The new year has arrived, but the pandemic is not going away anytime soon. The ABC’s Dr Norman Swan has suggested that new variants are virtually certain and they may be more severe than any of the variants we have experienced so far.
For many, the summer break was disrupted by needing to isolate as a close contact, or by testing positive for the virus. Some experienced severe symptoms and others required hospitalisation. We should not neglect to remember that many have died and many have been left behind to grieve. Families are also bracing themselves for the possibility of further disruption to schooling.
In such challenging circumstances, how should Christians approach a new year?
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle responds to the criticisms and attacks of “super apostles” who have sought to undermine his gospel by personal attacks.
Paul’s relationship with the church in Corinth was always difficult, as the community of relatively new believers struggled to separate from their former way of life and give expression to the “new creation” that had come about in them through the reconciling work of the Cross of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14-17). Paul writes with great emotion and a depth of personal disclosure that is full of feeling and offers a rare insight into what, today, we call the apostle’s sense of “wellness”.
In 2 Corinthians 4:8 Paul writes, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed”.
They are words that offer a window on the apostle’s state of mind. They are notable for the resilience to which they allude – not crushed, not in despair, not abandoned, not destroyed. The presence of incredibly demanding and challenging circumstances in his personal and ministry life has not robbed him of equilibrium, perseverance and hope.
Though Paul is speaking in a personal way, rooted in his own historic context, he offers to the Corinthians an insight for maintaining hope that continues to speak and have application today.
…[W]e 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 weight of 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)
The apostle draws attention to three contrasting pairs, each of which points to a paradoxical, unexpected truth. In verse 16 there is a contrast between the outward body and the inward “man” or self. The apostle’s body is subject to the ordinary wear and tear of his demanding life of hard work and constant travel with few certainties. But inwardly he is being renewed by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead (verse 14) through the Spirit, whom God has given as a deposit guaranteeing what is to come (2 Corinthians 5:5).
In verse 17, Paul compares his present experience of suffering with the eternal glory to come, so that he regards the former as light and momentary and the latter as of eternal importance.
Our experiences of frustration, disappointment and hardship in all kinds of circumstances, can feel “in our face” – overwhelming and insurmountable. But the frame of eternity, to which Paul draws our attention, changes our perspective. What seems to so dominate our horizon, in the context of eternity, appears instead as momentary.
Transience and impermanence, which the Scriptures frequently associate with human life in a fallen world (cf. Psalm 103:15-16) has an upside! The days of weariness and trouble will not only pass away, but will be dwarfed by a weighty, heavy, substantial glory that not only outweighs them, but will endure into eternity.
As the hymn writer puts it:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.
Paul draws a final paradoxical contrast between the seen things that are temporary, and the unseen things that are eternal. Fix your eyes on what is unseen, is the apostle’s inspired command.
We can’t see our eternal home in heaven, built by God and kept for us (2 Corinthians 5:1). We can’t see the heavenly dwelling with which we will one day be clothed, and of which the invisible Spirit is the guarantee (verses 4-5). We can’t see Jesus, “who died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (verse 15). For we live “by faith, not by sight” (verse 7), so we fix our eyes on what is unseen.
Paul wrote in the particular context of the defence of his ministry, and the gospel he preached, and of which we have become heirs. But he points us to truths that sustain and strengthen us in challenging circumstances by reminding us of the fruit of God’s reconciling work through Jesus’ death on the Cross.
He reminds us of the power of God’s renewing work in us by his Spirit, the eternal weight of glory and the hope of the coming new creation that is now hidden from view, but has been secured and stored up for all the Lord’s people. Therefore, we do not lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:16a).