There are certain parts of scripture that make for great inspirational photos but are actually pretty brutal when it comes to applying them in real life.
2 Corinthians 4:17 is a perfect example:
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
I can slap this verse onto a picture of a sunrise, share it on Instagram, and the likes will start pouring in. Probably also a lot of #blessed comments too. I’ll feel super spiritual.
But when it comes time for me to take hold of this verse by faith, when I find myself within the scorching furnace of suffering, when I’m being swallowed by the leviathan of suffering, my trials don’t seem like light momentary afflictions.
They seem crushing. Overwhelming. Absolutely unbearable at times.
And then I come to verses like 2 Corinthians 4:17.
I read the passage and, at least initially, feel perplexed.
Light and momentary affliction? Did Paul have any idea what he was talking about when he wrote these words? How can he possibly say that both his and my suffering classify as light and momentary?
I mean, a cold or a sprained ankle could be considered light and momentary. Sitting at the DMV is light, though not momentary. But what about the really bad stuff?
How can my ongoing depression be light and momentary? How can my friend’s stage 4 cancer be considered anything but absolutely devastating? How can the almost certain death of a little boy with heart trouble be called anything other than crushing? How can the dissolution of a church plant be categorized as light momentary affliction?
Without in any way minimizing the pain of these trials, it also seems that Paul had a different perspective than I do.
Light Momentary Affliction
If anyone understood pain, suffering, and affliction it was Paul. I mean, seriously, his trials make mine look paltry in comparison.
When God spoke to Ananias regarding the newly converted Paul/Saul, God said to Ananias, “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
God had a glorious job for Paul to perform, and unbelievable pain would accompany that job.
Beaten with rods. Thrown in prison for months on end. Thrown out of synagogues and stoned to the brink of death. Shipwrecked. Deserted by his ministry partners. Accused and slandered by the “super-apostles”. Most likely executed at the end of his life. The list goes on and on.
Paul was on a first-name basis with trials.
In 2 Corinthians, he describes his experiences this way:
…but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger (2 Co 6:4–5).
Paul could truly say, “Hello darkness, my old friend.”
So when Paul talks about suffering, I should pay attention. Unlike most people, who offer frustrating and fluffy platitudes born out of inexperience, Paul offers the kind substantive, you can believe this, encouragements that can only be created by experiencing true and devastating suffering.
And this is where things take a surprising turn. Paul comes to a, “wait, what?” conclusion about all the awful things he endured for the sake of Christ.
Paul’s experience of suffering – of meeting God in the midst of suffering – has led him to conclude that everything he experienced was a “light momentary affliction”.
Read the above verse again. Afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger – he considered all these things to be:
Light. Not heavy. Not crushing or overwhelming or overly burdensome. Certainly not the kind of thing that should cause him (or me) to despair.
Momentary. Passing. Relatively quick, compared to the duration of other things.
Preparing for us a weight of glory. None of our sufferings are wasted or an accident. It is all contributing to a joyful, satisfying “weight of glory” that we will soon inherit.
Honestly, this isn’t how I tend to see suffering. When I suffer, it feels like I’m carrying around a great boulder of darkness. And I can’t see any end in sight. Every moment feels like a thousand years. The thought of staggering around, day after day, under the crushing of suffering seems like an impossible task.
Light and momentary affliction? Seriously Paul? Seriously Lord? Do you not see the kind of things I’m enduring here?
How can Paul (and the Lord) say that my (and your) sufferings are light and momentary?
Is this some sort Buddhist-like mental jiujitsu where everything is embraced and you live in the moment and all that jazz?
No, it’s much more profound.
The only way Paul comes to his conclusion is by looking at the final product.
He looks to the end.
An Eternal Weight Of Glory
You could say that Paul has an eternal “scale” in mind. The reason Paul can say that troubles and trials, no matter how breathtaking and enormous, are light and momentary is because he’s looking at the final product.
In a way that I can’t fully comprehend, every wave of sorrow and grief and hardship that crashes over me is being used by God to prepare “an eternal weight of glory” for me.
I take this to mean two wonderful, delightful, eternally weighty things.
The first is that when I honor God in the midst of suffering by trusting him, hoping in him, relying on him, and not deserting him, God will reward me for that in eternity.
In other words, God desires to bless and reward me in the age to come, and so he allows me to walk through the apocalyptic Valley of Death to prepare the reward for me.
So when Paul says suffering is a light and momentary affliction, he’s saying that compared to the reward that’s to come, it’s a mere pittance.
The reward is massively disproportionate to the suffering!
In his bookWalking With God Through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller puts it this way:
We may suffer deeply now, but there a glorious coming joy.
But that’s not all.
There also seems to be a sense in which suffering actually prepares me to partake in and enjoy all the good that God has stored up for me in the age to come. Through suffering, he shapes me into the image of Christ, and if he didn’t do that, I couldn’t receive all the overwhelming good he desires for me.
Because the reward is so incredibly massive, I must be prepared to receive it.
This is a pretty pathetic analogy but think of it like this. If I suddenly became the heir to the British royal family, I would have absolutely ZERO idea how to enjoy all that was available to me. There would be 10,000 aspects of royal life that I didn’t even know existed. In order to properly embrace the royal inheritance, a huge amount of preparation would be needed.
I think this analogy barely touches on what Paul means, but you get the point. Again, to quote Keller:
Our sufferings now are transforming us into the image of Christ, and that transformation is necessary if we’re going to enjoy the weight of glory that’s being prepared for us.
All Things Must Work Together
I absolutely love how the Heidelberg Catechism says it:
He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father
not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation.
Every bit of anguish and grief, every piercing arrow of sorrow, every heartache and headache and hurricane is working for my salvation.
Don’t be mistaken: God does not dispense suffering lightly or glibly. He doesn’t take pleasure in making his people walk through darkness.
But he knows that in order for us to fully enjoy him and experience the coming glory of his presence, we must be prepared.
And so he gently, carefully, and expertly places light and momentary afflictions upon us.