No pain, no gain. It’s a cheap, popular slogan that points to a precious biblical reality — albeit with reductionism — that we regularly see at work in our world.
The pain of childbirth gives way to the joy of new life. The disappointments of defeat catalyze athletes to train with even more resolve. The humiliation of failure leads to fresh awareness of personal flaws, sober self-evaluation, and the emergence of better, more mature, more intentional patterns of life. The most cherished realities in our lives are forged in the fires of pain and suffering. We see the evidence in our world, and know the story in our own lives.
And the Scriptures affirm this profound truth for God’s people. Through suffering, God exposes our sin and calls us to soul-saving repentance (Romans 8:18–23; Luke 13:1–5). Through affliction, he drives us from the dangers of trust in self to the safety of trust in him (2 Corinthians 1:8–9). Through pain, he works in us hope and holiness and endurance (Hebrews 12:3–11; Romans 5:3–4; James 1:2–4; 1 Peter 1:6–8).
He makes us the hands of his comfort in the lives of others (2 Corinthians 1:3–4), emboldens fellow believers (Philippians 1:12–14), and embodies the gospel to unbelievers (Colossians 1:24; Acts 5:40–41). He uses distress and persecution to reposition his troops (Acts 8:1; 11:19–21), and he makes our sufferings into his instruments to wean us from the cheap thrills of the world, keep us from conceit, and woo us to the surpassing value and preciousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 12:9–10; Philippians 1:19–23).
But what about the sufferings that produce no good on earth in the life of the sufferer?
How Does Earthly Pain Serve Eternal Gain?
Think especially of the horrors of dying. It’s not too uncommon for those final minutes to be terrible. And that’s an understatement. And when the moments (or months) of dying are finally over, what good might it have served this world? You’re dead. No strengthened faith. No increased sanctification. Perhaps no sterling testimony to friends and family in those final excruciating minutes. Will such suffering — for some, as bad as it ever gets in this life — genuinely serve some good purpose, or simply prove to be in vain?
Two precious biblical promises — one from Jesus, the other from Paul — affirm that the good God does in suffering is not limited to good in this life. In Matthew 5:11–12, Jesus strengthens us not only for enduring, but rejoicing, when “others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” How? By looking to the joy of heaven: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
So also the apostle Paul turns our eyes beyond this age as he speaks into our present sufferings in Romans 8:18: “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Literally, our sufferings in this age are not worthy of the glory that is coming to us in the age to come.
However, what Matthew 5 and Romans 8 don’t make explicit is the nature of the relationship between our present pain and our coming gain. Which is why 2 Corinthians 4:17 holds out a precious particular truth to all of us, and especially in the midst of sufferings that don’t seem to produce any good in this life:
This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
Beyond All Comparison
First, let’s note how gloriously understated in our English is this phrase “beyond all comparison.” Paul puts together a stunning string of language here in an effort to communicate how mind-numbingly great is the fullness of our reward to come. “Beyond all comparison” translates the Greek kath huperbolēn eis huperbolēn which we might render literally as “according to an extraordinary degree, to an extraordinary degree.”
Paul uses the phrase kath huperbolēn elsewhere to communicate extraordinary degree (Romans 7:13; 1 Corinthians 12:31; 2 Corinthians 1:8; Galatians 1:13), but here he crafts a kind of over-the-top expression found nowhere else in his letters. Not only is this “eternal weight of glory” which awaits us in Christ glory to an extraordinary degree, but it is glory squared — to an extraordinary degree. We might see it as Paul’s own way of saying to infinity and beyond.
The closest expression elsewhere in Paul to the glory of 2 Corinthians 4:17 may be Ephesians 2:7: “in the coming ages [God will] show [us] the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” He can’t help but pile up earthly language to try his best to give us but a foretaste of heaven’s glory. Not just riches but immeasurable riches. And not just in grace but grace in kindness. The coming glory will be in extraordinary degree — and then beyond — to extraordinary degree.
What’s Included in the Coming Glory?
We don’t know the half of all that will be included in this stunning glory to come, but even the sketch of it we do have is indeed “beyond all compare” — extraordinary degree, to extraordinary degree.
First, we will see the risen, glorified Christ (1 John 3:2; Revelation 1:13–16; Matthew 17:2). And as if that alone weren’t enough, “we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2), with glorified bodies (Philippians 3:21), inhabiting the bliss of such glory, shining like the sun (Matthew 13:43).
We will eat and drink and move our bodies, and taste a new fullness of joy we never have — in a new world specially designed for our joy (Romans 8:21) as our eternal playground to the glory of God and satisfaction of our glorified bodies and souls like never before.
We will hear, from the God of the universe, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21, 23; Luke 19:17) and share as fellow heir with his Son in all the world and its wealth (1 Corinthians 3:21–23; Matthew 5:5).
We will judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3) — in fact, wonder of wonders, we will sit with Jesus on his throne (Revelation 3:21), “he will dress himself for service” and will serve us (Luke 12:37), and God himself will rejoice over us with gladness, quiet us with his love, and exult over us with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17).
And to think, for now, we only know in part. Then we will know in full (1 Corinthians 13:12). Such is glory truly beyond all comparison — eternal glory squared — extraordinary degree to extraordinary degree.
Pain Now Producing Glory Then
But how is it that our present sufferings relate to this coming glory that human language stammers to even give a glimpse? This is the unique contribution of 2 Corinthians 4:17. Paul says that our affliction in this age prepares for us this coming glory which is beyond comprehension and compare. The verb prepares (katergazomai) here means to work or produce.
Just as “suffering produces endurance” (Romans 5:3) and “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:3), so also affliction in this life, endured in faith, produces this incomparable, immeasurable weight of coming glory.
Which means that in those moments when we are suffering — and so far as we can tell, as in those final few minutes of dying, our pain and suffering is not being “used for good,” it seems, in this life — we do have something good to preach to our souls. And not something marginally good. But magnificent goodness. As good as glory squared, far more than we can even imagine.
Every Moment Meaningful
Dear brother or sister in Christ, your afflictions are never wasted. Your pain is never in vain. Empty as our sufferings may seem in this world, they are working — they are producing for us — glory in the life to come, and glory so great that not even the apostle Paul can grab enough human language to do it justice. As John Piper declares on the basis of 2 Corinthians 4:17, “There are special glories in the age to come brought about by your particular afflictions” — which means that
every moment of your affliction is meaningful. It has meaning. It is doing something. Causing something. Bringing about something glorious. You can’t see this. The world can’t see this. They think, and you are tempted to think, this suffering is meaningless. It’s not doing anything good. I can’t see any good coming out of this. That’s what you feel if you focus on the seen.
To which Paul responds, look to the things that are unseen. The promise of God. Nothing in your pain is meaningless. It is all preparing. Working something. Producing something — a weight of glory, a special glory for you. Just for you because of that pain.
We Do Not Lose Heart
These twin glorious truths indeed are grounds to “not lose heart.” Which is precisely what Paul says in the verse immediately preceding 2 Corinthians 4:17:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)
Which doesn’t mean that we pretend that afflictions are not afflictions. Trouble is trouble. Pain is pain. Hurt is hurt. Bringing eternity into view doesn’t make our sufferings themselves any less painful, but it steadies our souls to rightly appropriate the pain. In light of eternity, and the stunning, indescribable magnitude of the glory to come, we do not lose heart.
In view of eternity’s duration, our pains are but momentary. In view of heaven’s glorious weight, our afflictions are light. In view of the coming joy, our pains will one day prove to have been almost insignificant — except in that they worked for us the eternal glory that we then will enjoy, and increasingly so, forever.