4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.– 2 Corinthians 5:4 NRSV
I’ve recently been spending a lot of time in 2 Corinthians in my personal reading and study. I think it is a wonderful letter that does not get nearly enough attention. There is much to commend to you in 2 Corinthians, like 3:6 and Paul’s statement that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” There is all that language about veiling and unveiling at the end of chapter 3, and into chapter 4. There is the reminder that we “walk by faith, and not by sight” in 5:7. But more than anything, I think that 2 Corinthians grabs my attention because, with the exception of Romans chapter 8, nearly every inch of it gushes with the Holy Spirit.
I think this emphasis on the Spirit results from the fact it is written by a heartbroken man. Paul reviews his ongoing trouble with the Corinthian community in the first two chapters, and with a little digging, we find that Paul’s ties to the community are particularly frayed. By the time you get to chapter 10, Paul seems frantic. Angry? Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe defensive is a better word.
Paul’s reaction in chapter 10, I think, is the result of a heartbroken man who, at his wit’s end with a stubborn bunch, experiences new wounding beyond the pale of what had broken him before. This new wound is the realization, I think, that for the foreseeable future, possibly even for the rest of his natural life, the community has rejected his leadership and care. Paul has invested, and nothing is shown in return.
This is why I think the letter is preoccupied with the role of the Holy Spirit. What keeps us hanging on and hanging in when all seems lost? To make it really personal, why hope when faced with the loss of a job, a relationship, or a loved one? We have no guarantee, no written contract, so to speak, that these things will be restored, or that “the sun will come up tomorrow.” Judging by what we can see, and given the great pain inflicted on our broken hearts in these moments, it would be fair to say, by every “objective” standard, that there is no hope to be had save a barren realism that our pain and griefs are deep, time is swift (far too swift), and death is certain.
When such feelings and occasions arise, Paul’s letter assures us that we have the Holy Spirit. In 4:16, he says that “we do not lose heart,” because something is coming. Glory is on its way. He knows we are fragile jars of clay (4:7), but what we house is the glory of God shown in the Son, made present in us by the Spirit (4:11).
The Spirit’s presence in us reveals that for which we truly long. We don’t want to “lay [our] burdens down,” as the old spiritual suggests, because life and all its disappointments are too much to carry. Despite ourselves at our worst, we know our final rest isn’t the result of being able to just give up. No. The burdens we carry are burdens exactly because there is seeded within us a deeper knowing, an insatiable longing for what only God can give, and that is life. What we really want is our burdens, our mortality, our frailness, our brokenness to be “swallowed up by life.” We long to be bedecked in the shared splendor of God’s complete wholeness which clothes our naked condition with more than its present tatters.
The Spirit’s presence in us actually stirs a longing for that truly human part of ourselves that does not wish “to be unclothed but to be further clothed.” Our burdens, if I might translate Paul, are a place of deep groans and sighs by which the Spirit both prays for us, and teaches us to pray (Romans 8:26-27).
Our burdens and broken hearts aren’t an indication of a lack of faith, but the very opposite. They are signposts directing us home. Their presence bears witness that we were made for more than this. Their gradual healing comes by the balm of Christ’s presence. The Spirit keeps stirring, goading the pilgrim forward as we make our way back to our soul’s true friend.
“In Christ,” the Spirit whispers in the present darkness, “you have found your true and final rest.”