The Resilient Christian
|Smith Clan following Kim Smith's Interment|
So 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 Corinthians 4: 16-18
The only real problem Kim and I ever had was our college sports loyalties. Neither of us attended our schools, but she was a UGA Dawg and I a Florida Gator. This led to a certain amount of pre-game trash talk and post-game taunting each year. When I turned on the game, known in the deep South as “the world’s biggest outdoor cocktail party” a couple of weeks ago, the feeling came to me, “God is going to give this game to Kim.” And he did.
But this morning I want to ask you to think about this question: How do you explain the Kim we knew?
We might say she was a realistic optimist. She had a positive outlook but not of the sort that in the face diagnosis of a terminal illness says, “I’m going to beat this. God is going to heal me.” She believed God could heal her, but she never presumed that he would. She knew from the Bible that God’s will would determine the outcome of her illness, but that she could not know God’s will for her. She and many others would pray, and she would use the medical treatments, and hope for the best, but she was a realist.
We could try to explain Kim by her strength of character and personality. I know Kim had her low times, but she was remarkably without self-pity or helplessness. She continued working, caring for her husband and children, keeping up her friendships, involving herself in her church, all the while taking chemotherapy that was physically devastating. The Saturday after she came home from the hospital, when she was weak and growing weaker, she said to too helpful family members, “There’s a difference between hovering and helping.” Kim was strong and feisty. She was one tough lady.
But Kim cannot be fully, and certainly not fundamentally, understood unless you take into account her faith and the resilience her faith produced. That word – “resilience” – has come to me, as it has to others, time and again from the time Kim was first diagnosed with cancer until her departure from this world last Thursday.
Resilience is the opposite of what the Apostle Paul calls “losing heart.” The Apostle Paul could have lost heart and he tells us why. “Our outer self is wasting away.” Paul knew his own mortality. He could feel and see the toll that his ministry took on his physical body. He writes of his many “imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.” He goes on to say, “five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”
In addition to these experiences he had some kind of chronic physical problem he called his “thorn in the flesh” which he had pleaded with the Lord to remove. Then there were the emotional and spiritual costs of caring about the welfare of the churches. “And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”
Paul’s outer mortal life was wasting away. So it is with our lives. And, sadly, with cancer such as Kim had the patient experiences and we see an accelerated wasting away of the outward person.
Paul uses word pictures to describe our mortal existence. We are “jars of clay.” Josh and Jackson were given some clay jars and a rubber mallet. It did not take much force or more than one blow to break them. Clay jars are fragile. Paul also compares to our bodies to a tent that can be destroyed. A gust of wind can collapse a tent; fire can quickly consume one. As it is with clay jars and tents so it is with our bodies. We are weak, frail, and subject to death from the day of birth.
We can treat the Biblical writers as though they are quite different from us. We think they lived spiritual lives on such a higher plane than ours that it is not possible for us to identify with them. But, knowing Paul’s experience of mortality should comfort us, because he experienced what we do. Even more important Jesus understands us. He became one with us all our human and mortal frailty, like us in every way except sin. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears…” He wept at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, as we have wept at the tomb of one we love. He himself experienced death. He is a sympathetic priest and intercessor in heaven who knows our every weakness; he understands when we pour out our hearts to him in pain, in loneliness, in grief. He cares about what we are going through, and he is willing and able to help.
It’s because of our human frailty and mortality that we are prone to lose heart. It’s hard to keep going when we know how short and uncertain life is. It’s especially hard when death closely stalks us. Yet Paul says he did not lose heart. Neither did Kim. Paul and Kim were resilient. An object is resilient when it is compressed by pressure but returns to its original shape. Think of a rubber ball that is squeezed. The ball will respond to the pressure, but then it will return to its original shape. A person is resilient when she is not crushed by trouble and adversity, including a terminal illness.
