Strong Painless Limbs

Just this week I finished reading The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis to my two younger children. After we had read the final page, David, who is eight-years-old, looked at me and said, “Do you mean that I have to wait eighty years to experience that!” He had picked up on the joy, the richness, and the vitality of Lewis’s depiction of eternal life. This picture left him with a holy longing to experience what Christians often refer to as “heaven”, but what is more accurately labelled “the new heavens and the new earth”.

Now, if I am totally honest, ever since David made this comment, I have been wrestling with a sense of conviction. Why, I keep asking myself, do I not feel more of this thirst for the glorious things yet to be revealed? Why is it that I feel myself rooted to the present life as a tree is rooted to the earth? Why is it that the passage of time often strikes my psyche as the movement of life toward death rather than the movement of mortality toward immortality? Why, thinking of death itself, do I often feel as if that momentous moment is a transition from light to darkness rather than a transition from darkness to light? How have I come to prefer a stay at a Travelodge to the hope of attaining a permanent place in what the Psalmist refers to as the “fullness of joy”? 

The answer of these questions, I’ve come to realise, is that I’ve not spent enough time meditating on 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:8. In this passage, Paul reminds us of three truths that ought to have an effect on our hearts not unlike what happens to our belies when we stare at a beautiful chocolate cake through a storefront window. 

1 – The Seen Is a Shadow of the Unseen 

In The Last Battle Lord Digory makes a surprising comment near the end of the book. He says, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato”. What Lewis is suggesting here is that Plato and Paul were in agreement on one fundamental point. To use the language of Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:18 he says, “For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal”. This world, as real as it might be, is in the end the Shadowlands of something far more permanent and glorious. This means that Christians should not fear ultimately departing from this world. The best pleasures here are at most appetizers of a main course that the chef is still keeping under wraps. Or, to change the metaphor, the delights of this life are merely the trickling burns that, if followed to their end point, merge with an ocean of joy that exceeds anything our feeble minds are currently able to imagine.

2 – Prolonged Suffering Is Not Purposeless

Paul says one thing about our suffering in 2 Corinthians 4 that always catches my attention – partly because, at first, it sounds pastorally insensitive. He says, “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment”. The two words that always stand out to me are “light” and “moment”. A lot of us don’t feel as if our suffering is “light”; likewise, a lot of our pain lasts – not for a few minutes – but sometimes for years, even decades. How, then, can Paul say this?

The answer is because Paul is using a deliberate point of comparison. In other words, “light” and “momentary” are for Paul relative terms. Our sufferings are indeed “light” in comparison with the “weight of glory” that one day God will give us. Similarly, our pain is “momentary” when set beside the eternity of joy that one day we will inherit.

Seen this way, Paul is not being pastorally insensitive but pastorally astute. He wants us to feel the joy of knowing that the sufferings of the present life are not worthy to be compared to the glory yet to be revealed. The horizon before us is not an indefinite process of aging and enfeeblement. Rather, through the alchemy of grace, the very worst of our pain will one day be transmuted into heavenly rewards. God will have used every last grain of our mortal existence in order to fashion something worthy of imperishable life.

3 – Jesus’ Resurrection Is Both Fact and Promise

Any gospel believing Christian professes faith in Jesus’ resurrection. What we often fail to trust in – at least in our heart of hearts – is that we, too, one day will one day be resurrected. Paul is clear: Our hope is not to be “unclothed” but to be “further clothed”. Our hope is not to pass through death into a ghostly, disembodied existence, but “that mortality may be swallowed up by life”. That last phrase should catch our attention. What does this mean? Rather than me try to explain it, here are two quotations to whet your spiritual appetites for the life that one day the resurrected children of God will enjoy in the enlivening light of His manifest presence.

“It is so silly of people to fancy that old age means crookedness and whitheredness and feebleness and sticks and spectacles and rheumatism and forgetfulness! It is so silly! Old age has nothing to do with all that. The right old age means strength and beauty and mirth and courage and clear eyes and strong painless limbs.” (George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblins).

“But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle).

By Joe Barnard