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Hard-pressed, But not Crushed


Hard-pressed

by Dennis Pollock

The fourth chapter of the book of Second Corinthians is a fascinating study. In it the apostle Paul bares his heart and shares some intimate details about the struggles he continually faced as a minister of Christ. From the first verse we get the idea that there is a price to be paid for doing what he does, as he writes, "Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart." With all that Paul was forced to endure for the privilege of preaching Christ – the lashings, the stonings, running for his life, doing without meals at times, being ridiculed, arrested, threatened, nearly drowned, beaten, and betrayed – lesser men would have lost heart, but not Paul. This stubborn, Jewish rabbi-turned-preacher was determined to fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep his faith in Jesus Christ to the end.

Later in the chapter Paul describes some of the price he must pay to fulfill his calling:

We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed --- (2 Corinthians 4:8,9).

Recently, when reading this passage, I was struck by the phrase, hard-pressed. Actually there was no great mystery as to why the passage hit with me such force – at that time I was pretty hard-pressed myself. I began thinking about my own life and my seasons of pressure. Of course, next to Paul, my little pressures might be pretty mild, but they were big enough for me, to be sure. We notice that Paul is applying this concept beyond himself. He says, "We are hard-pressed on every side, not I am hard-pressed on every side. From this passage, and some of the verses that follow it becomes clear that Paul is insisting that pressures, sometimes even intense ones, are a common theme in the lives of those who follow Jesus. It is not that our lives will be filled with non-stop pressure, but it would seem that there is a need for the people of God to experience some fairly significant difficulties from time to time, in order to achieve maximum effectiveness in Christ's service.

If we back up to the seventh verse of this chapter we see the reason for it. Paul writes, "We have this treasure in earthen vessels." An "earthen vessel" is a fancy name for a clay pot. In those days there were no Tupperware or Rubbermaid bowls or containers. The rich people used bowls made of gold and silver and all the common folks used clay pots. These were inexpensive, unimpressive, and disposable. If you dropped it on a rock and broke it, no problem. You could get another one from the local potter for a minimal price. An ordinary clay pot was created quickly, strictly for functionality. It wasn't pretty, it often had little flaws and imperfections throughout, and it wasn't expected to be a family heirloom. You would use it often, knowing it would eventually break or crack, and then you would go and get another one.

Paul tells us that we who are in Christ have a great treasure within, and most assuredly we do. It is Jesus Christ living His life in us, the Holy Spirit indwelling us, empowering us, and manifesting in us the mind and love and attributes of Christ. We are temples of the Holy Spirit, carriers of the divine nature as we travel through this life. But as awesome, as amazing, as incredible, and as powerful as this treasure is, still it must reside within clay pots like you and me. Not silver vessels, not golden vessels, not even Tupperware vessels, but dull, brown clay pots, marred, flawed, and not especially pretty to look at.

The Treasure Within

The goal, of course, is for the pot to reveal the treasure within, but it doesn't happen easily. We earthen vessels usually have the most difficult time allowing our inner treasure to shine forth and bring blessings and the grace of God to those around us. In fact we have so much trouble doing this that God finds it necessary to bump us around a bit until that treasure begins to be revealed. Thus the necessity for being hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down.

What this means is that when you start praying, "Lord Jesus, use me to glorify Your name and make me a blessing unto others," you are signing up for God's "fishers of men" program, and it most assuredly will include pressures of various kinds, and of various duration. You will come to know for yourself what it means to be hard-pressed. There is no escaping this. You may play things as cautiously and conservatively as possible, but still you will inescapably find yourself in situations where the pressure is turned up, and there is no easy or quick way out.

Paul called it "the dying of the Lord Jesus," writing, "always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body" (2 Corinthians 4:10). Men and women are filled with instincts of various kinds which normally serve us pretty well: the instinct to survive, the instinct to find a partner to marry and live with throughout our adult lives, the instinct to improve our situations, and so forth. And when it comes to pressure, an automatic instinct invariably surfaces, that is, the instinct to extract ourselves from the situation which is causing the pressure. By definition, pressure is not pleasant; we take no delight in it. It is painful and the longer the pressure lasts the more painful it becomes.

