Affliction and Glory
“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)
The two keywords in this Scripture are working and looking. The affliction works glory, while the believer looks at the unseen. If we through the aid of the Spirit fulfill our end of the equation, the outcome will be certain. The truth taught here is that of a marvelous transmutation of pain into pleasure, of hardship into happiness, of tribulation into transport. It is an inconceivable wonder of divine chemistry working with the elements of affliction, time, the believing soul, and the Holy Spirit.
Paul tells us that he “reckon[ed] that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) It were as if by the light of eternity he had weighed and measured the elements of suffering and splendor and reached a mathematical conclusion. But this could only be by taking into consideration the entire destiny of the Christian. Had he confined his calculations to a small section of human existence, the result would have been far different. God sees all things, even the smallest, in the light of their true and eternal relations, and it was in that light that Paul surveyed the interests of mankind and especially those of the Christian—not with reference to a brief period in their existence, but with eagle eye sweeping the entire annals of their destiny. This is the only light in which we can perceive the equality and justice of God’s ways, or by which we can interpret the dark and contradictory problems of life.
We can never see the full harmony and proportion of parts in any subject of observation without taking in the whole, and studying the relation of each part to the whole. When detached from its relation to eternity, this life and everything in it is utterly unexplainable. You may select a few of the finest notes in some majestic anthem, and if they are sounded alone and apart from the whole, they would lose all their melody and charm. Each note alone as a monotone is unmusical, but when they all glide together in round billows of music they roll and break with strange rapture upon our ears. The inequalities of the earth’s surface, the heights and depths, seem pointless when viewing a confined space out of context, but could we station ourselves at a sufficient distance from the earth and see its whole circumference pass before us, then we would understand how every local inequality is so related to the whole as to render them constituents of harmony and perfection. In like manner, we do not live long enough to catch the full anthem of God’s administration. His providence strikes a few notes in our ears during our short lives, but from these we cannot gather “the diapason’s thunder roll,”1 the full-scale harmony of events whose resonance fills the flight of ages. And the inequalities of human fortune, “The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office, and the spurns / That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,”2 compose a moral landscape in life like Alps and deserts out of all proportion, unless and until human destiny is surveyed in its entire orbit with its far-reaching circumference of immortality.
[Edward H. Bickersteth]
[William Shakespeare; Hamlet]
The spiritual chemistry suggested in the text is well worth analyzing. It seems that everything depends on the moral quality of the soul and its attitude toward the unseen. If the believer is holy, if his nature is in harmony with the Holy Spirit, if he habitually looks to the things of eternity, then whatever of suffering enters into his life is transmuted by the moral quality of his heart into the gold of glory. Just as the oak tree converts all chemistry into oak by the peculiar quality of its oak life, so the pure in heart, he that lives the Christ life, will from the dark chemistry of this world—its disappointments and suffering—turn all things into glory and praise.
There are three contrasts in the text: that of affliction versus glory, that of light versus weighty, and that of momentary versus eternal. Between these opposites is the soul of the believer.
Affliction Versus Glory
The first opposites are affliction and glory. This refers to that particular kind of glory which belongs to each individual Christian, which Paul calls “the glory which shall be revealed in us,” (Romans 8:18) and which is not transferable to anyone else. Though there is such a contrast between affliction and glory, yet when you place a trusting, obedient Christian soul between them, such a soul becomes a divine laboratory through which this working process goes on, and under the touch of the Almighty Spirit of God, cooperating with man’s obedience and love, the sourest acid of affliction is transmuted into the sweetest fruit of glory. It is not the affliction in itself that contributes the glory, but it is the affliction working through a regenerated and purified soul, otherwise it would remain a deadly poison, for “the sorrow of the world worketh death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10) Affliction can work out glory in the soul by bringing it into a most thorough acceptance of the divine will and purpose. It cannot purify the soul, but it can bring the soul into such submission to the divine will, that the whole purpose of God’s saving remedy can pass unobstructed through the heart.
