How do we respond when life seems meaningless? When the suffering hits and the wave of suffering we feel seems, itself, to be totally pointless, what then? This essential topic Pastor John took up in one of his most important sermons he has ever preached, one from 2013. A listener named Jared sent it in as a clip he loves, and it’s a clip many of you will recognize because it became a clip that got embedded into a Shane & Shane song, “Though You Slay Me.” Most of you have heard that song because the music video has now surpassed seven million plays on YouTube. It’s an incredible song and a powerful music video I know God has used in many of your lives, watching through a veil of tears. And all of it is rooted in one sermon everyone should listen to at some point. For now, here’s an extended clip from Pastor John’s 2013 sermon.
So, Paul really does experience not losing heart because of truths, realities that he puts into his head day by day, day by day, for renewal.
Look to the Unseen
Now, one more step: What about the for at the beginning of 2 Corinthians 4:17? We’re going to beat verse 16 to death if we don’t move on. But my, there’s a lot of life in there. He doesn’t give up easy. I love to pound on verses till they’re dead. That’s an odd way to say it, isn’t it?
We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For [because] this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
Verse 17 is the main argument. It’s the main because, the main thing: this light momentary affliction is doing something. It’s working for us an eternal weight of glory in verse 17. All verse 18 does is say, “Look at it. You can’t see it, but look at it.” If you look at the fallenness of man coming at you with his guns, or the fallenness of nature coming at you with its tsunamis, all you’re going to do is lose heart. Stop looking at that. Look at the unseen.
“This light momentary affliction is doing something. It’s working for us an eternal weight of glory.”
You might ask, “What unseen are you talking about? And how do you look at something that’s unseen? That’s a contradiction. You can’t look at what you can’t look at. You said it’s unseen. Stop telling me to see it. How do you look at the unseen, so as to not lose heart and so as to be renewed every day?” And verse 17 is the main unseen thing you look at. We do not lose heart because this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory. “Look at this,” he says. “Look at this.”
Light and Momentary
What do you see when you look at verse 17? You see him calling his affliction, which lasted a lifetime, momentary. I’m 67. You’re supposed to retire, right? Paul suffered until the sword severed his head from his body. There was no year or two of fishing. If Paul was going to have a retirement, it would be post-beheading. So, if he didn’t have this, he had nothing. He said, “If there’s no resurrection from the dead, I’m an idiot.” That’s what he said (1 Corinthians 15:19). He called his lifelong beatings, and shipwreck, and sleepless nights, and agony for the church — he called it momentary. Do you see that there in verse 17? He called it light, and he called it momentary. That’s crazy. That’s not what you see. You look at it, and you say, “That’s fifty or sixty years.” I’m not sure how old he was when he died. But it was a long time — twenty or thirty years of relentless imprisonments and persecution. And he calls it momentary, and he calls it light.
The contrast between momentary in verse 17 is eternal. And the contrast with light is weight. So, let’s read it again, and notice those parallels. His “light momentary affliction is preparing for him an eternal [that corresponds to momentary] weight [that corresponds to light] of glory.” So, he could see beyond the grave. According to promise, he saw glory — the glory of God that would be seen, and the glory of God that would be given to him, and it made his lifelong suffering look momentary, and it made the weight of the pain look light.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. . . . For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30). You are kidding me. You’ve got to die for Jesus, and you’re going to call that light? “Yes.” Why? “Because I look to the unseen.” What? “Glory — glory beyond the grave that’s going to so make up for this brief life that it will look momentary, and it will look light.” That’s the unseen you’ve got to look at.
Suffering Produces Glory
One more thing, and I end with this because it’s just so, so relevant for so many suffering people, and so precious to me — this word in verse 17: preparing. Not only is all your affliction momentary, not only is all your affliction light in comparison to eternity and the glory there, but all of it is totally meaningful. Now, that is a very controversial statement because of how much insane suffering there is in the world.
“Not only is all your affliction light in comparison to eternity, but all of it is totally meaningful.”
Every time something horrific happens, an interviewer will say, “Meaningless.” And that is what it looks like. It’s what it looks like. “Look at it; look at it. This is meaningless.” These 23 kids in India, what did they do? They ate lunch — and they’re dead. Or Moore, Oklahoma. Or Boston. It’s everywhere. Now we’ve got the Internet; we’ve got no excuse for not crying every day. Weep with those who weep, right? If you don’t have a theology that can cope with Internet horrors, you just better check out — or get one.
