Suffering turns our lives into sermons. Suffering may or may not show us what we’re made of (as the saying goes), but it will definitely show us and others where our hope, where our identity, and where our confidence lay. The suffering Christian, in other words, becomes a form of Gospel proclamation to the world. Feed a Christian to the lions, or give a Christian some incurable disease, and what do you discover? Someone who ultimately has more invested in the life to come than this present life. Someone who can face pain and even death with ultimate hope rather than despair.
“This light momentary affliction,” Paul writes, “is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). Paul’s use of the singular noun “affliction” in 2 Cor. 4:7 is intriguing. Paul doesn’t say afflictions (plural), which would suggest periodic suffering in the life of the Christian. Nor, to all appearances, is he referring to some specific episode of suffering in his own life and ministry, though Paul’s life and ministry certainly contained episodes of more concentrated difficulty. He seems, rather, to be making a point generic to all Christians (hence the “for us”). “This light momentary affliction,” then, seems to be a reference to the entirety of the Christian’s life on this side of eternity. The Christian’s life in toto can be characterized as one singular “affliction.” The whole thing is hard. The hardship of the Christian life doesn’t preclude joy. Nor does it preclude any number of concrete pleasures in this life (family, friendships, craft beer, pillow fights, etc.). But the life of the faithful Christian will, as a whole, be difficult.
That’s a hard pill for us as Americans to swallow. Our culture puts tremendous pressure on us not just to be happy — to pursue happiness in the here and now at any cost — but also to look happy. Hence selfies. Selfies exist, I’m convinced, not to preserve or trigger their subjects’ memories of places visited, things seen, and experiences experienced, but to be posted to some form of social media in order to project a certain image of their subjects; namely, the image of fun, adventurous, and (above all) happy people. Paul’s designation of life as an “affliction” invites us to abandon the very pretense our culture bids us maintain. Acknowledging life as difficult is both scary, because it pushes against the grain of cultural expectations, and liberating, because it invites us to stop pretending that everything’s peachy all the time.
But why must life be so hard for Christians? Difficulty in life is typically attended by confusion on the part of those undergoing it. The question “why?” seems to follow inevitably in the train of suffering. There seems to be a logic to Paul’s sequence: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair” (2 Cor. 4:8). There is, of course, the obvious response that life is hard for Christians because it’s hard for everyone in consequence of the Fall. But Paul, in 2 Cor. 4:7-12, outlines a particular logic for the suffering that Christians’ encounter, a logic that, if grasped, might help Christians endure in the midst of difficulty. The suffering Paul seems especially to have in mind in these verses is persecution as a result of efforts to share the Gospel. But the logic for suffering he outlines, I think, has applicability to other forms of hardship.
Christians suffer, first of all, because God delights to triumph in weakness. “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” Paul writes, “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” The treasure that Christians’ possess and seek to share with the world is the Gospel and its fruits. But their efforts to share that treasure with the world generally reap trouble.