Outward Decay, Inward Renewal
Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.2 Corinthians 4:16.
Looking to the past, must be held in proper balance with looking to the future — which is what we are going to do here. Or, more precisely, we wish to ask a question — what can the believer look forward to in the immediate future, in this life? — and to answer it from this great statement of the apostle Paul.
The most notable feature of Paul's answer is that the believer's life is one of tension. There are two opposing forces at work in him, one destructive, the other constructive. In one area of his life, the tendency is towards decay; in another area, the movement is towards renewal and development. Different processes are going on in his outward life from those affecting his inner life.
When Paul speaks of the "outward" and the "inward" aspects of the Christian's life, our minds might naturally turn to the story of Adam's creation. There appears to be a similar contrast: "Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." (Genesis 2:7)
On the basis of that picture we are accustomed to think of man as comprising body and spirit and we might easily think of the outward aspect of man as being the body and the inner aspect as being the spirit.
It would not be entirely correct to think that this is the contrast Paul has in mind here. The outward is indeed man's body — his physical side; but the inner is his spiritual life as brought into being by the Spirit of God. After all, Paul's statement refers to the experience of Christians; the second part of it is only true of them. What distinguishes Christians from others is that the inner life is lived under the impulse of the indwelling Spirit. Paul is saying that the life that the Spirit imparts cannot decay as the body does but must flourish. What the Christian looks forward to is spiritual development going hand in hand with physical deterioration.
A neat garden, if neglected, is rapidly overrun by weeds. This illustrates the fact that, in the physical world, things tend to get out of order if left to themselves. There is a principle of disorder at work in the physical world.
This scientific fact is described in the Bible in various ways. In Genesis, we are told that God cursed the ground because of man, causing man's life in his physical environment to become painful and toilsome (Genesis 3:17). Referring to the same event, Paul speaks of created things being "subjected to frustration"; they are thus in "bondage to decay" (Romans 8:20-21).
But man's physical body is made out of the dust of the ground and so it shares in the bondage and frustration characteristic of the rest of the physical world. It, therefore, is also under curse, subject to frustration and in bondage to decay. The principle of disorder is at work in it as well. This is what Paul is giving expression to when he says about the physical life of man: "it is wasting away".
That this is true is obvious; how it is seen in practice is equally clear. With the passing of the years, stairs become steeper, print becomes smaller, people develop the annoying habit of speaking in whispers and suddenly there are an awful lot of mere boys serving as ministers in the church!
Or to put it more objectively: as time goes by our bodily strength wanes and we can't do all we used to do. Our faculties fail and spectacles and hearing aids, walking sticks and zimmers, are increasingly needed. Our internal organs lose their effectiveness and we become more liable to sickness. Our mind no longer works so quickly or so clearly, and this brings frustration and loss of confidence. Our memory can no longer be relied on and the distant past is clearer in our minds than what happened yesterday. Concentration becomes difficult. Our appearance, our walk, our work, all show symptoms of some sort of decay. Outwardly, we are indeed wasting away.
We don't need to elaborate proof for this Biblical statement. Go to any hospital or old folks home; look at any elderly relative or just look at folks in the street and you'll see this. Indeed most of us don't have to look any further than the nearest mirror to see that this is so: gray (or silvery) or receding hair, lines on the face that weren't there before — these tell the same story as Paul here.
The sad fact is that this is part of what the Christian has to look forward to, according to the Scriptures.
Health, Wealth and Prosperity?
This principle, that decay reigns in the Christian's physical makeup, provides important lessons.
For a start it provides a corrective to a set of views, common amongst certain evangelical believers, that the Christian should always be healthy; that where illness is present healing can be automatically expected and where this restoration of health does not occur, there has been a culpable lack of faith on the part of the sick.
This is not the place to go into detail on the subject of healing. I believe that God has given fairly clear instructions about the church's responsibility towards the sick (James 5:14-15) and that in answer to prayer God frequently does provide healing. This he may do through ordinary means (medicines) or apart from them, as he pleases. I think that he does this out of compassion and, on occasions, as an indication of his ultimate intention to redeem the body from the principle of disorder to which it at present is subject.
Some may not agree with me on that. But what we must agree on is that this verse in 2 Corinthians puts the question of healing in its proper perspective. God may (or, if you like, may not) be pleased from time to time to provide healing, but whatever he does, the prevailing tendency in the physical aspect of the Christian is still towards physical decay. Healing will always remain the exception rather than the normal: the seeds of decay are planted in our physical body and will not be rooted out in this life.
