by Tim Keller
An excerpt from Be Still, My Soul: Embracing God's Purpose and Provision in Suffering (Nancy Guthrie, editor)
We live in a unique culture. Every other society before ours has been more reconciled to the reality that life is full of sorrow. If you read the journals of people who lived before us, it is obvious they understood this, and that they were never surprised by suffering. We are the first culture to be surprised by suffering. When Paul writes to the people of his day, “We do not lose heart, though outwardly we are wasting away,” he speaks of suffering as a given.
Greek scholars will tell you Paul was not just talking about the body as wasting away, but about all of life in this visible world. He was saying that everything in this world is wearing away. Everything is steadily, irreversibly falling apart.
Our bodies are wearing away. Our hearts are like wind-up clocks with a finite number of clicks that are clicking away. Our physical appearance and attractiveness are wearing away, and we can’t stop it. Our relationships are wearing away. Get a group of friends around you, and time and circumstance will eventually pull you apart. Our families are wearing away, dying off one at a time. Our skills are wearing away. You can’t stay on top of your game forever. Everything is like a wave on the sand. You can’t pin it down; it starts to recede from you.
Paul writes about “wasting away” to a group of people who have suggested that he can’t be trusted, that God is obviously not with him. One reason Paul can’t be trusted, they suggest, is that he has experienced an inordinate number of tragedies and difficulties. And, in fact, Paul makes a list of them in 2 Corinthians 11:24–28:
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
The people in Corinth were saying, How can God be with a man when all that stuff happens to him? Surely when God’s with you he protects you. When God is with you, you prosper. I’ve been traveling the Mediterranean all my life and I’ve never been shipwrecked, and this guy has been shipwrecked three times?
It’s similar to the thinking Job’s friends had about Job’s suffering. Job’s friends said, If God is with you, this wouldn’t happen. God can’t be with you. If he was, he’d protect you.
And we ask ourselves the same thing, don’t we, when one thing after another goes wrong, when we’ve reached the bottom and find out there’s lower to go?
This can’t be right, we think. Either there is no God or God is mad at me. He can’t be with me or this wouldn’t be happening.
How does Paul respond to this premise? Paul doesn’t just say God is with him. He goes further. He says that the suffering and hardship he has experienced is not a denial of the gospel, but a confirmation of the gospel.
He writes, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; we always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (2 Cor. 4:8–12).
Paul is saying that the way of the gospel is death leading to resurrection, weakness resulting in triumphant exaltation. Paul is saying that the way the gospel works in Jesus’ life is the way it is working in his life. He’s saying that just as Jesus’ suffering and death led to greater life, he is finding that the same thing is happening in his life. “My deaths seem to lead to greater life,” he’s saying.
The suffering he experiences because he is trying to minister lead to greater life in other people’s lives, as they hear the gospel and experience spiritual life.
And this doesn’t just happen in the lives of people in professional ministry. I know a number of people—doctors and lawyers and the like, who, rather than stepping onto the ladder of professional and financial upward mobility, have decided to serve underserved people. They’ve given their lives to working with the poor in places off the beaten path. And when a person does that, they fall out of the structure of their profession. They kind of go off the radar, and find they can’t advance. But they also find that their career death produces greater life.
When we suffer for doing the right thing, when we choose to live unselfishly, we find that our “death” leads to greater life for those around us.