In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul talks about life as an apostle, and it’s not an easy description to read. He talks of great endurance, troubles, hardships and distresses, beatings, imprisonments and riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger. (2 Cor 6:4-5) Quite how we in the Western world have swallowed whole-heartedly the myth that being a Christian means having no problems and a trouble-free, stress-free life is a mystery to me; I suspect it’s because we’re not reading the Bible as much as we should be, because there it’s plain that suffering, persecution and trouble are an integral part of life in a sin-stained world, and that trouble and blessing come upon the Christian and non-believer in much the same way (see Matt 5:45).
This is not to imply that there are no advantages to a life of faith, because there are, but Paul’s point here is that his ministry was not dependent on favourable circumstances for effect. So often, we blame our circumstances for our failings, believing that we would be a better Christian if we had a different neighbour, boss or family! Subconsciously, we make excuses, believing that a life of faith only flourishes in ‘good soil.’ The truth is that God is able to make grace abound in all circumstances; He is able to bless us abundantly wherever we are so that we can flourish even in situations that don’t look favourable (see 2 Cor 9:8, 2 Cor 12:9).
Paul spoke of positive things as well as negative (‘purity, understanding, patience and kindness… the Holy Spirit and … sincere love…truthful speech and …the power of God.’ (2 Cor 6:6)) He also spoke much about paradox: ‘genuine, yet regarded as imposters; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and not yet killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.’ (2 Cor 6:8-10) This is a challenge for all of us who like neat boxes and pretty answers, for paradox defies those beautiful categories and simplistic solutions.
Peter and John knew what it is was to have nothing and yet possess everything. In Acts 3:1-10, they encountered a helpless cripple as they were on their way to the temple to pray. Crippled from birth, this lame man was dependent on others to carry him around and dependent on others to provide the money for him to survive. His was a bleak life with a bleak future. He spoke to them, hoping for money, but Peter soon dispelled that notion (‘silver or gold I do not have’ Acts 3:6). Nonetheless, he went on to say, ‘what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ (Acts 3:6) What followed is the first recorded healing after the resurrection and Day of Pentecost: ‘Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.’ (Acts 3:7-8)
We may, like the crowd, be filled with wonder, amazement and astonishment at this miracle (Acts 3:10-11), but we may also wonder why we do not see such things happening more often in our own lives. We hear testimonies of such things in other countries and understand that God does not change (Mal 3:6), yet there can be a huge gulf between our heads and our heart, between our understanding of who God is and what He can do and our experience of it personally. I think there is a clue in this phrase ‘having nothing, and yet possessing everything.’ So often, in our lives, we have so much – material wealth, academic knowledge, comfort, luxury – and yet spiritually we possess so little. We need to empty our lives of all that is not necessary in order to press on in God to the inheritance He has prepared for us. The truth is that God has already blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms. (Eph 1:3) He has already done all that is necessary for us to give to those in spiritual need. We need to ‘press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of us.’ (Phil 3:12) Then, like Peter, we will be able to pass on something truly life-changing to those in need.