In this respect, the Christian is no different from the non-Christian. God's purpose is to redeem the physical world from decay. But not yet. The physical body of the Christian cannot be redeemed from decay until the whole of the physical universe, of which, it is part, is similarly redeemed. Meanwhile deterioration and decay reign in our outward lives. The view that health and healing should be normal for the Christian owes more to the American Dream than to the teaching of Scripture.
Coping with Old Age
Considering how many of our congregations are composed of older people, there seems to be relatively little teaching and pastoral advice about coping with old age. Or perhaps there is, and I never noticed it because I didn't consider it relevant.
It's sad to see how difficult some folks find it to come to terms with the reality of this truth, that outwardly the tendency is to waste away. But sadder still to see how easily others do. I'm talking of the extreme situations where some refuse to recognise deterioration and pretend they will never grow old and where others lie down and wait for death at the first sign of a gray hair. What is required is a happy mean.
On the one hand, don't give in unnecessarily to deterioration. Keep it at bay as long as you reasonably can. Don't stop knitting just because dropped stitches become more common. Keep at it, even if it takes twice as long as it used to. Don't stop going to church, just because you need a little help up the steps. Keep active, keep doing things as long as you can.
On the other hand, to think that you're never going to grow old is unrealistic and contrary to the Scriptures. Decay is the natural tendency for all and we might as well face facts. That will save a lot of painful disappointment when the time comes and will ease the frustration associated with increasing weakness. If you accept deterioration as a fact, when you're deaf, you'll get a hearing aid and not soldier on as if you had perfect hearing. If you have bowed to God's providence, a zimmer will be a God-sent help, not a source of shame.
Young people too will benefit from accepting this principle of deterioration in our physical lives as a God-ordained one. This will give greater zest to the exercise of bodily faculties, realising that they are only there for a time. It will give a healthier attitude towards the elderly. The old man taking forever to get on to a bus and fumbling for his money to pay the driver will no longer be a doddery old fool. Recognition of this principle we are dealing with will rather make the youngster say: "as I am, he once was; as he is, I may yet be". The result with be patience, understanding and consideration for the elderly.
But whatever benefit the Christian may find in coming to terms with the teaching of the first part of this verse, it pales into insignificance at the wonder of the contrasting situation: the development of the spiritual life.
Inwardly we are being renewed. That is a very positive statement about gradual but constant change for the better. How can Paul speak with such certainty?
The inward life of which he is speaking is in no way natural to man. It is life implanted by the power of the Spirit. This, according to Peter, involves being born again, not with corruptible seed but with incorruptible (1 Peter 1:23). Our hope for the future rests on the nature of that seed from which our inner lives have sprung. Being spiritual, it is unaffected by the principle of decay implanted in the physical world. Being of God, it is incapable of perishing. Hence it is not in bondage to decay. It cannot wither and die, nor can its activity end in frustration. That is an unassailable unalterable fact, dependent on the nature of the life implanted within the Christian: the life of God in the soul of man.
This provides a hope of enduring and exuberant spiritual growth that is explicitly brought out in other parts of the Scriptures. "Your youth is renewed like the eagle's" (Psalm 103:5). "The righteous ... will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green" (Psalm 92:13-14).
The practical significance of this for the believer is sharpened by the contrast of this with the previous idea of physical decay. The glory of spiritual development shows up the more clearly when set side by side with bodily deterioration. So the believer's hope may be described thus.
As the years pass, we may not see so well. Things around may become obscure or fuzzy, but with the eye of faith we'll see God better and better, appreciate his work increasingly and observe more of his hand in daily life. Our hearing may be less acute than it once was, but we will hear God more and more, understand his word better, grasp his purpose more clearly. Our strength will fail, but our ability to wrestle against sin will grow, our capacity for prevailing in prayer will increase. Our walk will falter and we will become increasingly doddery, but our spiritual walk with God will become steadier and more consistent.
There is a promise that should fill us with hope and that we should embrace with faith.
Decay and development are two great principles each based on an act of God. Physical decay stems from God's curse on the physical world, consequent upon the first Adam's sin. Spiritual development flows from God's implanting of his Spirit in us to apply the benefit of the last Adam's redemption. Because these forces are God-ordained they cannot fail to be effective.
The difficulty lies in grasping that these two great principles are going on side by side in the one person. And they are not simply different forces at work in different areas of our lives. The outward and the inward are bound together to make us what we are. They impinge on each other; what goes on outwardly affects us inwardly and vice-versa. That is why the keynote of this verse is not just contrast, but tension. We are running down and being wound up, degenerating and developing, at one and the same time. This is what makes our experience of these things so complex.
It also means that something must give. You can't go on forever with such severe tensions at work: there must be a crisis which resolves the tension, which brings harmony to the outer and inner, to the body and the spirit.
