There’s a stretch of sidewalk on the southwest side of Cedarville University’s campus that I occasionally find myself walking in the late hours of the day. It looks across a farmer’s field and to a distant tree-line and, if it happens to be clear, to a glistening gallery of stars. It’s a quiet sort of spot that leaves you with space to think and ponder and pray, which, in my opinion, is a rather good place to be. Upon one of those evening walks and quiet contemplations I came up with a following paragraph that’s sandwiched in-between further musings on days and nights since. It’s born out of 2 Corinthians 12:8-10, a semester of unpredictable trials and, by the grace of God, out of pursuit and praise of Christ Jesus. My prayer for it is that it might nudge you closer to Christ and to a greater basking in the riches of Him in the midst of suffering or prosperity.
Asking a Christian living in America if Christ is his greatest and utmost joy can be a bit like asking a someone if they would ever venture to eat something they find thoroughly unappetizing, perhaps brussels sprouts or beets or something of that sort. They’d likely respond by saying, “Well, of course, if it came right down to it, if I was starving I would.” There’s no apparent need to consume said food––they aren’t starving and they likely won’t be anytime soon–– so their statement is never tested or tried out of sheer lack of necessity, it’s merely hypothetical.
That seems harmless enough with relation to food, but if we’re not careful, we can answer such a question as “Is Jesus your utmost and chief joy?” with similar sources of reasoning. Each of these answers, concerning eating vegetables and delighting in Christ, can easily roll off the tongue without ever being tested. We can carelessly say Christ is our satisfaction because we have an abundance of ‘satisfiers’ around us like we can say, “Yes, I’d eat those foods” when we have a ham and cheese sandwich at our fingertips and a full stomach within us. So then, it’s only when those things are wrested away that we might observe the validity of our claims–– if we indeed would eat, if indeed our satisfaction rests where we claim it does.
I’d like to pause and clarify something here to ensure I’ve made my best effort to communicate what exactly it is I’m trying to. I’m not trying to equate our attitude toward unappetizing food with our desire for christ––I hope you don’t distain him––but rather point out that amidst suffering, the window looking into our affections is wiped most clear. Certainly, in the thick of of prosperity we can delight in and cherish Christ as much as we do in suffering––we can undoubtedly partake and indulge in the riches of Christ in every circumstance. Yet, it is far easier to be ill-convinced within the quiet of your mind that Christ is indeed your greatest joy in times of prosperity than it is in times of trials.
For the Christian, then, affliction, though it is more, is never less, than the great revealer of appetites and desires. For, when prosperity reigns, any call to be satisfied falls on full stomachs and thus, deaf ears. Therefore, even the hardest trials of a Christian’s life ought not cause them to stray from Christ, but cause them to see their stray from Christ. They are beacons that cut through the fog of our lukewarm preoccupation and God’s loving means to make us more like Christ. They are, indeed, worthy of rejoicing in.
So when Paul writes “For when I am weak, then I am strong” in 2 Corinthians 12:10, he’s not making some vain statement or contradiction. Rather, he’s clueing us in on something and he’s telling us something enormously profound––Christ’s power is shown to be magnificent and entirely sufficient when we are obviously and notably weak and insufficient. That’s why he writes, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content (infinitely pleased) with weaknesses”––because God’s power is made perfect in that weakness. His weakness shows that God is the only one worth boasting in, the only one worthy of hallowing.
When we are stripped of vain satisfactions, of having the last words, and shown to be helpless by ourselves, God’s power is illuminated for all to see––Jesus is magnified. Charles Hodge, an early presbyterian minister, commentates “‘For my strength is perfected in weakness.‘ This is given as the reason why the grace or favour of Christ is all-sufficient. That reason is, that is strength his perfected, i.e. clearly perceived as accomplishing its end in weakness.” He continues regarding verse 9 in penning, “‘Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities.’ The sense is not, ‘I will glory in my infirmities rather than in other things’, but ‘I will rather glory in my infirmities than seek deliverance.’ If Paul’s sufferings were to be the occasion of the manifestation of Christ’s glory, he rejoiced in suffering… His sufferings thus became the source of his purest and highest pleasure.”
The text is abundantly clear here, Paul did not rejoice in spite of his sufferings but on account of them––because of what they did, because they showed God to be exceedingly powerful.
Two colossal things are happening here. First, when we face weakness and hardships, the dwelling place of our affection is sure to surface. And second, when that satisfaction is found to remain in Christ, God gets great glory, he looks incredible, he looks better than everything and anything else. Without suffering, our claims of serious and immovable joy have greater potential to be almost entirely hypothetical, to be just that––claims. But when we overflow with joy in God in severe or small tests of affliction, God is shown to be most dear to us, which shouts of his superior value and supreme worth.
What Paul has laid out here and what Hodge has highlighted is something entirely fundemental in the life of Christian. When we have all of our apparent strengths shown not to be strengths, when we don’t get the last word, when our plans go terribly awry, and we face trials and afflictions, God is glorified. For when we are shown to be helpless and weak, God is revealed to be infinitely strong, worthy of boasting in. Yet, it goes a bit deeper than that. When we experience hardships, calamities, and weakness what our heart treasures most is put on display. For, if we can rejoice as Paul did, in the midst of severe affliction, God is shown to be more important, more desirable, and more satisfying than anything else––because ‘anything else’ has gone while our joy remains.
In Hebrews chapter 10 we find early Christians suffering and struggling––their property was plundered and they were publicly exposed to reproach and affliction. Yet, they responded in the most God-glorifying, God-exalting way possible––they treasured and preferred him above all else. 10:35 B says, “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one”.
When we have a deep-rooted, unshakable, and determined affectionate dependence in God, suffering becomes a pure and high form of pleasure. We are shown to be entirely dependent upon Christ and we are shown to be bursting with love and affection and desire for Christ before anything or anyone else. In tests of affliction and times of large and small trials, then, the Christian rejoices. For, his chief treasure is untouched and his chief treasure is revealed to be vastly and infinitely worth cherishing.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne says it this way, “When a man’s eye is closed on Christ and the eternal world, he cannot stand the shock of afflictions; but if his eyes clearly see Jesus, you may take away houses and lands, his dearest earthly possessions, his loved ones, still his chief treasure is untouched”.