The apostle Paul is an amazing and complex character. Even though this congregation in Corinth is often really difficult to work with sometimes, his love for them is overflowing. They have had their share of disagreements and misunderstandings, but he keeps encouraging them in their discipleship.
Some members of the Corinthian congregation were hurt by a previous reprimand from Paul. One person, apparently, had caused a real division that had sidetracked them from Christ’s mission. Then Paul promised he was going to visit them and then changed his plans. Several people in the church weren’t very happy with him. There are still divisions and concerns.
In short, things aren’t looking ideal for the Corinthian congregation.
Which sets up this week’s portion of his letter to the church. He refers to their “inner nature” and their “outer nature.” The outer nature is physical, it’s visible, it’s what impresses other people. It can be superficial, and is definitely temporary. It includes their bodies, their finances, their jobs, their houses, their hairstyles, their health, and even the circumstances of their church.
And, says Paul, “It is all wasting away.” They are upset about so many circumstances regarding this outer nature that it is distracting them.
So Paul reminds them to “not lose heart” because no matter the circumstances, the inner nature is being renewed every day. The outer nature–these visible, temporary parts of our lives–don’t define us. The depth of our inner lives–our deepest identity in the image of God–is being renewed every day apart from what’s happening on the outside. Don’t lose heart, he writes. The real stuff, the eternal stuff, the parts of our selves we don’t necessarily see are what matters.
And these inner aspects of ourselves carry us through, because the inner nature is in the image of God. In spite of outer circumstances, God is working and renewing and restoring at a much deeper level. Don’t lose sight of that; don’t be distracted by the outer things.
Paul encourages us to keep proper perspective. Our outer circumstances are part of our lives, yes. They can be difficult and challenging, yes. But they don’t define us or our relationship with God or how God works in our lives.
To get caught up in those outer circumstances at the expense of our inner image of God is problematic at best. Spending all our time and energy on the outer nature leads to misdirection and division. That’s what the church in Corinth is dealing with. Putting all their efforts into their outer nature and neglecting what’s happening every day in their inner nature.
Perhaps us too. We can get so focused on fixing our lives, fixing what’s wrong, worrying about our finances, getting every piece of our outer nature into line that we can neglect to recognize the growth in our inner nature, our faith, our discipleship, our relationship with God.
How often do we plan and strategize growth in our spiritual lives? Shouldn’t we pay as much attention to expanding our generosity as in expanding our 401(k)s?
If I plan to devote 30 minutes a day to time on my physical health, shouldn’t I also plan to devote 30 minutes a day to time on my spiritual health?
If my relationships with friends are important to me, shouldn’t forgiveness and restoring relationships be important too?
What would you think about discovering ways we really reflect the image of God in which we’ve been created and deliberately expanding those aspects of our lives?
God is renewing our inner nature every day. God is continuing in forgiveness and mercy and generosity and grace within us every day. Paying attention to God’s new work in us, partnering with God in our daily renewal is our most human endeavor.
Circumstances, our outer nature, can be hard and painful. There is support and encouragement here in the congregation in those times. So we do not lose heart, Paul writes to us. 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.
Consider how God is renewing you today. Today. What renewing thing is God accomplishing in your right now? It is happening. Divine love is making you new at this very moment. Discover that work. Take delight in it. Join God in it. So, regardless of anything else, we do not lose heart.