"This light momentary affliction," Paul writes, "is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor. 4:17). Paul's use of the singular noun "affliction" in 2 Cor. 4:7 is intriguing. Paul doesn't say afflictions (plural), which would suggest periodic suffering in the life of the Christian. Nor, to all appearances, is he referring to some specific episode of suffering in his own life and ministry, though Paul's life and ministry certainly contained episodes of more concentrated difficulty. He seems, rather, to be making a point generic to all Christians (hence the "for us"). "This light momentary affliction," then, seems to be a reference to the entirety of the Christian's life on this side of eternity. The Christian's life in toto can be characterized as one singular "affliction." The whole thing is hard. The hardship of the Christian life doesn't preclude joy. Nor does it preclude any number of concrete pleasures in this life (family, friendships, craft beer, pillow fights, etc.). But the life of the faithful Christian will, as a whole, be difficult.
That's a hard pill for us as Americans to swallow. Our culture puts tremendous pressure on us not just to be happy -- to pursue happiness in the here and now at any cost -- but also to look happy. Hence selfies. Selfies exist, I'm convinced, not to preserve or trigger their subjects' memories of places visited, things seen, and experiences experienced, but to be posted to some form of social media in order to project a certain image of their subjects; namely, the image of fun, adventurous, and (above all) happy people. Paul's designation of life as an "affliction" invites us to abandon the very pretense our culture bids us maintain. Acknowledging life as difficult is both scary, because it pushes against the grain of cultural expectations, and liberating, because it invites us to stop pretending that everything's peachy all the time.
But why must life be so hard for Christians? Difficulty in life is typically attended by confusion on the part of those undergoing it. The question "why?" seems to follow inevitably in the train of suffering. There seems to be a logic to Paul's sequence: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair" (2 Cor. 4:8). There is, of course, the obvious response that life is hard for Christians because it's hard for everyone in consequence of the Fall. But Paul, in 2 Cor. 4:7-12, outlines a particular logic for the suffering that Christians' encounter, a logic that, if grasped, might help Christians endure in the midst of difficulty. The suffering Paul seems especially to have in mind in these verses is persecution as a result of efforts to share the Gospel. But the logic for suffering he outlines, I think, has applicability to other forms of hardship.
Christians suffer, first of all, because God delights to triumph in weakness. "We have this treasure in jars of clay," Paul writes, "to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." The treasure that Christians' possess and seek to share with the world is the Gospel and its fruits. But their efforts to share that treasure with the world generally reap trouble. Life as a clay jar ain't pretty (see 2 Cor. 4:8-9). It's not surprising, of course, that efforts to share the Gospel with others result in unpleasantness. The Gospel is an affront to those who would deny any absolute moral standard because they wish to live their lives without accountability or consequence. It's even more of an affront to those who would acknowledge an absolute moral standard, but insist upon their own ability to meet that standard. The Gospel, in other words, is offensive.
But God grows his kingdom through the means of Christian witness, however much attended by animosity from the world. There is, in fact, a correspondence between the manner in which God accomplishes salvation through the person and work of His Son and the manner in which he advances his kingdom through the application of Christ's work to elect sinners. God triumphed over sin, death, and hell through apparent weakness -- an apparently deluded man hanging on a cross, Rome's most despicable instrument of capital punishment. God brings sinners through faith into a share in Christ's kingdom through equally apparent weakness -- persecuted, perplexed, and suffering Christians, feebly testifying to the treasure that they possess and trying to share it with others. Jars of clay. Significantly for our theme, the weakness of the means (i.e., us) that God has chosen to advance his kingdom ensures that all glory and praise for the same will be returned to him in the final analysis. The "surpassing power" that brings fruition to the efforts of silly people proclaiming a silly message clearly "belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor. 4:7).
But there is a further logic to suffering outlined in these verses, which is this: Suffering turns our lives into sermons. Suffering may or may not show us what we're made of (as the saying goes), but it will definitely show us and others where our hope, where our identity, and where our confidence lay. The suffering Christian, in other words, becomes a form of Gospel proclamation to the world. Feed a Christian to the lions, or give a Christian some incurable disease, and what do you discover? Someone who ultimately has more invested in the life to come than this present life. Someone who can face pain and even death with ultimate hope rather than despair. Strip a Christian of his job and livelihood and what do you discover? Someone whose identity is rooted less in a profession or job title than it is in the reality of God's love and Christ's work for him. Someone whose confidence rests in God's sovereign provision more than it does in a bank account. Soak the Christian in trouble and then wring that Christian out, and what will pour from that Christian is the Gospel in visible, lived, concrete form. What will pour from that Christian, in other words, is confidence that nothing this world throws at him/her can jeopardize his/her treasure, namely, the Gospel and all that it comprises, which is chiefly the prospect of eternity in God's presence (2 Cor. 4:17).
Paul makes it clear in the opening chapters of 2 Cor. 4 that one aspect of our calling as witnesses to Christ is to make "open statement of the truth" (i.e., open our mouths, and actually articulate the gospel to others.) In 2 Cor. 4:8-12 he makes it equally clear that "open statement of the truth" can be made with our lives in addition to our lips. "We who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you." Translation: We who are heirs of eternal life with God ("we who live") will regularly get the snot kicked out of us in life ("are always being given over to death"). But suffering has a purpose ("for Jesus' sake"). It puts our hope in Christ on full display to others. It turns our lives per se into a form of witness ("so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh").
Suffering is no fun, no matter how we gloss it. But seeing the opportunity that suffering affords to proclaim the Gospel with our lives may go some way towards helping us to "count it all joy when we encounter trials of various kinds" (James 1:2).