My title is borrowed from a phrase by the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4.8. Here it is in context:
For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture--“I believed, and so I spoke”--we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
- 2 Corinthians 4.5-18 (NRSV)Paul is speaking of his own ambiguous experience in life. He lives the reality of following a crucified and resurrected Lord and his experience embraces both realities: suffering in this present age in the midst of a groaning world, yet filled with the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead. And this is the experience of all Christians: neither a triumphalistic walk in the park through wealth and health, but nor a bleak and hopeless spiral into pain and despair. Nor simply a mix of light and dark. But a rich yearning in a cracked world, where experiences of failure and suffering become occasions for the revelation of God's mysterious resurrection power: his power is "made perfect in our weakness", Paul claims later in this same letter, because it is at these points that the nexus between human effort and success is broken, and it becomes apparent that our frail existence owes everything to God. We have the treasure of life and new life in Christ hidden in the clay jar (the ancient equivalent of a throw-away styrofoam cup) of a bodily life constantly thwarted by illness, sin and ultimately death. The goal is not a Platonic escape from the body into a 'spiritual' extra-bodily existence, but is nothing less than our own future resurrection from the dead in a renewed universe.
But while we wait, my experience of the Christian life is often well summed up by a phrase that has been something of a personal motto since it struck me powerfully back in 1998: perplexed, but not in despair.
And to wax a little indulgent, here is a piece of angst poetry from my 20-year old self when I adopted the motto.
perplexity without despair
Wandering slowly up the garden path,
trapped between conceit and metaphor:
an adult playing at adult games.
Uncertainty, aimlessness, ignorance.
Wondering slowly between vague mistakes,
undefined ideas far from ideal,
far too bored to misspend a minute.
Introspection, paradox, transience.
Pondering when, what and whether to think,
looking at a world of perceptions,
but not out for other perceivers.
Fragmentation, finitude, selfishness.
Pandering to wind, wave, whether and whim;
often vanquished at the death struggle,
yet stalwart with this treasure within.
Vacillation, tragedy, assurance.
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