The Christians Death: the Tension Increased
So, as the physical life winds down, the spiritual life is being wound up. But as the physical and the spiritual are bound together and as these two aspects of man's being impinge on one another, tension results: two opposing forces are at work in the Christian at one and the same time. How is this tension to be relieved?
Do I hear you say: at death? Not at all. That simply marks the time when the forces, both of deterioration and development, arrive at their climax. Far from being resolved, it is then that the tension can be seen most clearly.
Death and the Spiritual Life
At death, the process of development, which has been going on in the Christian's inward life, reaches its culmination. The ongoing work of the Spirit, which has been nurturing and strengthening spiritual life, reaches its climax.
As the Christian grows in grace, awareness of spiritual realities, obedience to God's will, love of God's people and other fruits of the Spirit develop. Gradually but constantly God is at work renewing us in his own image. At death that process comes to its climax. We are then taken to be with Christ, which is far better (Philippians 1:23). That must imply a full development of spiritual faculties and a capacity to know and love him as never before.
Or, to put it another way, for the Christian, dying involves being among the spirits of righteous men made perfect (Hebrews 12:23). Death, therefore, marks the time when moral perfection is attained. The ongoing process of sanctification reaches its climax and goal in a perfected existence. We have therefore good grounds for saying that the ongoing process of renewal in the spiritual experience of the believer reaches its culmination at the moment of death.
Death and the Physical Life
The other side of the story, and the one we have often left out of account, is that, in a similar way, death involves the process of decay, which is already operative in the body, coming to its fullest expression.
In life, deterioration affects the bodily faculties to a greater or lesser extent, impeding their proper functioning; death brings the complete cessation of all these bodily functions. In old age, speech becomes indistinct or hesitant; in death, the tongue is entirely silent. With increased years, hearing is impaired; in death, the ear is closed. The passing years bring dimmed vision, in death the eye is blind. The sickness which weakened the body in one's latter days triumphs and brings all bodily activity to an end.
In regard to the body, death means weakness, dishonour and corruption — the natural culmination of the slow ongoing process of deterioration. After death, there is nothing to impede further decay: the process goes on unhindered in the dissolution of the body into its constituent elements in the grave. There, in the physical realm, the disorder, characteristic of the outward aspect of our present life, reigns.
Since this is so, death does not mark the resolution of the tension that confronted man in life: it only makes it more acute. Death reigns in the outward man; life triumphs in the inner man.
But, though actually separated, outward and inward naturally belong together; man is not fully man without the two being together. At the moment, deterioration and development exist side by side; but at death the position becomes more extreme: in the body, death and unrestrained decay; in the spirit, life and unlimited bliss.
In this life the assurance of spiritual development counterweighs the deterioration of the bodily functions. In the same way, in our thinking of what happens at death, the hope that the spiritual life will then be perfected weighs more heavily with us than the sadness of the fact that in the body death reigns unchallenged.
But in some cases, what death means for the body is entirely forgotten about and a false or imbalanced view of what death means for the Christian is embraced.
Balancing our Reaction
Many Christians think with longing, as Paul did, on the time of their departure from this life. For those who live for Christ, to die is gain, because it is to be with Christ. That does not mean, as some suppose, that we will be with him and yet will not be conscious of him. If that were so, death would be no gain at all, being a lot worse than what we enjoy at the moment. Despite the imperfections of our lives in this world, the Christian has some awareness — at times very real — of the presence of Christ. If death means being unconscious of spiritual realities, unaware of the presence of Christ, then it is loss not gain. What is the comfort of the words: "today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43), if there is no consciousness either of Christ or of paradise? The notion that our souls are unconscious after death is nonsensical: it would mean that it would be all the same whether we were in hell or heaven — which is far removed from the teaching of the Scriptures.
In our circles, the problem is usually not that there is no assured expectancy of the bliss that awaits us. The difficulty is that the unresolved tension that has been with us in life and that has been made more acute by death has been almost entirely forgotten. All our dreams, all our hopes, find their fulfilment at death: then there is bliss, full awareness of God, reunion with loved one's gone before. For many, everything is then as perfect as it can possibly be: at death they see themselves as entering into their final state. They think there is nothing more of any consequence to look forward to: eternity has arrived.
This attitude to death is so far removed from the teaching of the Scriptures that it constitutes a grave distortion of the truth: a distortion through imbalance. "What of the body?" we might ask. "Does it not matter?" Of course it does.
What we need is to get a balanced view — a Biblical view — of the status of death. Without in any way diminishing the glory of our perfected spiritual state, we must also bear in mind the humiliation of our physical state, in which decay reigns. The Bible speaks with clarity of the disgrace attached to the body being held under the power of death.
