In our Friday prayer time last week the Lord started to speak with us from 2 Corinthians; “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 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. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (4:8-11). Of special interest was the subject of “perplexity”. Paul could speak without embarrassment about being “perplexed, but not forsaken”, and Jesus prophesied of the coming days of “distress of nations in perplexity” (Luke 21:25; 2 Cor 4:9). With global terrorism, economic uncertainty and climate change, perplexities are very present realities of our time. My computer gives as synonyms for “perplexed”, “puzzled”, “at a loss” and “mystified”; each of these is a state of mind which come upon us through forces beyond our control. No one ever desires to be perplexed, yet the Spirit seems to be saying that perplexity is something a Christian can welcome on their way to becoming more like Jesus. This teaching attempts to demonstrate that perplexity can bring a gift from heaven bringing insight into our true creaturely status, for immersion in emptiness is a precondition for seeing the glory of God.
Genesis broke with all other existing ancient creation stories by teaching that God created out of nothing. The meaning of creation “out of nothing” is not self-evident; but God did not lay hold of “nothing” and turn it into something; for nothing is no-thing at all (Heb 11:3). Creation out of nothing is absolutely unique and without analogies, but its implications are total. Since humans are completely dependent upon the Creator for every aspect of their being, then the glory of the creature is to have all its honour given to it by God (Acts 17:28). To be a created “son of God” is to have one’s identity as a child of God drawn absolutely from the Father-Creator without any contribution whatsoever (Luke 3:38). The satanic temptation to “become like God” seduced Adam and Eve into attempting to complete their being by an act of will independent of their maker (Gen 3:5). This original sin was an effort to seek completion by becoming something, rather than glorying in being nothing apart from God. The fruit of sinful self-effort was the loss of the glory of God freely given to humans as creatures and as sons (Rom 3:23). Whilst it is us who are culpable, the loss of glory leaves all fallen people feeling abandoned by God. From our eviction from Eden on men and women struggle to make sense of the world and their place in it; such perplexity has birthed countless idolatries as part of an endless attempt to becoming something rather than nothing. Jesus alone has been free from this dynamic.
The Incompletion of the Son of God
Jesus “made himself nothing” by giving up all the eternal glories of heavenly Sonship (John 17:5; Phil 2:7). This meant that as a limited human being Christ exposed himself to the need to ask questions and experience genuine surprise (Matt 8:10; 15:28; Mark 15:34). Perplexity is something Jesus is intimately familiar with. Yet in every case where Jesus experiences surprise or professes lack of knowledge a miracle subsequently follows bringing all glory to God alone. The purpose of perplexity in a fallen world was fully realised in the humanity of the Son of God as Jesus depended upon his Father again and again to complete to a situation of lack (Matt 15:34-36). What sense then can we give to our perplexity over Jesus’ perplexed cry from the cross, ““My God…why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34). If Paul’s affliction did not lead to crushing and his perplexity was free of forsakenness, why was it necessary for Jesus to endure crushing and forsakenness extremities (Isa 53:5; 2 Cor 4:8-9)? This was the climax of the true nothingness of the Son who for the Father’s sake never attempted to complete his identity by self-effort. So radical is his creaturely sonship that if it were not for the initiative of the Father the Son would still be entombed today. “I lay down my life in order that I might take it up again…. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”” (John 10:18). In the resurrection it was “the glory of the Father” that was seen through the utterly broken life of Jesus raised from the dead (Rom 6:4). Through his confessed inability to raise himself from the dead Jesus reveals that the glory of the Son as God and man is to receive all things from the Father (John 5:19). He is the perfect image of what we as creatures were always meant to be. Such is mystifying to even the closest of Jesus’ disciples (Luke 24:21).
In the midst of our Friday prayers one brother made a profound statement about a point of deep humiliation in his early Christian life; “Becoming nothing is the greatest thing I’ve ever become.” (Lawrence R.). This testimony gets to the heart of Paul’s own confession of the need to be “hard pressed… perplexed… persecuted… struck down…”. The divine decree that we need to suffer is a sharp reminder of our radical incompletion as creatures and of the need to accept dying with Jesus so that the “life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:11). In a weakness surrendered to the Lord’s service Paul would not be seen, Jesus would be seen (2 Cor 12:9-10; Phil 3:10). This manifestation of the glory of Christ was Paul’s glory. Powerful flesh does not reveal the glory of Christ. Wise believers understand that such glory can never be achieved, only received, and they exult in the breakdown of the old world in their bodies for the sake of the emergence of the glory of the new creation (Gal 6:14-15). “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Cor 4:7). Nothing destructive can ever happen to you which cannot become a carrying in your bodies the dying of Jesus for the manifestation of his risen life. All you need to do for this to happen is to submit to the truth that the glory of the creature is the life of its Creator.
God wants us to be nothing, rather than something, so that in our true creaturely emptiness we might be filled with his glory. This radical message of nothingness is everywhere hated today. Normal men and women seek fulfilment in the stock exchange, employment success or advancement in church life. “Radicals” are driven to find completion in martyrdom, as if any act that does not share in the love of the cross could climax in glory (1 Cor 13:3). Despite pious prayers deep down very few people want to experience resurrection power, because life from the dead gives glory to God alone (Phil 3:10). In an age where we expect answers for everything the Lord surely wants to increase our perplexity. If perplexity was part of the dying/death of Jesus it must be part of our life too (Mark 14:36; 15:34). God –given puzzlement can only be solved by God, not us; this alone is the route of resurrection power (Luke 24:4). Understood in the Spirit, “Becoming nothing is the greatest thing I’ve ever become.”, is the testimony not of my praying friend nor of Paul but of Jesus himself. If we cannot see this, if we cannot glory in our nothingness, then it must be we need to be “given over to death for Jesus’ sake” in new and deeper ways (2 Cor 4:11). Is anything too much to bear for him?