Reading Time: 6 mins

We Don't Lose Heart

Reading Time: 6 mins

For Paul, the hope of the resurrection was the ultimate antidote whenever his circumstances tempted him to despair or to "lose heart."

In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul states quite matter-of-factly that “we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:1, 16). The “we,” of course, is a reference to Paul’s companions in ministry, specifically, in this instance, Timothy. These words are, therefore, meant to speak for the apostle and his entire entourage as he reiterates that they have not lost their nerve or given up in the course of ministering “for Jesus’s sake” (2 Cor. 4:5, 11). This is an intriguing remark since by saying they haven’t given up, he’s all but admitting they have good reason to do so. As the rest of the letter discloses, it would have been understandable if he had thrown in the towel altogether (2 Cor. 1:8). There was ample reason for Paul to fester in faintheartedness, but he didn’t, and it begs us to ask why. Why didn’t he “lose heart”?

If you were to observe Paul’s track record during those days, you might have thought, like those in Corinth were led to believe, that he was under God’s judgment. The apostle’s plans hadn’t come to fruition as he was forced to reckon with delays and setbacks, all of which led to him being slandered and smeared by the so-called “super-apostles,” who were questioning his message and authority. After all that he had endured, from riots to death threats to beatings, Paul says that was just the “tip of the iceberg” of his suffering (2 Cor. 11:23–27). Paul’s career as a pastor and missionary was mired in conflict, not because he liked to stir up trouble but because his gospel was inherently offensive. All of his hardship was downstream of the message with which he was entrusted to preach. 

A sensible person might’ve taken a step back to reevaluate their message in light of the fact that it consistently instigates near-death experience after near-death experience. Paul, of course, refused to entertain the slightest notion that his message was up for alterations or adjustments. “We have renounced,” he affirms, “disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). Paul’s contemporaries were making a habit of succumbing to the pressure to modify their messages and “tamper with” the words of God, so much so that they had completely distorted their message from the true Christian gospel. Paul, however, possessed zero patience for such a response. The word that he was appointed to preach wasn’t his but was given to him “by the mercy of God” (2 Cor. 4:1), which meant it wasn’t his to “tamper with” or edit.

Paul wasn’t a preacher of his own laurels or renown. He didn’t minister in order to garner men’s applause or acclaim, nor was he going to take shortcuts or be dishonest with what God’s Word says. He refused any urge to placate his listeners by “tampering with” God’s good news, even when what he preached resulted in bodily harm (2 Cor. 4:8–10; cf. 11:23–27). All the blights and bruises that peppered Paul’s body were a visceral reminder of what it cost to follow Jesus, to preach Jesus, and to live for Jesus. As a certain whip-wielding archaeologist once said, Paul would echo that “it’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” He had aches and pains from head to toe. But rather than wallow in all the ways that his body had been abused, he relished in the fact that his body was a sermon in and of itself: “[We are] always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For 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” (2 Cor. 4:10–12).

To imbibe the material of “clay,” or “cooked earth,” is to refer to the very cheap and very common pieces of pottery that were used in households on a daily basis.

Looking at Paul might have only yielded reminders of agony and heartache. But every scar was a divine stamp of the logic of the gospel, which says that life comes out of death and victory comes out of defeat. Paul’s mangled and mutilated flesh was a mosaic that “manifested the life of Jesus” for others, and he was quite content with this since he knew what his role was (2 Cor. 4:5). He was a slave in the service of Jesus, whose labors were not for his own benefit but for the sake of the church (2 Cor. 4:15; cf. 1:24). But, perhaps, more alarming than calling himself a slave is when Paul says he is nothing but a clay pot. “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” he says, “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). This well-known illustration of the apostle’s self-image is perpetually striking. 

To imbibe the material of “clay,” or “cooked earth,” is to refer to the very cheap and very common pieces of pottery that were used in households on a daily basis. Vessels of all kinds were formed out of clay for various purposes. However, being made out of clay inherently meant that they were fragile, weak, and susceptible to cracking. Clay jars were replaceable commodities. When one cracked or broke into pieces, it was easily exchanged or swapped out. This is how Paul saw himself. He didn’t see himself as some indispensable component in the progress of the gospel. That was a spot reserved for Christ alone. Therefore, while his dissenters were succumbing to preaching self-interested sermons that served only to advance their own personal agendas, Paul was so committed to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ that he was ready and willing to put himself through torture on behalf of the church.

He didn’t need to resort to “editing” his message to protect his position or safeguard his status, nor was he about to compromise the good news for the sake of self-preservation. What sustained him throughout all the ebbs and flows of ministerial life was the hope of the risen Jesus (2 Cor. 4:13–15; cf. Ps. 116:10). Just as the psalmist confessed his confidence in the Lord amid affliction and adversity, so, too, was Paul firm in his belief in what God says and promises in his word — namely, that the God who raised Jesus from the dead has also promised to raise us from the dead and to bring us with him to glory. For Paul, the hope of the resurrection was the ultimate antidote whenever his circumstances tempted him to despair or to “lose heart” (2 Cor. 1:8–10).

This is what kept him from giving up and throwing in the towel for good: “We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16–18).

The lens of the cross freed him to see the pressures of the present as passing and light, while also freeing him to see the hope of eternity as weighty and glorious.

Even though every visible sign said that Paul was “wasting away,” he did not surrender to despair. In fact, he testifies that he was “being renewed day by day” — and he could say this because he cherished the cross above every other reality. His testimony of knowing nothing “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) wasn’t merely a well-worded mantra. It was the paradoxical lens by which he made sense of everything else. The lens of the cross freed him to see the pressures of the present as passing and light, while also freeing him to see the hope of eternity as weighty and glorious. A “paradox,” of course, is something that sounds absurd or contradictory but is found to be true, which helps us understand why the cross is so hopeful. After all, what’s more absurd or paradoxical than looking at a device meant to inflict the worst form of torture humanly conceived and regarding it as the emblem of victory? We hold high the cross because by it we understand everything else and by it “we do not lose heart.”

The apostle Paul was intimately familiar with adversity, so much so that, on top of everything else, he openly admits the anxiety he felt “for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). Despite how heavy and unrelenting the pains and problems of life might have seemed, the gospel of the cross told him that nothing could compare to what awaited him in glory. The good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection instilled in him a “hope beyond hope,” imbuing him with confidence that didn’t rely on what was “seen” but on what was “unseen.” Despair often follows close on our heels whenever our focus gets these realities out of whack. Consider again Jesus’s followers at the scene of the cross, where the only “seen” realities were death and defeat. Faith, however, clings to the “unseen” and trusts in a power that is at work despite what it looks like. This is why Paul says that we live “by faith, [and] not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7) — namely, because faith invites us to trust not in what we see but in what God’s Word says. 

Despite what it looked like, the cross was not a scene of defeat but of victory. 
Despite what it looked like, Paul’s delays were not a reason to reject his message.
Despite what it looked like, the suffering and sorrow that followed him wouldn’t prevail.
And despite what it looks like right now, the chaos and commotion of our own day won’t prevail either. 

Even if your circumstances don’t make a lick of sense; even if your trials don’t seem to be letting up anytime soon; even if you feel “so utterly burdened beyond your strength that [you] despair of life itself,” the gospel of the cross invites us to put our faith not in what is “seen” but in what is “unseen.” It brings us into union with the one who even while heaving and dying was reconciling all things to himself. It welcomes us to abandon hope in everything else save for the paradoxical hope that flows from a site of death and execution. It is the perpetual glory of the cross that assures us that there is a God at work even if we can’t see it. Therefore, we don’t lose heart.