Though we all endure tribulation, it will only work a lasting blessing to those whose hearts have been purified by the blood of the Lamb. We are, and through eternity must remain, under the sovereign will and wisdom of God, but that authority over us will be a source of boundless fear and pain unless we are in agreement with it. That alone will fit us as subjects for such a kingdom, with the issues and employments of immortality. This great lesson cannot be learned amid an unbroken flow of mild indulgence. If divine providence should never cross the path of our earthly happiness, our faith and loyalty would have no test, we would not come in direct contact with divine authority. It is affliction that makes the hand of God tangible to the soul, it is then that we touch the sceptre of the Almighty.
Again, affliction may work glory in the soul by enlarging its capacities. Our capacity for enjoyment is equal to our capacity for suffering, and the joy which can come out of suffering exceeds any other joy. Glory is possible in proportion to the volume and variety of experiences one can contain. Whatever enlarges our conformity to the cross of Christ, to His diversified self-sacrifice, to His patient suffering, must increase the possibilities of enjoyment with Him. In the afflictions that befall a true Christian arising from such multiplied and varied sources, there is a strain upon the mind, a stress of longing, a hot tension of feeling, a surging of sensibility, an upheaving of the under-ocean of the soul which causes the waters of life to swell beyond their former shores. This expansion imparts such keenness of taste, such relish for the highest and best, as qualifies us to more fully appreciate the joys that are divine.
Again, affliction works glory by widening the circle of knowledge and fellowship with the moral universe, by giving us a similarity and acquaintance with the great and good of all ages. If our life should be an uninterrupted season of summer days, it would prevent us from knowing a large portion of the moral experiences of the world; it would exclude us from the inner and sublime fellowship of the martyrs and the whole white-robed company who have gone up through great tribulation. Affliction is the alphabet through which we read large portions of revelation; it is the clue by which we interpret the shaded love of the oppressed, the persecuted and heroic of all time—the sheepskin brigade of whom the world was not worthy; it furnishes a passport to the internal solitudes of the Man of sorrows, and unveils the mysterious anguish of the man of Uz (Isaiah 53:3; Job 1:1; 23:8-10).
Thus, by extending the circle of fellowship with the great and good, by sinking us into deeper union with the divine will, by testing the principles of love and obedience, by curbing our impetuosity, by chastening our judgment, by melting to a warmer temperature the feelings of the heart, by enlarging the sweep of our sympathies, affliction can be made to throw over our whole character a softer and brighter luster than it were possible otherwise to obtain. These are a few instances by which affliction may work out in a Christian an imperishable glory, a glory which is rooted and grounded in the character, a glory which sprouts, blooms, and fruits from the torn and plowed soil of the soul, a glory which being planted in your own nature, warmed by your own prayers, and watered with your own tears, can never be taken from you, but an inherent internal product of glory, beauty, and honor, beaming with perennial loveliness upon your own character and fitted to adorn the paradise of God.
Light Versus Weighty
The next contrast is between light and weighty. When the apostle characterized the afflictions of the Christian as light, it was not because he looked upon them with a stoical spirit, or failed to measure either their intensity or dimension; for, like his Master, in his life he had accented nearly every syllable in the volume of affliction. But he pronounced them light, because from the standpoint of inspired reason and as related to immortality, they are light. They are light because they spring from the lower and earthly side of our existence. The afflictions of a true Christian cannot spring from the wrath of God, nor the dreadful forebodings of judgment.
The nature of these afflictions is referred to in the words “perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) They are located outside of the spiritual life: they may arise from the mind or the body, from some thorn in the flesh, from our social environments, or from the state of our earthly fortunes. If we take the catalogue of all possible affliction, the loss of health, the pinch of poverty, the tongue of slander, the desolation of bereavement, the eclipse of reason, the dungeon of imprisonment, the red torch of persecution, and death itself—they are all on the outer, earthly side of the soul. They cannot penetrate the inner citadel of the spirit, nor break the union of a perfectly loyal heart with its God. But the glory on the other hand fills the upper and moral nature, and in heaven will fill the whole outward life as well. So that while earthly affliction can invade only a portion of our life and being, the glory that is to be wrought out in us will envelope the whole being and leave no space for pain or want.
