The paradox of inner strength despite physical decline
Most of us won’t reach our fortieth birthday before realizing we aren’t invincible. When our friends and family crack the first over-the-hill jokes, we’re already painfully aware that our outer self is wasting away (2Co 4:16). We’ve discovered new and unusual physical limitations. Our stamina has decreased. Our pearly whites are a duller shade of alabaster. Gray hairs have sprouted, though probably not enough to replace those now missing. The body’s natural decay has become increasingly evident. Try as we might—and we do try—we cannot stop it.
The so-called Preacher of Ecclesiastes refers to old age as “the evil days” when “the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened” (Ecc 12:1). He waxes poetic regarding our feeble frames, vanishing teeth, fading eyesight, sleeplessness, hearing loss, brittle bones, graying hair, and lack of mobility when he says:
The keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails. (Ecclesiastes 12:3-5)
The Preacher continues, but I’ll skip ahead. Interpreting the idioms in this passage is mostly guesswork, anyhow. Ultimately, he reminds us that life can have only one conclusion. “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecc 12:7). Assuming we’re fortunate enough to remain healthy, we may not notice we’re dying for the first few decades, but the process began the moment we were born. “Our outer self,” as the apostle says, “is wasting away,” destined to become dust sooner or later (2Co 4:16).
Paul, however, isn’t primarily dwelling on his aging body when he writes to the Christians in Corinth. His troubles are numerous and growing by the day, but typical aging, hunger, sickness, and emotional stress can hardly top the list. He is, after all, a hated and often hunted man. His flesh bears the scars of beatings, whippings, stonings, and imprisonments. Some of his wounds are fresh enough, and most severe enough, that a modern-day physician would have recommended hospitalization and rehab if not early retirement. Paul’s outer self is wasting away at a violent pace (2Co 4:16).
Even so, the last apostle does not lose heart (2Co 4:16). His enemies have ripped the flesh from his bones, yet they still haven’t cut deep enough to weaken his spirit. His inner self is being renewed day by day, growing stronger with each stripe across his back. While a tough day at work is enough to discourage many of us, Paul suggests that his inner self is renewing in equal proportion to his outer self wasting away. His body is dying, but his heart and soul have never been more alive. How can this be?
Appearances can be deceiving.
One of my favorite biblical stories involves the prophet Elisha and his naïve servant. The king of Syria plotted more than a few surprise attacks on Israel, only to be thwarted by Elisha each time. Whenever he planned his next offensive, all-knowing God would send word to Elisha, who would pass the warning on to the king of Israel. Israel adjusted accordingly, leaving the king of Syria greatly troubled by one failure after another (2Ki 6:11).
Eventually, Syria uncovered the source of Israel’s success and sent horses and chariots, and a great army to kill their secret weapon (2Ki 6:14). Early one morning, Elisha’s servant stepped out of his tent to discover an army with horses and chariots was all around the city (2Ki 6:15). They were surrounded. Escape was seemingly impossible. Panic-stricken, the servant cries out, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?”
Elisha slowly emerges from his tent, stretches, casually wipes the sleep from his eyes, surveys the horizon, glances over at his servant, shrugs, and says, “What are you worried about? Should we get some coffee?”
This may not be the most accurate depiction of the scene, but I think I’ve captured its essence. The prophet was altogether unshaken because he saw what his servant couldn’t. According to Scripture, Elisha actually responded, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2Ki 6:16). At this, the servant began mentally preparing for other employment. His master must have gone blind, insane, or was proving himself lousy at math.
Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:17)
Reality extends beyond the visible. Elisha knew it, and Paul knew it. This spiritual awareness prevented fear and despair from paralyzing either of them. By seeing God’s army in the mountains around his camp, Syria’s otherwise intimidating forces didn’t cause Elisha to flinch. By perceiving the strengthening power of God in his inner self, Paul could not be defeated no matter how severe the damage to his outer self (2Co 4:16). As he would later write, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2Co 12:10).
Paul’s claim is absurd to most people. “One cannot find strength in weakness,” they’d retort. Their solution is much less paradoxical. To Paul, they’d say, “If you want to better your situation, stop all this preaching business. Keep your faith to yourself, and your persecutors will lose interest, leaving you to enjoy a quiet and peaceable life for a change.” To Elisha, they would have said, “Run!”
Paul’s aging, broken body doesn’t tell the whole story. By the grace of God, there is more to him than meets the eye—namely, the Lord’s powerful, providential, and mostly invisible care.