus may come to expression in our mortal flesh. And the life of Jesus is nothing short of resurrection life, the kind of life that overturns the death riddling our world and the kind of life that defangs its hitherto indomitable power.
In other words, the resurrection power of Jesus, a power operating in us precisely because we bear in our bodies the death of Jesus, is as incomprehensibly strategic as it is powerful. When we become channels of this super-superlative power, we become useful to a world of the walking dead. Indeed, we become channels of the resurrection life of Jesus. That is the message of verse 12, “…so death is at work in us, but life in you.”
There is scarcely a more exhilarating teaching. We become most useful as agents of the gospel of Jesus Christ when we are hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and knocked down, in other words, when we come to the end of ourselves. It is only then when we are prepared to acknowledge our true condition, when we concede we are but jars of clay, and hence when we look to God and God alone for enabling power, that we are preserved from ultimate defeat and become to others conduits of the miracle of resurrection life.
Why don’t we naturally love this truth? Why don’t I? Why am I not eager to see the reality of glory through suffering exhibited in my life?
After ten years of earnest prayer, I was recently encouraged to see my church finally come to a place where it aggressively wanted to bring the gospel of Christ to our community, reaching out to the walking dead all around us and seeing the Lord transform human lives for his glory. But just as we were embarking on this grand new day, in the short span of two and a half months my two closest friends, my mother and father, were both taken away to their eternal home. While grateful for their heavenly union with Jesus, I was broken by their absence. During the same few months, disruptive forces gained a foothold at the core of our ministries at church and began to foment division among the leadership. My reaction to both the personal loss and the division was not commendable. I became emotional. I complained. I reacted as though these two painful blows were incompatible with God’s purposes.
By God’s grace, a godly man in church drew alongside me. He was a man I led to Christ fifteen years earlier when he was a successful businessman who seemingly possessed everything and yet possessed nothing until trusting Christ as Lord and Savior. Now a new man in Christ, his heart fully given to the Lord, he threw himself into the work of Jesus. He started producing shirts on which he stenciled all sorts of Jesus logos. He made wrist-watches on which he also stenciled Jesus logos. He purchased the buildings for our two new church plants. Perhaps most importantly, he committed himself to meeting every weekday for lunch with a different man, sometimes a stumbling Christian from church, sometimes a seeking non-Christian, sometimes a strong Christian leader in the making. This saint threw himself entirely into the agenda of God for the world.
A couple of years ago this friend contracted a severe case of lupus. The disease afflicted him with chronic pain, requiring him to sustain himself alternatively by either steroids or homeopathic medication. He frequently collapsed in exhaustion. He lost weight. And yet – and here is the remarkable point – his ministry, especially among the young men of the church, became more useful and powerful for the glory of Christ than it had ever been, indeed more than I had ever witnessed in anybody in over thirty-five years of ministry. In this man’s suffering and weakness, the power of Christ was perfected according to 2 Corinthians 12:9.
This is the man who drew alongside me in my time of trouble, entertaining scores of emails laying out my complaints for months. To every email he would respond gently and patiently by setting out in various ways the great truth I had been neglecting – that it was only in my suffering, when I was hard pressed, when I came to the end of my own resources, that there might be in and through me a useful manifestation of the super-superlative power of God. At first I did not willingly receive his quiet admonition, but in time the blessing of his words sank in. By God’s grace, and with the help of a loving brother, I was spared from missing the opportunity provided by suffering to lean entirely on God for a work of power in and through my ministry.
When we believe that the power of God is perfected in our suffering, we are liberated to speak up boldly, announcing to an often hostile world the newness of life found in the resurrected Christ. Or as Paul puts it in verse 13, “…since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke.’” The last five words are lifted directly from Psalm 115, a psalm written by an author riddled by suffering.
Why would the psalmist speak out on behalf of God when it only produces public ostracism? Because he believes that when he is assaulted for God, the power of God springs to action in his words. Which then in turn fortifies his faith and causes him to speak out even more. Which then in turn produces more suffering and hence even greater manifestations of God’s power. Which then in turn builds his faith and engenders more bold speaking, more suffering, more evidence of the power of God – and so the cycle continues until it ends in glory, eternal glory. Verse 14 reads, “…knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us into the heavenly presence of God.” When the few blinks of our earthly existence run their course, we know we will be translated into a heaven of eternal joy. Knowing this, we can go through any difficulty now.
In fact, we can celebrate with Paul that “…it is all for your sake.” All the hard pressing, all the perplexity, all the persecution, all the knocks down – it is all for the sake of the people to whom we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ so that through us, mere jars of clay, the grace of resurrection life may be “extended to more and more people,” causing “thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God.” Such a wonderful prospect is why Paul does not lose heart. While he may be beaten up one side of the empire and down the other, he knows that in affliction the power of God comes to be in him.
As the gathering storm approaches, may we be desperate and praying for dependence on God’s power, not our own. And may grace spread to more and more people and thanksgiving increase to the glory of God.
Dr. Tim Savage is the Senior Pastor at Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona. He is the author of three books: No Ordinary Marriage; The Church: God's New People; and Power Through Weakness. Dr. Savage received his PhD from the University of Cambridge. He is a founding member of The Gospel Coalition and active blogger. You can follow his personal blog at www.timothybsavage.com.