Kim’s life was greatly affected by her illness, but her illness did not determine who she was. She was resilient. Kim’s experience of resilience can be described in a similar way to Paul’s faith-caused resilience which he describes in this way: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed.” This is what real resilience is. We are pressed in by external pressures of every sort, but faith keeps pushing back against harsh realities so that those realities cannot destroy the person whose faith is in Jesus Christ.
What about Paul’s faith and Kim’s faith kept them from losing heart?
There was something they knew about the past. It is that Christ died and rose again. Christ’s bodily resurrection is as objective a fact of history as his death. Christ’s resurrection is the turning point of human history. Until Christ Satan, sin, and death ruled human existence. But in Christ’s resurrection God defeated Satan, conquered sin, and defanged death. Christ’s resurrection changes everything for those who believe in him. As Paul said, ‘If Christ has not been raised, then… your faith is in vain…But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Our Christian faith is a faith grounded in history, not myth, and the central fact of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Then, there was something Paul knew and Kim knew about the future. He said that he spoke with the spirit of faith, “knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” God raised up Christ from the dead. And God will raise us up, too, to share in Christ’s renewed and glorified humanity. Paul looks to the end of this present age: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead shall be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body much put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’"
The Christian’s hope is more than the survival of the spirit at death. It is the resurrection of the body, and the union of immortal body and sinless soul in perfect wholeness. This is the “yet more glorious day” that awaits Kim and all of us who believe – resurrection to immortal life beyond the touch of disease, pain, tears, and death. We will be raised up with Jesus in his glory, and we will be with Jesus and one another. There will be no barriers to our enjoyment of Jesus’ presence and no barriers to our fellowship. Nothing could be happier than to enjoy immortal human wholeness and happiness of life in communion with Jesus and in perfect harmony with each other.
Then there was something Paul and Kim knew about the present. Paul says, “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” There is the ongoing, irrevocable, unstoppable renewal of the inner nature.” Paul is not drawing a contrast here between the human spirit and the body. Paul is not a Greek philosopher who thinks of the body as evil and mortal and the spirit as good and eternal. He is drawing a contrast between our present life and the life we are promised, our mortal existence and eternal life.
Christians are by faith joined to the resurrection life of Jesus. By power of the resurrection life of Jesus, God has begun a work of renewal in us that inevitably will lead to the resurrection life and wholeness that is in future. But, that life is not wholly future. It is at work in the present. Jesus said, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Speaking of faith that is confirmed and nourished by the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day…This is the bread that came down from heaven…whoever feeds on this bread will live for ever.”
Jesus gives us eternal life now, and that eternal life inexorably renews us till death is swallowed up by life. No adversity can stop it. Not troubles that are unbearable. Not grief that is our constant companion. Not depression which feels like a hole with no way up or out. Not cancer. Not death. Nothing, nothing at all can stop the renewal that is taking place day by day. This renewal is not so much what we feel, but what is – what is happening in those who believe.
That’s why Paul can call our present experience a “light, momentary affliction.” Kim’s illness seemed anything but light to those of us who loved her and walked with her as far through the valley of the shadow of death as we could. Though after diagnosis she had only 2 ½ years, at times her suffering seemed anything but momentary. It was day after day after day. But Paul says, when you put all the affliction on one side of the scale and the eternal glory of Jesus’ resurrection that has begun to renew us and will lead to our sharing in Christ’s bodily resurrection, the scales will tip all the say with the afflictions down and the glory up. Elsewhere, he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.”
How do we know this? How do we see it? Paul says that it is 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.” Again Paul is not contrasting the spiritual and material, the human spirit and the human body. Nor is he speaking of something like Santa Claus whom we know really does not exist but still try to believe in once a year. He is talking about substantial realities – a glory that exists objectively with God. Christian faith sees and takes hold of those things. Christian faith is not “believing what you know is not true” but believing in things we cannot presently see but know are real because Christ has told us they exist. It’s not so much that we feel the renewing life within us, nor that we see the glory to come, but that we believe God is renewing us and nothing can stop it till Jesus comes and we share in his glory.
It is in this spirit of faith that we say defiantly, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?...thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”