There is a verse in Second Corinthians that has put my mind into quiet contemplations. I will quote the old King James Bible for this verse, since in this case, I prefer the way that it is translated in this version. In particular, there is a singular word in that verse that I wish to consider. In part, the verse reads like this: “For the love of Christ constrains us” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
What interests me about this verse is the word constrains (or constraineth, if you prefer the 1611 version). Other newer translations of the Bible interpret the word in this verse, “control” or “compel.”
“The love of the Lord controls us; the love of the Lord compels us.” Either of these words is also probably a fair translation of the word that Paul wrote, but I think that the word constrains better communicates what Paul was saying.
In our day, we often use the word constrain to speak of something that we wish to keep in check or to hold it together. In our thinking, this is not necessarily a positive word. We do not like the idea of constraints being placed on our lives. We instead value our freedom.
This meaning that we place on the word actually also seems also to be close to the meaning of the Greek word that the Apostle Paul used in writing this verse. Why then, should Paul say that Christ’s love would constrain us?
Rather than thinking of this in negative terms, we should instead consider an aspect to this constraint of the love of Christ that is, in fact, an act of the grace of God. He is saying that the love of Christ “holds us together,” or “holds us fast.” If we think this through, we will see that this constraint of love is something that will actually give us the freedom that we desire.
What did Paul mean by using that word? In what way does the love of the Lord constrain us? To get the broader picture of what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he spoke of the constraints of love, one must go back a bit in his writing in order to follow his train of thought.
The Apostle Paul was an extraordinary thinker. His mind so quickly develops a theme and then moves on to another, that those of us that are a bit slower of thought must carefully dissect his pattern of discussion so that we understand the true meaning of what he is saying.
To do that, I sometimes track back in his writing to his use of the word “therefore.” Paul very often uses this word to show that he has reached a certain point in his theme and has concluded one thought, and that he is now ready to move on to the next step.
Thankfully, for those of us who are wondering about the use of his word “constrains,” Paul precedes the use of this word by a number of “therefores.” Actually, by using this method, we could retrace his thoughts even to the beginning of this letter to the Corinthian church. However, I think it will be enough for our purposes to pick up the apostle’s thought at verse 16 of the fourth chapter.
In Second Corinthians 4:16, Paul begins to talk about our “outer man” and our “inner man.” He makes note of the fact that our “outer man,” by which he means our body, is in the process of decaying or wasting away. This is no secret to us. Despite the fact that we eat only healthy foods (as I am sure that we all do) and exercise our muscles, there is no denying the fact that our bodies, once they have reached maturity, begin a process of decline.
This is not only true of our bodies, however. This decline and deterioration infests every aspect of our lives—from the houses that we build to the cars that we drive. It includes even whatever great accomplishments we think that we may achieve. This process of deterioration all are part of the “afflictions” in living, which Paul refers to in the following verse, in vs. 17, which he says are “light and momentary afflictions”.
Is this reality of the deterioration of life a discouragement to us? As disheartened as we sometimes may feel when we have aching bodies and cannot move as they once did, it really need not be a discouragement. Rather, it can serve to teach us that if we seek any kind of permanency in living or in accomplishments, we should know that we will not find them here on this present earth. Once we come to this realization, we understand that if we are to seek permanency, we must look somewhere else.
What is of ultimate importance is not the body (what Paul calls the outer man), but the spirit (the inner man). Of course, we want healthy bodies and we seek to stay active, but even with that, we know how it will all end. Our present bodies are not destined to live forever.
This is not so with the inner man, however. Deterioration and decay is not the case with our spirits. These are eternal.
This being so, it makes sense, does it not, to put effort into training and keeping our spiritual lives healthy? It is astounding to me that people put in so much effort in keeping their physical bodies fit, but allow their spiritual bodies to become lazy and ineffective. In the end, only one of these will exist to eternity, and it is not the one that spends hours on a treadmill.
The Positive Aspect of Afflictions
Even beyond teaching us this, Paul says that we are also able to use the afflictions of this life to our own advantage. We know that the afflictions that we see in our daily lives can be used to remind us of what is important, such as we are experiencing even now with the Covid-19 afflictions. As challenging as these difficulties have been for many people, they have also given us a new appreciation for what is truly important in life. The afflictions that we have in the outer man should also remind us of the importance of the inner man.
But there is something more. The “momentary, light afflictions” that Paul speaks of can be more than simple reminders of what is important. He also says that they are “producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond comparison.” Notice first how he contrasts our earthly afflictions, which he calls momentary and light, with that which is produced in glory: eternal and of weight.
Just what role our present difficulties play in the production of such rewards is difficult to say, but we know that they cause us to live a life of faith. The afflictions we face ought to cause us to look not to the things that are seen, but to that which cannot be seen.
However, in addition to this, when speaking of these afflictions, we should notice that Paul says that they are producing rewards. The afflictions that we face actually have a role in creating or generating something that has eternal worth.
This is an astounding thought. There is a direct cause and effect between our present afflictions and eternal benefits.