In the Old Testament
When the Psalmist contemplates death, he expresses his feelings about it in the melancholy question: "Who praises you from his grave?" (Psalm 6:5).
These words have often been interpreted as a testimony to the Old Testament writers' lack of understanding about the happy future state of the believer. They are therefore taken as sub-Christian and irrelevant for today, not expressing the full hope revealed in the New Testament. You don't hear Christians speaking like that today! No, but since these words are in the Bible, perhaps we should.
We do not regard these words as an expression of sub-Christian ignorance. There is ample evidence that Old Testament writers had more than a glimpse of the future state. This Psalm is not written in a fit of despair nor is it the expression of agnostic pessimism. Rather it gives testimony to the Biblical conviction that the body remains part of us and that there is disgrace attendant on our physical bodies being held in the grip of death. This disgrace consists in the inability of our bodily functions to engage in the worship of God. There the eye cannot see him, the ear cannot hear him; the mouth cannot praise him.
Some would say: "what does it matter if we can't honour God with our physical faculties? We can always do so with our spiritual faculties". But that's not the way the inspired writer saw it. He is saddened because his body, lying in the grave, cannot give praise to God.
In the New Testament
The assumption the Psalmist works on is that our bodies are part of us even after death. That is assumed throughout the Scriptures.
We would say: "the patriarch David died and went to heaven". And that is undoubtedly a right way of speaking. But the Bible can say: "the patriarch David died and was buried and his tomb is here to this day" (Acts 2:29). It was David that was buried — not his remains, or even his body. What was laid in the tomb was so much part of him that the Bible says: "David was buried".
Indeed the Bible says something more striking. Speaking of the glory of ascending to the right hand of God as promised in Psalm 110, Peter says: "David did not ascend to heaven" (Acts 2:34). No doubt Peter meant: "it wasn't of David that Psalm 110 was speaking when it spoke of someone ascending to heaven", but he doesn't say that. He speaks in a way that is very strange to anyone who sees our spiritual existence in heaven after death as all that matters. The Biblical writers didn't think like that. What was happening to their bodies counted too.
The Shorter Catechism
It is in the light of that Biblical teaching that the Shorter Catechism (Answer 37) can speak of the bodies of believers as "being still united to Christ". In life, the Christian in the whole of his being — body and spirit — is united to Christ. At death, the constituent parts — though separated from each other — are equally united to him. The spirit resides consciously with him; the body, though under the power of death, being part of us, belongs to him too.
This fact should never cease to fill us with sadness. What incongruity! The bodies of those who are redeemed by the blood of Christ experience the decay that came into the world as a result of sin! The prince of life is united to bodies that are held in the grip of death! That's what makes the death of the believer a terrible paradox. That's why death increases rather than resolves the tension felt between the forces of destruction and the forces of life operative in the Christian.
We cannot be indifferent to the state of our bodies, nor to the glory of Christ that is linked to their wellbeing. Even though death means to be with Christ, we should nevertheless see death as our last enemy and we should heartily hate death. We should not be satisfied at the prospect of spiritual glory when dead but should long for the abolition of decay from our, at present, mortal bodies.
Indeed, we should view the believer's state of death in the same way as Jesus did. Death and burial were not part of his glorification but of his humiliation. After the crucifixion, his human spirit — like ours will be — was with the Father, but his body lay under the power of death. If that was humiliation for him, how come we can't see the measure of humiliation that is involved in that for us? Why do we persist in seeing the death of the believer in terms of unrelieved glorification?
The prospect of being dead was something that Jesus himself viewed with concern. He asked God for life and he was given it — length of days for ever and ever (Psalm 21:4). He did so with the utmost urgency. "During the days of his life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard" (Hebrews 5:7). Jesus viewed a disembodied human state with no little distress and made it the subject of specific petition.
Of course, so much hung on the resurrection as far as Jesus was concerned — it was the vindication of all that he did. Nevertheless, if deliverance from death occupied such an important place in the mind of Jesus, it should occupy a similar place in our thinking too.
To sum up then. To have a Biblical balance in our attitude to death, we should rejoice in the hope of being with Christ when we are called from this world. But that should not be the limit of our expectations. That does not mark the eternal state of affairs. We must have a due sense of the incongruity involved in the body of believers being held in the grip of death and we must long for the redemption of the body from the decay and corruption to which it has become subject. Only when that happens will the tension, of which we are already conscious, be resolved. Only then will death be swallowed up by life.
This is not to take a pessimistic view of death; it simply is a way of pointing out that the victory is greater than we have been imagining it.