I’ve already blogged too much about Lent–as if it’s some sort of obsession. Which it might be. But it does go on for several weeks. And it seems like maybe the perfect antidote for what’s ailing me and the rest of the world. The chief ailment being the expectation that here and now life should be something more than short and appalling.
I mean, if you were a poor peasant huddled in your Middle Ages hovel, you would have looked forward to the life to come in a pretty cheerful way. You’d bung your few hand crafted stones into the cathedral going up next door and then die happy of the plague, although maybe the happiness was optional. To shake it up maybe you could go die in the crusades, or from an invasion of Turks. Centuries before that you could die from childbirth, or barbarians sweeping down over the plain, or from crops failing. Life was short and hard and then you died.
Now we think that life must be long and easy and then who knows what. When the body dies maybe you reach nirvana? Or are reincarnated? Or something. The finality of death is pushed away for another time. What’s going on right now is always the main event.
As a modern person, then, when you pop over to the read the Bible, you might experience a curious pinging back and forth between the present and the future, between what you ought to be expecting now and what you can expect later. As you waver back and forth between the two you might be inclined to settle on one or the other as more critical and necessary. Ages past of course put all their hopes in the life to come. But gradually life became became demonstrably so much more comfortable and less precarious feeling that more and more attention was paid to it. It can be good, now. Therefore, it follows, it should be. If it isn’t we must try to fix it, and go on fixing it. Thoughts of a future life are brushed away and stuffed into the cupboard as the promise of a perfect present eclipses everything.
Except that if you forget all about what’s coming next and only narrow your eyes down to what’s right in front of you, you’re going to be disappointed, sad even, because no matter what humanity does or what kind of new technology or systems are invented, life is still relatively short, and, more than we’d like to admit, brutal. The body is eventually wrenched away from the soul for everyone–rich and poor alike. Catastrophic illness, gun violence, accidents, natural disasters, no one is guaranteed a hundred years on this earth. And those that do get it often find it is rather a hard burden to bear.
That’s why the unfortunate list of Paul in 2nd Corinthians strikes rather a jarring note for the modern person–because nothing about the serene landscape of abundance and technology makes it possible to really understand what he is describing. He kicks things off with a cheerful epochal announcement, “Behold, now is the favorable time.” If you’re sitting in your soft padded chair hearing this read out in church, without any of the preceding chapters to set up your expectations, you might be inclined to get excited. I’d love a favorable time, you think, this is going to be wonderful.
But then the reader keeps reading and everything gets disappointing.
We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 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…
Beatings? Really? Do they, like with Job, continue until morale improves? Although I bet the sleepless nights are something literally everyone can describe in agonizing detail.So, just to be perfectly clear, in this favorable time, in this day of salvation, the things that we can look forward to, for evangelism’s sake, if we’re going to be all missional minded, is to, by great endurance (which would imply some kind of terrible happiness destroying personal discipline) set yourself to suffer all the stuff that humanity was supposed to have left behind. We’re supposed to be happy now. And I’m pretty sure nothing on this list is going to make me happy. Nothing about it seems even remotely favorable.
But the list isn’t over. Paul is actually mid list, ticking items off one by one, making sure they all get in.
…by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left…
Oh, well, that’s much better. Some of these could go on an Instagram feed in a soothing font with a latte placed elegantly in the corner. These are exactly the kinds of things Christians can get on board with. Certainly knowledge (if not purity, which is obvious a lot more dicey) will be fantastic because as everyone knows, if you just get your head straight, you’ll not only be able to avoid the first part of the list, but you won’t cause any of it either. You yourself won’t, as it were, sin. And who among us can’t get excited about the power of God and the weapons of righteousness. Those you can swing around on the internet at least. Best really to skip over the first half and just concentrate on this second part.
But, oh no! It’s actually not that lovely. Paul goes on,
…through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. 2 Corinthians 6:2-10
This can’t be ok. Honor, praise, being known, rejoicing and living are fine. But the other stuff is not in the economy of this age. It just shouldn’t be there.
But it is. It’s there even if we don’t want to look at it, even if we don’t want to admit it into our lives, and it’s there even for the Christian. Indeed, it is the substance of the Christian’s life. It has to be admitted–not just that other Christians out there endure and suffer, but that I myself, and you on the other side of this screen, endure dishonor in equal measures with honor, endure injustice and grief, endure slander and humiliation, not because it’s the wrong thing, but because it is the cross itself, the business of dying so that others go on ahead into eternal life.
But you can’t endure it if you don’t even really care about the eternal life part, if you don’t know that you possess everything, you’re just not having it right now. If your eyes are so narrowed down to the present you’re going to want to give up, you’re not going to be able to make it the distance. The only way that you can endure this incredible favorable time, this salvation that feels like its going to kill you, is if you know that Jesus himself is going, later, to bring heaven to earth and make it all ok.
In other words, it’s ok to feel prickled and anxious about Paul’s vision of a favorable time, to look at this list and recoil into your anxious modern outrage. But then you must pick yourself up and flip over some pages to the new Jerusalem. You can’t have it yet. But thinking about it will help you endure all the incredible favor of the present.