This text says our “light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight.” It doesn’t say that our affliction “will be followed by an eternal weight of glory.” That would be good enough. But that’s not what it says. Katergazomai — forgive the Greek. I just love it. I’ve got to dump it out every now and then. You don’t need to know that. The word means “produce, prepare, cause to bring about.”
I’ll venture this: every millisecond of your pain from fallen nature or fallen man — every millisecond of your misery in the path of obedience — is producing a peculiar glory you will get because of that. That’s a very controversial statement — and I believe it.
If anybody says to me that a believer’s suffering was meaningless, I’ll be quiet, probably, because they’re probably hurting really bad right now. I want to wait and see when the right time is. But I’m going to come back eventually and say, “It wasn’t meaningless.” I don’t care if it was cancer or criticism. I don’t care if it was slander or sickness. It wasn’t meaningless. Because verse 17 says that my light, momentary, lifelong, total affliction is doing something. It’s doing something; it’s not meaningless. Of course you can’t see what it’s doing. This is the main unseen thing verse 18 is talking about, I think. What’s the unseen you’re supposed to look at? You’re supposed to look at the promise of God in verse 17 that says your pain is doing something for you. You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. Either you see it with the eyes of faith and believe it because the text says it, or you lose heart.
And I’m going to close with John the Baptist as an illustration. My name’s John. I love all the Johns in the world. (That’s a weird thing to say in the city. If I were good enough, I would.) But I love John the Baptist. He’s in prison, and you know why he’s in prison. Jesus said, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). He’s in prison. Do you know why he’s in prison? Because he looked the king right in the face and said, “You can’t have her. She is Philip’s wife. You’re an adulterer” (Mark 6:17–18). Well, that’s a very dangerous thing to say to a king who has absolute authority over anybody to do anything he wants. So, he puts him in jail. He’s scared of him, so he hasn’t killed him. But there he sits.
And now it’s Herod’s birthday. And he gives a party for himself. He throws in a little bonus, a little sexual bonus for his guests. He has his stepdaughter dance — a really, really pleasing dance. It turns everybody on. They’re all loving it. And when she’s done, he knows she’s pleased the guests, so to reward her, he says, “I’ll give you whatever you want, up to half my kingdom” (Mark 6:22–23). She goes to her mom, Herodias, who hates John the Baptist. She says, “What should I ask for?” And her mom says, “Ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (Mark 6:24). She walks back in. Everybody’s listening. What’s she going to ask for? “I want right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (Mark 6:25). There’s silence in the room. She can’t take it back. “Okay,” he whispers to his attendant, “get it.”
John’s sitting there in his cell, wondering how the kingdom is going to come. And the door opens, and two guys are standing there, one with a sword. There’s a moment of silence. John doesn’t know what’s going on. The one with the sword says, “Come over here and kneel down. And if you struggle, we’ll bind you.” And John says, “What happened? What’s going on?” The executioner says, “The king’s daughter danced in the party, and she asked for your head. And we’ve come to get it; we’re going to take your head.” That’s the last thing he has to think about in the next twenty seconds.
“Get alone with God, and preach his word into your mind until your heart sings.”
What would you think? Everything in me says, “God, what can be more meaningless than a party where a girl dances, asks for the greatest man on the planet’s head, and within two verses of the Bible, he’s dead?” God! God! Meaningless. That’s an absolutely meaningless way to die. Nothing glorious about it. It stinks to high heaven.
I’ll tell you, I hope God, in his mercy, put into John’s head in those twenty seconds, “This light momentary affliction is working for you an eternal weight of glory.”
‘Until Your Heart Sings’
And so, I believe the main because for not losing heart in this text is that none of your suffering is meaningless. It’ll feel that way. That’s why verse 18 says, “Don’t look at what’s seen.” I mean, imagine you’re just standing there watching that happen. It’s like, “You’re going to kill him? He didn’t do anything. She just danced. Don’t do that; it’s meaningless. This is totally crazy. This is an absurd novel. This doesn’t happen.” That’s the way you’d talk, right? What your eyes are telling you is this: meaningless.
Don’t look to what is seen. When your mom dies, when your kid dies, when you’ve got cancer at forty, when a car careens into the sidewalk and takes her out, don’t say, “That’s meaningless!” It’s not. It’s working for you an eternal weight of glory. Therefore, do not lose heart, but take these truths — all the ones you’ve heard in every message — and day by day, focus on them. Preach them to yourself every morning. Get alone with God, and preach his word into your mind until your heart sings with confidence that you are new and cared for.
So, God, come and do your mighty work, through your word and through this people, in all their ministries, I pray. In Jesus’s name. Amen.