Our church’s pastoral care team gets a front-row seat to some significant moments in peoples’ lives, spending much of our time with those who are ill, dying, or bereaved. Our home turf is hospitals, care facilities, and funeral homes.
As I contemplate all the suffering and death we see, I often think about Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:
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.
In these few words, Paul presents a biblical tension between great suffering and a greater hope. Paul lived in this paradox daily, even though his “wasting away” was due more to persecution than aging (v. 7-12). The principle he wrote of, though, applies to those whose bodies are worn by a sin-scarred world, whether by injury, disease, mental illness, or grief.
My wife and I have enjoyed mostly excellent health, but now that we’re in our early 50’s, our check engine lights are starting to flicker. So when we read Paul’s honesty about our “outer selves,” we’re singing out of the same hymnal.
At the time of his writing, Paul’s body must have shown obvious scars, not just from age, but from all he had suffered for the Gospel (6:4-5). When believers saw him for the first time, they must have wondered how such a rickety creature could possibly be the bold apostle they had heard of.
The people our team visits are not hammered by persecution, but are stymied by failing parts that don’t behave like they used to. And no matter how old you are, at some point, your body will confirm the dastardly effects of sin, and one day your heart will one day stop, and your bones will lie still. One day, you and I will waste away completely. Only a casket or urn will await.
Paul refuses to sugarcoat this reality, but he doesn’t then despair saying, “Life is hard, and then you die.” Instead, he claims, “inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”
But how? By thinking happy thoughts? By denying reality?
No. By looking into what human eyes cannot see, but redeemed souls can.
“As we look,” he writes, “not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”
Whenever I am preparing for a funeral, and the family shares memories of their loved one, they spend most of the time on two topics: what the person meant to them and what the person accomplished in the prime of life. These kinds of memories are good and expected in such a context. It is appropriate for us to remember our loved ones at their best--when he was the star athlete; when she basked in the spotlight as she sang; when she was the homecoming queen; or when he was the Big Man on Campus. Heck, one family even boasted of how their mom turned down a date with Elvis before he was famous. Top that!
In such times loved ones want me to know that their mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, et. al. wasn’t always sitting alone, counting pills, drinking protein supplements, and battling urinary tract infections. They were once active and vibrant and proud and full of zest. They once enjoyed what that great theologian Bruce Springsteen calls, “Glory Days”:
We just sit around talking about the old times,
She says when she feels like crying
She starts laughing, thinking about
Glory days, well, they'll pass you by
Glory days, in the wink of a young girl's eye
Glory days, glory days.
For so many still alive, yet whose prime has passed, the days gone by are their happy place; their place of comfort. Trapped in an Uncle Rico existence, sometimes the only joy they can find is in their past, which gets more glorious with every retelling.
And yet we all know that no matter how great we were in our prime (like that time I sank two game-winning free throws in sixth grade—I peaked early), such days are gone forever. The only way we can go from here on out is the path of the has-beens.
Perhaps this is why Paul sees Christian hope as a peek into our future, rather than a rehashing of our past. He writes that the Christian’s best days are ahead and that real comfort comes not from reminiscing in human glory, but but wondering at the divine glories to come:
“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.” (See also Romans 8:18).
Our Strength and Our Hope
Such is the perspective that kept Paul going in the midst of suffering. It is what strengthened his soul in times of darkness and weakness. And this same mindset is meant to be ours, especially in our darkest days. The only real past we need to look back on is a bloody cross and resurrected Savior. From that point forward, our hope looks to our resurrection—the resurrection of our bodies (Romans 8:22-25)!
Sometimes I am asked what kinds of funerals are the hardest. I have indeed known some tragic situations—suicides, the death of children, and sudden deaths that leave unprepared families in a soup of confusion and sorrow.
Such grief can be grueling, but the most tragic funerals don’t always come from tragic losses, but from insufficient perspectives.
If we look at things from a divine perspective, the saddest services may contain glowing stories of the deceased’s past, yet no real hope of their future. They are assumed to be “in a better place,” yet there is nothing in their story to confirm they had faith in Christ.
What if they had a great life, but a life that was absent of Christ? What could be more tragic? What could be more heartbreaking than a life well-lived on earth, but silence at Heaven’s Gate, when the Lord asks, “On what basis would you like to enter?” No amount of accolades, accomplishments, or earthly applause can overcome an answer void of earthly hope in Christ.
One of the most inspirational services I’ve witnessed was for a mother of six who died instantly in a car accident. Her death was a terrible tragedy, but she had cherished Jesus. She had exalted Him daily. Her life was a testament to God’s grace to her in Christ.
Though tears overflowed at her service, Christ was still proclaimed, and perhaps some in attendance came to faith. Her husband was devastated, but that did not hold him back from speaking of the Savior she loved—One who would get his family through their new and tragic reality. He boasted of how she did not depend on the things of this world to satisfy her soul, but to the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells, where every tear will be wiped away, and where death will die.
That’s what heavenly hope looks like.
I will never forget a conversation with my stepdad when I was seventeen. I had a friend named Chris, who drove a gold, five-speed, Mazda RX-7 that could lay a scratch in third gear. I drove a gray Mazda B2000 pickup that aspired to exceed 70 mph (“Only $5595, Sakes Alive!”).
Chris didn’t have a job, because he didn’t need one. His parents just fed his bank account on an as-needed basis. I was a grocery sacker, making $4.25/hr (I got a raise to $4.75 a short time later—glory days).
So I was talking to my stepdad about the unfairness of it all. I wasn’t complaining, just thinking out loud. After hearing me out, he looked at me, and I’ll never forget his words.
“But Lance, what does he have to look forward to?”
As we walk with Christ, our lives may not be as easy or look as good as those who don’t know Jesus, but we’ve got something to look forward to. We can look forward to something beyond our wildest dreams, something more infinitely glorious and satisfying than our richest experiences. We have a hope that will one day be sight. We have a Glory to come, which vastly outweighs the glory we’ve seen.
And that’s more than good enough.
Lance Ward is the Pastor of Congregational Care at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak.