When it comes to suffering and pain, none of us are immune. Worse, the pain so often seems pointless, and in fact pain in our lives is not pointless at all. So what does suffering produce? What’s it doing in our lives?
John Piper addressed this question in his 2013 sermon, “The Glory of God in the Sight of Eternity.” There he addressed 2 Corinthians 4:16–18, and I’ll read it: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For 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.” Here’s John Piper.
I was talking to a woman the other day about this issue who struggles with assurance. And I said, “You know, God designed your heart to experience the sweetness of assurance by what you focus on with your head.” And she looked at me like: Where is that in the Bible? That sounded new to her.
And I thought: That’s all the Bible is — a bunch of “therefores” and “becauses.” It is talking about peace and joy and strength and power, and all of that for reasons that God has revealed in his word and acted out in history. So Paul really does experience not losing heart because of truths, realities, that he puts into his head day by day for renewal.
Now, what about that for at the beginning of verse 17? We are going to beat verse 16 to death if we don’t move on. But, my, there is a lot of life in there. He doesn’t give up easily. I love to pound on verses till they’re dead. (That’s an odd way to say it, isn’t it?)
Verse 16: “We do not lose heart.” We are going to be renewed every 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.”
Verse 17 is the main argument, the main because, the main thing. This light, momentary affliction is doing something. It is working for us an eternal weight of glory. 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 its guns or the fallenness of nature coming at you with its tsunamis, all you have left to do is lose heart. Stop looking at that. Look at the unseen.
What unseen things are you talking about? And how do you look at something that is unseen? That is a contradiction. You can’t look at what you can’t look at. You said it is unseen. Stop telling me to see it. So what do you mean, Paul? And I think it becomes pretty clear what he means: the basis of our not losing heart is something you cannot see. And I will get at what that is in just a minute.
Decades of Suffering
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.
What do you see when you look at verse 17? You see him calling his affliction — which lasted a lifetime — momentary. I am 67. People are supposed to retire, right? Paul suffered until the sword severed his head from his body. There was no year or two of fishing or golf. 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 is no resurrection from the dead, I am an idiot. That’s what he said in 1 Corinthians 15:19.
He called his lifelong beatings and shipwreck and sleepless nights and agony for the church, he called it momentary (verse 17). He called it light, and he called it momentary. That is crazy. I am not sure how old he was when he died, but that’s a long time of suffering — twenty, thirty years of relentless imprisonments and persecution, and he calls it momentary and he calls it light.
How to See the Unseen
The contrast between momentary in verse 17 is eternal. And the contrast with light is weight. 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 saw 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 I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)
You are kidding me. You’re going to die for Jesus. You call that light? Yes. Why? Because I look to the unseen. What? Glory. Glory beyond the grave that is going to so make up for this brief life, it will look momentary, and it will look light. That is the unseen you got to look at.
Suffering with Purpose
One more thing that is 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. Every time something horrific happens an interviewer will say: meaningless. And that is what it looks like. It is everywhere. Now, we have got the internet, so we have no excuse for not crying every day. “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
This text says that our light, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory. It doesn’t say “will be followed by” an eternal weight of glory. That would be good enough. That would be good enough. That is not what it says. The Greek word (katergazomai) means “produce, prepare, cause to bring about.”
Every Millisecond Made Meaningful
I will 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 is a very controversial statement, and I believe it. If anybody says to me that a believer’s suffering was meaningless, I will be quiet, probably, because they are probably hurting really bad right now. I am going to wait and see when the right time is. But I am 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 is doing something. It is not meaningless.
Of course, you can’t see what it is doing. This is the main unseen thing verse 18 is talking about. What is the unseen you are supposed to look at? You are supposed to look at the promise of God in verse 17 that says tour 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, believe it, because the text says it, or you lose heart.