Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.2 Corinthians 4:1-6
What feeds our souls when things go dark?
Let’s just be honest for a moment: things have always, in some sense, been dark, but the last 14 months have been especially so for many of us. I know there is a lot of good news coming out now in light of declining COVID cases throughout many parts of the world (our prayers are with you, India!), vaccines, and the fact that spring is here for those of us in North America. However, this is not true for everyone, especially in the developing world. Moreover, I think we will be processing this crisis for many years to come as we unpack what it means to live in this brave, new, interconnected world we’ve built.
Personally, I want to go on the record as saying that 2020 and 2021 have probably been one of the most challenging periods in my life.
However, I don’t just list a litany of woes. Instead, I’m telling the truth because if our faith is to mean anything, it must address those exact moments when things fall apart. Of course, we should expect nothing less. Even God’s full and final revelation of grace is shown in the agony and death of His Son, as well as his resurrection from the darkness of death into the light of life. The Gospel of Jesus is aimed at bringing a word of restoration to the hopeless.
And it is here that we begin to receive our answer to the question of where we find encouragement in the face of hardship and travail. For Paul , he can look back on all he has suffered, and rather than draw the dreary conclusion that things are destined to go from bad to worse, he sees another story at work. Given his many challenges in ministry, he tells us in verse one that he does not lose heart. He takes encouragement from the fact that everything he has and will go through for the sake of the Gospel is built on the mercy of God.
Think back to last week’s reflection on Moses and Israel in the wilderness, and all the ditches in which they fell. Israel and the Law of God had been given in order to foster a community of righteousness and holiness. All of this is predicated upon God’s extension of grace and mercy to a people who fell short time and again, built upon the foundation of the primary characteristic of God, namely his mercy. By mercy, we include patience, forbearance, yes, even love. All these things were built on God’s mercy, and that mercy has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ.
And so Paul can look back on Israel’s history, as well as what he has suffered, and in all of it, he can see God’s mercy at work, setting up the foundations from which Jesus Christ is ultimately revealed. And with Christ at the center of the story, he can take heart; he does not lose hope.
With Jesus at the center of the story, Paul gains practical lessons for life. First, if Jesus is who he says he is (Son of God, resurrected Messiah, and Lord who holds the entire story of our lives together, including the good, the bad, and the ugly), then our first obligation is to profess and proclaim him in everything we say and do, without shame or concealment. In other words, if God’s mercy in Jesus Christ is the lynchpin that holds things together, then this absolute center will and must be apparent in our motivations and actions.
This is very hard, I know. It is easier to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord privately to ourselves, or within the context of a Sunday morning worship service, and then move back into the workaday world with all of its complexities and demands as if Jesus will be waiting patiently for us to return come our next devotional, or at the next worship service at church. We have a word for this: compartmentalization. We have our lives nicely cordoned off, without faith touching on the practical matters of who I work for, what I’m doing with my life, or how I’m going to pay my bills.
Yet, Paul insists, we can’t compartmentalize Jesus in this way. Either he is the center as the foundation stone of this mercy, or he is not. And if others don’t get him, or get us, we ought not be discouraged. In verses 3-4, Paul explains that we ought expect to make sense to those who do not belong to Christ. Their mind is veiled, Paul tells us; they have yet to behold the glory and splendor of the center of our story, and the very center of all human history. The lynchpin, the center, the Northstar of their moral compass, so to speak, isn’t ours.
Even more, this blindness, this veiling isn’t just a historical accident, as if birth and culture are the final determining factors. No! There are spiritual powers and principalities at work, pulling the wool over people’s eyes. These power and principalities take their marching orders from the god of this world, from the one who contends with Christ to be an alternate center of human life. Just as Paul will say in Ephesians 6:12, our struggle to live lives of integrity, cohesion, and meaning in a world that is often at odds with what the Gospel proclaims only indicates that our struggles are not against flesh and blood, not against our actual neighbor, but against the powers of evil that seek to dominate the human heart through lust for wealth, position, and power.
To translate that practically, the tension you feel in the office isn’t because the manager, in him or herself, is a terrible person, or that your co-worker is just a horrible human being. No. Their minds and hearts, apart from Christ, are subject to desires even they can’t completely discern and verbalize. Their understanding is veiled because they live and think with hearts and minds subjugated by the powers of sin and death.
So, what are we to do in a year when the powers, as Paul puts it, seems to reign supreme in our streets, on our televisions, and even when they seek to dominate our hearts, discouraging, depressing, and stealing joy from us? How is the Christian to take heart in 2021?
Paul gives us the answer in verse 5: we do not proclaim ourselves. We must remember that in the face of our depression and discouragement, the question is not, nor has it ever been, whether we have what it takes to change the world. We aren’t the heroes of the story, and that we find ourselves feeling disempowered, or down in the face of such overwhelmingly terrifying realities shouldn’t rattle our cages. Instead of ourselves and the feeble knees upon which we stand, we stand on the credentials and proclamation of Jesus Christ. The hope that we have is not in our own personal inner transformation, but rather, that through us, out of our broken hearts, out of our minds transformed by Jesus Christ, God now shines his glory.
There is more to say about this next week as Paul picks up the subject of being broken pottery, but suffice it to say that in the face of the worst that 2021 could ever throw at us, we stand or we fall to the degree that center ourselves and our hopes upon the life-transforming presence and work of Jesus Christ. We take heart in the one who is the image of God made flesh who brings with him the Good News that despite and through it all, God is pro nobis, for us. Thanks be to God!
Let us pray
God whose glory shines like a great light amidst our present darkness, illumine our hearts and strengthen our feeble knees as we face the challenges of the day. Help us not lose heart. We pray this in Christ’s name, Amen.