By Natalie Seale
“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
2 Corinthians 4:18 (NIV)
If the apostle Paul’s life was made into a blockbuster movie, it would certainly be an emotional rollercoaster to watch. His story has it all: an identity crisis, conversion, visions, blindness, miracles, travel, imprisonment, and suffering… and if all that wasn’t enough – there isn’t even a happy ending! Paul’s story is one of the great and enduring dramas of the Gospel, but the drama that unfolded in his own life never, ever prevented him from his mission of spreading the Good News to strangers.
As we read about his life and work, it becomes clear that this kind of single-minded focus was an integral part of Paul’s personality. This trait comes out especially forcefully in the second letter he wrote to the Corinthians. Unlike the other communities Paul wrote epistles to (like the Galatians and the Philippians) the people at Corinth really weren’t convinced by him – they challenged his authority as an apostle. Rather than embracing him as a follower of Jesus, they criticized him for the ways he spoke and wrote, and forced him to defend both himself and his teachings. In his letter to them, Paul is essentially replying to the Corinthians’ bad treatment of him by reminding them of the importance of forgiving others, giving generously to others, and living in a compassionate and Christ-like way.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could respond to people who treat us badly like Paul does?
Well, yes and no. Paul himself wasn’t perfect, and he was the first to admit it. He isn’t telling us to feel bad that we can’t always see passed our own hurt to preach forgiveness to others, but he is reminding us that there is a bigger picture to focus on.
Fix your eyes
Have you noticed that when you focus on something really closely, it’s easy to lose sight of everything else? It’s a little like when we visit the optician for an eye test: as we go through the process, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine that there is anything else in the dark room than that small bright box of letters.
When Paul tells us to “fix our eyes” – or, in other translations, to “be focused” – he is telling us to look passed all of the distractions of our daily routines, passed the naysayers who treat us badly, and passed all the potential worries and anxieties we might be carrying. Though all these things are competing for our attention, there is only one thing we should be focusing our energies – and our eyes – on: our God. Paul knew better than anyone that focusing on God could be difficult, but he also bore witness to the power and presence of God at first hand.
When we fix our eyes on God, we begin to lose sight of the other things that have been demanding our attention: the trivial, the unimportant, and the hurtful. We realise the potential they have to distract us from the talents and skills we have been given, and that realisation puts us in a better position to follow the life advice Paul gave to the Corinthians: to practice forgiveness, generosity, compassion, and faith. By focusing on these things, we allow ourselves to fulfill the potential that God, with all His loving Grace, has instilled in us.
The Seen and The Unseen
There’s a great quote that I absolutely love from C.S. Lewis, one of the great Christian writers of the twentieth century. It goes like this:
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
His words illustrate the dichotomy between the seen and the unseen that Paul speaks of in his Epistle especially well. The Bible is a testimony of the human capacity for faith to falter when we lose sight of God. For the people of the Old Testament, it was easy to believe when they could see the hand of God at work in their lives. For the apostles, it was easy to follow Jesus and believe that He was the Son of God when He walked among them and performed miracles. Yet, that could never be enough. Like Thomas, who needed to put his hand into the wound where Christ had been pierced on the cross, belief alone was not enough. Proof was needed.
Paul is challenging the Corinthians – and us – to look beyond our human need for proof, evidence and justification, and to focus our eyes on God. He is asking us to place our faith in a God who is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent (everywhere at the same time) even though we are unable to see Him.
As Christians today, we aren’t so different from the people in Biblical times. We find this tricky, especially when we’re faced with difficulty, hardship, and sadness. This is where C.S. Lewis’ words are helpful, though, because although we might not be able to see God, we can see Him working in the world around us. Just as the sunrise brings light and warmth to everything it touches, His grace and love can be seen in everything that surrounds us, from the beauty of the natural world to the kindness of strangers.
The Temporary and The Eternal
If the apostle Paul is talking in opposites in this passage, this is nothing unusual. The Gospel is full of dichotomies, and by using this technique in his writing Paul shows just how much he has learned – not just from Jesus, but from the prophets of the Old Testament, too.
In The Sermon on The Mount (Matthew 5-7) we find some of the most important statements made by Jesus during his earthly ministry, and many of them are concerned with opposites. He speaks of two kinds of treasure – the earthly kind and the heavenly kind – only one of which cannot be destroyed or stolen; of healthy and unhealthy eyes; of light and darkness; and of the impossibility of serving two masters (Matthew 6:19-24). All of these comparisons lead to one, greater dichotomy between God’s way and the way of the world.
Here, we can see God’s way as the eternity that Paul is speaking of, and the way of world – that is, our way – as temporary. The apostle is looking to remind the Corinthians (and all of the people that were and have still to come after them) that while the world will one day pass away, the Kingdom of God will remain forever (1 John 2:17).
However wonderful this promise is, such a huge truth can make everything else – both the difficulties we encounter, and the joys we celebrate – seem small and insignificant in comparison. But we can gain some perspective by acknowledging that our God today is the same God who – many, many years ago – comforted His people on their journey to the Promised Land; and who sacrificed His only Son so that we might be reconciled to Him for eternity.
It can be slightly overwhelming – not to mention quite alarming – to think of our lives here on Earth as nothing more than temporary, but that isn’t the whole story. Paul isn’t telling us to fix our eyes on eternity because our lives are short, or because they don’t matter to God at all – the opposite is true! He is simply telling us to place our trust in the hands of an unseen God who promised us His love and an eternal life with Him before we were even born (John 10:28).
“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
Corrie Ten Boom
If you now go back to the verse where we started and read it through again, I suspect you’re probably thinking a couple of things:
Firstly, that some of that was really heavy – and it was, because it was important. When we open up to the heavy truth behind some of the scriptures that we might previously have simply read and taken for granted, we sink deeper into our relationship with God. We get to know Him better, and we realise just how many different facets there are to His love for us.
And secondly, how can this verse and my knowledge of it help me to be focused? Jesus is calling you to walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). If we go back to my little optician analogy at the beginning, we see that where our faith is concerned, it really doesn’t matter if we can see the whole room or just the box of letters. It is the changing lens – our God – that will ultimately determine our prescription, and whether our vision is perfect, we wear glasses, contact lenses, or we can’t see at all – it doesn’t matter to Him. His grace covers all.
Our Heavenly Father knows how hard it is for us to stay focused on something that we can’t see – after all, He has guided generations of people who have struggled to put their faith in an unseen God. You may encounter Him in the beauty that surrounds you, or feel His absence particularly painfully in a time of difficulty – but look beyond those things. Really fix your eyes on Him.
Be focused in your pursuit of God, because you don’t need to see Him to know Him – and all the wondrous plans He has for you.
Natalie is a Yorkshire lass who recently moved all the way to San Antonio, Texas, to live with her husband Quincy. She has a PhD in Renaissance history and until recently taught undergrads and post-grads at the University of Edinburgh. Her passion is for teaching, but in the process of applying for a visa she discovered a new love for writing devotionals and lettering by hand. Good coffee, old books, family time, warm jumpers and Texas sunsets are some of her favourite things. Her heart is to live a life full of the love and joy of God, and in doing so help others to achieve their potential.