Choosing the Unseen
When all that we know seems to have come from what we have seen, how do we attempt to look beyond that to put our hope in the unseen? It’s the very definition of faith. This week, Faith in Real Life discussed this notion as presented in 2 Corinthians chapter 4. The reality we often acknowledge with our words, yet deny with our actions, is that the life we know will pass away. We cannot put our trust in all that we see, because it is ultimately temporary. While difficult, setting this aside to reach instead for the eternal changes us, opens us to more gracious living, both with others and ourselves.
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
It wasn’t easy to be a Christian in the first century. In the verses immediately preceding this passage, Paul writes: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.” Maintaining hope required Christians look beyond the struggles, pain and persecution that was so present in their lives. It required faith in the unseen because what they could see was pretty miserable. It required believing in an unseen Christ after seeing a crucified Jesus.
Paul appeals to the Corinthians, and to us, to remember that the values of this world—what we can see—are not sustainable. The only life we know is the one we see, and the one we see with. So it is natural and tempting to believe that what we see is important and normative. It is hard to imagine our own ending. We all know it is true but it is still hard to know. One advantage of aging,however, if you can stand it, is that you have daily proof that the ‘earthly tent’ we live in is eroding and will be destroyed. No matter how carefully we eat, no matter how dedicated we are to fitness and exercise, the best we can do is to slow the downward curve. Our physical decline turns academic truths about living and dying to a visceral reality. Aging forcefully teaches us the futility of the secular values of youth and beauty. We need that visceral knowledge in order to let go of what we see, the temporal, so that we can begin to seek what we cannot see, the eternal.
But dealing with death is the far end of the continuum. Everyday we have to give up what we know and want in order to leave room for something new. In ordinary life, it is an axiom in couples therapy that when people get married, they regress. Couples can have been friends and even have lived together but almost always, actually getting married leads to new stresses and tension. The formal creation of a new family changes roles and expectations in ways that cannot be fully anticipated. While simply living together, both parties know they and their partner can leave. That tends to keep both more adult and less likely to act entitled. When those same two people marry, previous experiences of family and ‘how things should be’ almost always change the relationship.
My first pastor illustrated this phenomena when he described his first year of marriage. His wife would fix breakfast and before he left for work, she would place a wrapped paper bag next to his chair. He barely noticed and was taken aback a week later when his wife angrily asked why he refused to take out the garbage—especially after she has so considerately wrapped it to make it easier for him. That’s how thing were done in her family. What she didn’t know is that isn’t how things are done in all families. These assumptions are often subtle and often unconscious but they must be addressed in order for a new family to form.
The same thing happens when we raise our children. Clinically, one of the first places a family therapist looks when a child is acting out, is what was going on in the parents lives when they were the child’s age. They likely either had trouble coping themselves and/or learned ineffective strategies. One of my supervisors made the point by saying, if you live in a house that makes pancakes everyday and stacks them in the closet, you will be quite perplexed if you visit a home where people eat the pancakes. Our normal is someone else’s crazy.
There is nothing particularly revelatory about the inevitability of death, nor the realization that we project our histories upon our spouses and children. But these are much more powerful forces than we realize. It is relatively easy to get the idea. It is much harder to live the life. It requires something outside ourselves to even conceive of a world we cannot see. Over and over communication and good listening are impaired by our assumptions that seem perfectly obvious to us without thought to the reality that same process is going on with the other person.
We literally need the supernatural to alter our natural understanding. We need divine intervention. That is what God did in Jesus. The ‘natural’ understanding of messiah, of life, of suffering and of death were all turned upside down by Jesus. That is what Paul is calling us to realize. What we know, what we see is very different from how God would have us live.
We spend most of our lives building a house for self. We seek safety, we reinforce our protections, we seek like minded people—- and none of these are bad. They are just incomplete and unsustainable. Paul promises that though all things seen will be lost—he calls it a ‘momentary affliction’ (I think that depends on whose thumb is being crushed) but the suggestion is that there is more to life than what we see. It is usually disconcerting and sometimes quite painful to give up what we see but letting go allows room for the eternal.
In real life, if you are a success by worldly standards, you will view asking for help as a sign of failure or weakness. Many Christians are willing to help, the question becomes are we willing to receive. If we are unwilling to receive what we offer, we become covertly condescending—the ‘strong’ helping the ‘weak’ instead of sharing our lives out of humility and gratitude.
These are very particular values and define us as Christians. We seek to organize our lives around loving God and each other. We seek to follow Jesus. We live in a world that is built upon self but we choose to believe in an unseen world that is based upon God. Tolerating our aging teaches that our lives are important but not paramount. Suspending our certainties about how the world ‘should be’ creates room to listen, respect and care for others. Spending less energy trying to be right creates room for trust in God. Believing that love is what matters and that love will prevail gives us hope. It is this faith that allows our inner nature to be renewed everyday. It is this faith that sustains when all that we see is lost.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Let it be so.