Monday, December 04, 2023

Anonymous Asks (278)

“Why does Paul call our difficulties a ‘momentary, light affliction’?”

Our question today comes from 2 Corinthians 4. To answer it, we need to look carefully at the pronouns Paul uses throughout his letter, as these are key to understanding the passage.

Short version: I do not think it’s our difficulties to which the apostle is referring. I believe he is referring to his own.

Checking Those Pronouns

It’s always important when we read a pronoun like “we” or “our” in scripture to check what it’s actually referring back to. There are usually several possibilities.

For example, sometimes in English we use what is called the “royal we” or the “majestic plural”, which is simply a pluralized reference to self that adds a (probably undeserved) air of dignity. Because we are familiar with this device, we might infer Paul is using “we” as the late Queen Elizabeth might have (“We are not amused!”). If so, we would be incorrect. To the best of my knowledge, the “royal we” is not a feature of koine Greek, or Hebrew for that matter. The writers of the Interactive Bible confirm: “Plural of Majesty is never used in the Bible”. So we can rule that out.

Other times, we use pronouns more generally. Paul might be using “our” to refer to that which belongs to all the believers in Corinth, or all Christians, or all Jews, or all men at all times everywhere. But we can only determine which of these he means by finding the nouns to which his pronouns refer.

Paul, Silvanus and Timothy

We generally credit Paul with the second letter to the Corinthians as if he were its sole author and the originator of every thought expressed therein, but he also names Timothy, his fellow worker, in his introduction. How much input Timothy actually had into the content of this letter or others that bear his name is something we have no way to determine, but many of us have had the experience of discussing a subject with fellow believers before preaching or writing about it, and having our own ideas supplemented and modified by their useful thoughts. Something like this probably happened regularly within Paul’s little group of itinerant pastors. We should also note that Paul credits Silvanus for his involvement in helping establish the church in Corinth in verse 18 of chapter 1.

If we pay attention to the contrasts between “we” and “you”, and between “our” and “your”, we can safely conclude that throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul is most frequently using “we” to refer to himself, Timothy and Silvanus, as opposed to more generally. This is obvious as early as verse 6 of chapter 1, where he writes, “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort.” Though Paul sometimes uses “we” more generally in the letter (1:21 is probably a good example of this), whenever we see a contrast between “we” and “you”, we can be fairly sure Paul is distinguishing between his little group of shepherds and the sheep they once tended.

We and You

We see this again at the beginning of chapter 3: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves [Paul, Silvanus and Timothy] again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you [the Corinthians], or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation.” He is not making a comment about the use of letters of recommendation for Christians traveling from church to church so much as he is saying that in the case of himself, Silvanus or Timothy, such a thing would be redundant. The Corinthian Christians were themselves the evidence of Paul’s apostleship and authority. He and his co-workers had established the Corinthian church. A letter of recommendation in his case would be as useful as a formal introduction to your own father.

The pattern continues into chapter 4: “For what we [Paul, Silvanus and Timothy] proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your [the Corinthians’] servants for Jesus’ sake.” It runs throughout the chapter. When he says in verse 8, “We are afflicted in every way”, he is not speaking of all Christians generally, but about the persecutions and trials of his own little group. He finishes with “So death is at work in us [Paul, Silvanus and Timothy], but life in you [the Corinthians].”

Whose ‘Light Momentary Affliction’?

So then, when we come to Paul’s concluding statement at the end of chapter 4, there is no compelling reason to read it any differently than we read the paragraphs which precede it:

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”

Here, I believe, Paul is continuing to talk about his own experience and that of his co-workers in Christ as they struggled to take the gospel to the world in the face of intense opposition both human and supernatural. When he speaks of “light momentary affliction”, he is not commenting on anyone’s affliction but his own, and Paul was certainly qualified to evaluate the degree of his own suffering. His conclusion, as he looks toward his potential reward in eternity, is that, all things considered, it’s really not too bad at all.

Making Application

Now, could we potentially apply that optimistic thought to ourselves, assuming we too are working hard in the service of Christ? Sure. It would be great if all believers could think of their sufferings for Christ in that way. Perhaps if the weeping prophet Jeremiah had been able to keep in mind the eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison that his suffering was preparing for him, he may have wept less effusively. He too may have considered his suffering a “light momentary affliction”. But, like Paul, Jeremiah was working, speaking the truth even when it cost him his freedom and endangered his life.

Are we taking risks, encountering opposition, and speaking out for Christ no matter the cost? Are we working diligently to take the message of the gospel to the world and teach our fellow believers to grow in the knowledge of Christ? To the extent that we are walking in the footsteps of the apostle, I believe it is fair to appropriate his words and apply them to ourselves in the confidence that our work too will have its reward in good time.

On the other hand, if all we’re doing is sitting in a pew once a week checking our watches and wishing we weren’t missing the pre-game show, perhaps applying such lofty thoughts to our own experience is just a tad presumptuous.

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