I’ve explored 2Corinthians 4 before in a couple of posts that discuss human vulnerability as the capacity of finitude to bear the glory of God, arguing that “the vessels [jars of clay] are fragile and vulnerable, the treasure is not.” This chapter came up again in conversation recently and phrases that had not previously caught my attention jumped out at me.
I’m particularly interested in biblical resources for the belief that God is immeasurable delight, a delight essentially undiminished by the world’s sufferings (not at all a popular view for an evangelical to hold), and that our salvation is precisely a participation in this delight. Such a view of God has been objected to partly on the grounds that it’s a pure, unedited Hellenism foreign to biblical thought. So one of our interests here has been to explore biblical reasons for thinking God to be essentially, unimprovably, happy. We’ve discussed passage after passage the explicit claims of which entail the logic of divine beatitude. See Psalm 23; Psalm 46; Rom 8.18ff; Paul’s prayer in Eph 3; 1Cor 2.9-10; Phil 4.7; James 1.17; 1Peter 1.8f, all of which we’ve discussed and to which I’d like to add 2Cor 4.16-18 (and 2Cor 3.18 comp Rom 8.18).
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Several things come to mind. First, note the distinction between “wasting away outwardly” [lit. “the outward man” wastes away] while “being renewed inwardly” (lit. “inward man” is renewed day by day) based (v. 18) on a vision of what is unseen. At the very least, we are not reduced to the suffering we experience. But more specifically, there is something inside which is not subject to, nor diminished by, the conditions associated with suffering and mortality. On the contrary, the inner man is continually renewed while the outward man wastes away. Here you have the transcendence of the inward man, the undiminished nature of our true selves in Christ. While we waste away and suffer on one level or dimension of experience (outwardly), we are continuously renewed in another respect (inwardly).
Secondly, the curious phrase καθ υπερβολην εις υπερβολην (literally “according to transcendence unto transcendence”). The phrase is likely a Hebraism (מאד מאד; “very, very” or “greatly, greatly”) designed to stress the immeasurable and exceeding nature of something. In the NIV this phrase gets reduced to “far outweighs” and qualifies “glory” (i.e., the glory far outweighs the suffering). While it is no doubt true that the glory to which we are destined immeasurably exceeds our present sufferings, I think those commentators who take the phrase to qualify the verb κατεργαζεται (“achieves” or “produces”) better understand the verse (cf. the construction in Galatians 1.13 where “how intensely” qualifies “persecuted” in the NIV). So between our “light and temporary troubles” and our “weighty and eternal glory” lies an immeasurable “according to transcendence unto transcendence.” The final glory which is our destiny is produced in us intensely, exceedingly, increasingly, transcendently. That is, our journey does not merely end in immeasurable glory, it is reached in an increasingly immeasurable way through daily participation in it. This is what Paul means by saying our “inward man is renewed day by day.” Apatheia is not some mysterious divine attribute that locks creation out of God’s life, nor is it merely a heavenly reward presently inaccessible. It is the truest, inward reality of created things (our “inward man” or “true self”).
Thirdly, v. 18 introduces, as Alford says (yes, Henry Alford; I love the older guys) “the subjective condition under which this working out takes place.” We participate in the increasingly transcendent progress of becoming our truest self by way of ‘contemplation’ (or ‘mindfulness’, nepsis). We become what we behold as we become beholden to it. And this is where the practical difference between our view of God (as undiminishing beatitude) and the standard passibilist views is most acute, for the “unseen” realities perceived in the Spirit (see 1Cor 2.9-10) shape the course of our spiritual development and transformation in conformity to God as ‘end’ . If what I see is a “pissed off” God (what one passibilist insisted a truly loving God would be in the face of injustice), I’ll be “pissed of.” Why wouldn’t I be? We become what we see. That’s the transformative power of the human spirit that gives itself, through mindfulness, to a particular vision of ultimate ends and so becomes what it sees. But if what I see is peace in the storm, if what I see is Christ walking on the water of the storm, if what I see is an undiminished glory which is my destiny and the destiny of all persons, if what I see is divine beatitude always already pursuing the highest good of all things as the highest good of those things, I’ll be increasingly transformed into that.
Are we reading into Paul here? I don’t think so. Back up a bit from 2Cor 4 to 2Cor 3.18 for confirmation of what we’re saying:
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
Come on somebody!
Lastly, I suggest reading 2Cor 4.16-18 (and 3.18) alongside Rom 8.18f, a passage I’ve commented on a good deal. All these refer to essentially the same transforming vision of divine ‘glory’. In Rom 8 that glory is God as ‘end’, and in 2Cor 3 & 4 that glory is contemplate end ‘as means’ of present renewal. Together these outline perhaps the strongest reasons in the New Testament for believing God to be undiminished, glorious beatitude. I’ll leave you with a few lines on Rom 8 which I’ve previously shared and which I’m now happy to see expressed equally in 2Cor 4.18:
Transcendence as apatheia or as God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (as Boyd earlier defined it) is no mere philosophical construct. It can be biblically discerned. Whatever evils we suffer, God remains that which one day shall render all worldly sufferings comparatively meaningless (Rom 8:18’s “sufferings not worth comparing to the glory that shall be revealed in us”). But I urge you to ponder what it is about God to which earthly sufferings are not comparable. If no present suffering can possibly compare to the joy that shall be ours upon seeing God, what joy must presently be God’s who always perceives his own glorious beauty? And if the glory which God now is shall transcend all our sufferings in our experience of him in resurrection, what can these sufferings presently be to God who always and already is this glory in its fullness? Pondering Rom 8, I asked myself, “Is the divine nature itself subject to ‘decay’ and ‘groaning’ as well? Does God ‘await glorification’ along with us?” If not, then what must God’s present experience be? And must not this experience be that about God which renders the entirety of the world’s suffering comparatively meaningless?
Prayer: Lord, fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Habb 2.4). Fill ‘this’ earth, me, the earth that I am, with the knowledge of your glory.