Furthermore, the afflictions of the Christian are light because they are always blended with so many opposite and alleviating elements. God does not leave His child destitute of all mercy and comfort. The particles of anguish do not come so close together as to form a solid, but are mixed and diluted with much that soothes and medicates. “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13) “For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18) So much of art is exerted to alleviate our ills, so many streams of sympathy are poured into even the darkest waters of life, and hope will ever light its lamp in the darkest passages, that whatever combination of ills we suffer, we will never be abandoned in a state of pure misery.
Now, in contrast with these afflictions which are neutralized, the glory will be unmixed and undiluted with any opposite. A sponge is light because its particles are so widely separated, admitting much water or air. In contrast with the sponge, a block of pure gold of the same size would be very weighty. The afflictions of the Christian are like the nature of the sponge, which will admit other elements, while the glory will be like the nature of pure gold: a solid composed of particles of unmixed bliss, atoms of light and love, compressed into every part of our being and every moment of our existence. It will be a glory of such magnitude and splendor that our present senses and faculties could not endure, a weight of glory like that of the orchard bending under its load of ripened fruit.
Momentary Versus Eternal
The third contrast is between momentary and eternal: the affliction is momentary, the glory is eternal. Life itself is only a moment, “a vapour” (James 4:14) when compared to eternity. And even within that lifespan, the average Christian endures only a small portion of affliction. Yet if we were given the years of Methuselah, and the whole of it was a scene of affliction, still it would dwindle to a twinkling moment of anguish amongst the mighty roll of innumerable ages. And when we turn our contemplation from the brevity of the affliction to the unending nature of the glory, we find our faculties overwhelmed by the majesty of eternity. Here both the feeblest and most towering imaginations are on a level, for they equally fail to comprehend it. We cannot even approximate it, for when we have, in fancy, borne ourselves forward on the stream of ages through millions of years, it still stretches away as vast as ever, the one solitary, shoreless, fathomless eternity. It is this infinite disparity between the duration of present affliction and future glory which makes it so marvelous to us. Consider this masterstroke of God’s infinite wisdom, which takes the moral forces that beset the Christian soul for such a momentary season of suffering and converts them into endless blessing! Every reflective mind must be startled at the disproportion which there is between the brief season of probation and the everlasting results of it. We wonder that such a short space of toil can be followed by such a length of repose, that the littleness of the field can yield such an extended harvest, and that a few moments of affliction can work out such everlasting glory.
If this glory was acquired as wages for work done, there would have to be some due proportion of time between the work and the wages. In this world we often find that that the period of labor is more extended than the period of reward, for thousands of men will struggle for half a century for the brief reward of five or ten years in some splendid office. But the economy of God’s infinite mercy is just the opposite, for this glory is not earned. Thus our afflictions are not of the nature of toil, with glory for wages. Rather, they are a cause working within us the lasting effect of glory, when combined with the operation of the Holy Ghost. While there is no proportion between a moment’s work and an eternity of wages, there is some proportion between a momentary cause and an everlasting effect. Should God create a single mountain and attach it to the surface of our globe, it would be a very light and trivial burden for the world to carry, like the addition of a tiny feather to a soaring eagle, which it could not perceive. And yet the addition of that mountain would most certainly increase the bulk and gravity of our planet, it would likely cause it to verge nearer the sun, it would affect the speed of its revolution, it would gradually change the motions of our solar system, and in the long lapse of years it would send a gradual change of motion through the innumerable orbs of creation. In like manner, an affliction which is light in its nature and momentary in its duration, resting on an obedient, trusting soul, under the dominion of the Holy Spirit, will lend a gravity to the moral character, cause it to approach nearer to Christ, and set in revolution a new order of thoughts and feelings, which will dilate and stretch through the endless cycles of immortality.
This vision is beautiful to behold, but let it not be an idle dream. As the mathematical equation holds true only when all its parts are present and applied, so this spiritual equation will only work these glorious results while we look at the things which are not seen. This insight is made possible by the precious blood of Christ, which offers us an eye-salve that will cleanse the eyes of the soul to see God and His work. With the attitude of perfect heart loyalty to Jesus, we can perceive our afflictions through the light of eternity. When we weep, it is by looking through our tears to that Hand which will wipe away all tears from our eyes that the pangs will be turned into pearls of joy.