Weakness and Strength

To discover that God considers pressures, difficulties, and distresses highly valuable in shaping us into a vessel He can use is a bit disconcerting for the new Christian. It would be so much nicer if we learned that the things which will make us most useful to Christ would include lots of ice cream, lazy days filled with naps and long movies, more money than we know what to do with, constant praise and compliments from everybody we know, and perfect health every day of our lives. But Paul clearly didn't see it that way. In fact later in this letter he writes some of the most startling words found in the Bible:

Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

In Paul's view, if trouble, attacks, criticism, and difficult circumstances are what is required for him to experience the greatest measure of the Spirit of Christ, the most fruit possible, and the place of maximum spiritual strength for service, then bring them on! He will find pleasure in them, knowing that they are enhancing his ministry and equipping him to more perfectly fulfill the call of Christ upon his life, which is the great desire of his heart. Few of us (almost none of us) think like this. Yet this is unmistakably the teaching of the great apostle Paul, and therefore represents the mind of the Holy Spirit.

Perspective

Marathon

If this life was all there is, then the idea of embracing pressure and delighting in difficulties would be absolute insanity. But the Christian is taught an entirely different perspective. We are told that this earthly life is merely a warm-up for the main event; our few paltry years on this earth represent an infinitely tiny sliver of time in comparison to the eternity that awaits us, a beautiful life in the presence of God where there are no "infirmities, reproaches, needs, persecutions, or distresses."

Imagine you were about to run a 26 mile marathon. You are dressed in your shorts and t-shirt, and have some expensive running shoes on your feet. Before the race, an official comes up to you and drops a backpack filled with bricks at your feet, telling you, "You will need to put on this backpack and wear it for a part of the race." You immediately flare up and tell him how unfair he is in demanding that you wear this heavy backpack. Then, out of curiosity, you ask him how much of the race you must wear the backpack. He tells you with a smile on his face, "For the first five steps only."

That puts the matter in a different perspective. Most marathon runners are going to take between thirty to fifty thousand steps to finish the race. Wearing a heavy backpack for the first five steps is nothing, compared to how many strides and miles you will be running without the backpack. Similarly, seventy to ninety years of experiencing off and on pressures in this life are as nothing in comparison to a life in heaven where there will be no more death, sorrow, crying, or pain. Of course this illustration is imperfect because our time in heaven will have no end. If, for the sake of Jesus Christ, we are called to endure a few pressures and distresses in this short life, we will gladly do it. We may be hard-pressed, but we will not be crushed.

From an eternal perspective, any affliction we must endure is really not that big of a deal. In the same chapter where Paul speaks of being hard-pressed, he later says, "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Corinthians 4:17). I can almost see the devil pulling his hair out (if he has any hair) when Paul refers to all the struggles he has endured as "this light affliction." But Paul has his eyes on the prize, and sees struggle, sweat, and painful circumstances as insignificant when compared to the glory that awaits him in the presence of his Savior.

Enjoy the Moments

This is not to suggest that the Christian life is all stress and pressure, and that there is no joy to be found in living for Christ. Indeed the kingdom of God, which Jesus brings into our lives when we put our faith in Him as Savior and Lord, is all about "righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit." Jesus says, "These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:11). God loves us too much to fill our lives with continual pressure, giving us one intense struggle after another. Most of our pressures have built-in expiration dates, and we are often given lengthy seasons of relative peace and calm, where we can be rested and strengthened, and enjoy the goodness and abundance of our loving and generous Heavenly Father.

But we are kidding ourselves if we think that if we exercise enough faith, if we live close enough to Jesus, if we can just walk in enough wisdom, we can avoid pressures and distresses altogether. One of the ways Christians are fortified against trials and difficulties is the simple recognition that they will come; they are literally written into the script of our lives. And when they do come we should not shake our heads and say, "What an odd thing it is that God would allow such pressure to come into my life." Peter writes, "Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you" (1 Peter 4:12). It is not strange; it is normal. It is not only normal; it is necessary from time to time. Paul gives us the reason we do not lose heart when we find ourselves hard-pressed: "We do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:18).

We must learn to avoid that joy-killer which says, "Once I get free from this problem, then I can enjoy my life, but until then I will remain unhappy." Many people live their entire lives looking for that special time when there are no problems, where all pressures and difficulties have ceased, and refusing to enjoy the many blessings and happy moments the Lord gives even in the midst of their struggles. But the abiding Christian finds joy in the midst of pressure, happiness even while enduring "this light affliction." Life is filled with all sorts of pleasures and delights our kind and loving Father provides us, which do not require that our circumstances be problem-free. Let us enjoy those moments, work through our problems, depend on Christ, and look forward to that day when our backpacks shall fall off our shoulders and we shall stand in the presence of Jesus "cares all past, home at last, ever to rejoice."

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