We Are Tent-Dwellers
As we have seen, in personifying the temporal with the eternal, Paul used the metaphor inner man and outer man. He now expands on this theme by speaking of our earthly tent (5:1). By this, Paul probably is still speaking primarily our present bodies. However, this also has a wider application, because in addition to our bodies, we also all inhabit a dwelling of some kind.
Anyone who lives in a house, an apartment, or any kind of dwelling know that one cannot simply live there and experience no problems or maintenance issues with their house. As we all no doubt understand, no earthly dwelling is without problems, and in many ways, just as in our bodies, in these houses we groan, longing for our dwelling from heaven.”
This is true in our present bodies, it is true with our homes, and it is true with all other aspects of our present lives. Even in these things, we can see the principle of temporary value. There is not much that we can acquire in this life that lasts longer than a few years, and none of it will last forever.
Confidence to Continue
Having reached this point in his discussion, Paul is ready to move on. “Therefore,” he writes, “we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.”
This is another statement that is a bit puzzling. Why would him speaking of our present state is being away from the Lord give us confidence? One would think that it would be when we are with the Lord that would give us confidence.
However, it is at this present time, when we are away from the Lord, that we come to understand the transitory nature of our life. This realization gives us more realistic expectations about the things in this life. We do not need to become frustrated when things do not last. We should expect no more than that from earthly things. Because we know that we are mere pilgrims, we do not try to set up a life that is truly permanent. But we have courage to press on, knowing that something better and something permanent awaits us at the end of our journey.
This realization gives us confidence, because as we pass through the troubles of this life, we know that they also are only temporary. I do not know if you have ever been in a situation that was so difficult that the only optimistic thought about if that you could find is that those troubles would not last forever.
I have been in those situations just a few times in my life; those times when I did not know how I could continue on. Everything seemed bleak. I had no strength to continue, either physical strength or inner strength. The only thing that was able to keep me going was the thought that if I can make it through today, tomorrow may be a little better.
How to See
Taken in the broad perspective, our whole lives can be viewed like that. We may groan in this house, but God has something better in place, waiting for us. For those of us who know the salvation of Christ, there will be a better tomorrow. We can have faith in this fact. Some may call this a “blind faith,” or wishful thinking—pie in the sky; but it is more than that.
In my own case, it is a faith built upon promises that God had in the past already fulfilled in my life. It comes from those times when I trusted him for something, and he proved reliable. When someone has been trustworthy every single time in the past, it is not difficult to trust him for future promises. It is because of the fact that God has shown himself reliable that Paul is able to say that we walk by faith and not by sight.
Our sight, according to Paul, is actually a poor indicator of reality. It is not that our sight is faulty, but it is because all that our eyes see are things that are temporal in nature. This is why we ought to learn to walk by faith and not by sight.
In another place, Paul said, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Ephesians1:18). This is walking by faith. It is only by learning to do this that we can build things that will endure.
The Fear of the Lord
So this is the state of our nature. Our present circumstance is not permanent. We live instead with the expectation that the permanent will come. This however, is not the same as saying that our present circumstance is unimportant. There is value to our present lives.
Because our present circumstance is important, “Therefore,” Paul says, “we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.”
In fact, Paul reminds us, lest we fall into the thinking that what we do in this present life is unimportant, he tells that we all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ “that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
Does this seem like a fearful thing? It can be, as Paul went on to say, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.”
We can see that for someone who has paid no heed to their inner man, which is their spiritual lives, this would be a fearful thing. Many people spend their lives ridiculing this teaching of a future judgment, hoping that it is not true. I suppose there are some who have absolutely convinced themselves that it is not true, but I think for the most part, the ridicule is an awkward effort to cover up a gnawing fear that it is true. There is something innate within us that tells us that we are in someway responsible to a higher power.
This is the fear of the Lord. According to what Paul says, this fear of what is to come can be a motivating factor in how we live our lives and may even motivate some to acknowledge the reality of God.
The Love of the Lord
But fear is not what controls the Christian. It is not what holds us together. It is not what constrains us. As our verse told us, it is the love of Christ that constrains us. It is the love of Christ that compels us to press onward toward or higher calling.
However, for many, it is the moving from a state of fear to one of love that is the tricky part. The apostle John can help us here with one of his quotes:
And we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
By this, love is perfected with us, that we may have confidence in the day of judgement; because as He is, so also are we in this world.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:16-18 NAS).
The Most Powerful Force in the Universe
Generally speaking, our concept of love is very inadequate. We often dismiss love as a rather powerless sentimentality. But the truth of the matter is that love is the very definition of who God is. “God is love,” John says.
Love is the motivating force for all that God does. We may not understand this in the present age, but it is true. In another of his writings (2 Corinthians 13), Paul explains that our view of life is clouded, like looking through a steamed-up window. We cannot see things clearly.
When we someday do see clearly, we will come to know that the greatest force in the entire universe is love. We will understand that God never acts apart from love.
What “holds us together” is the love of Christ. His love controls us, yes—and it compels us, but even more than that it keeps us focused. It is the love of Christ that keeps our priorities correctly ordered. “Therefore,” Paul says, “it is the love of Christ that constrains us.”
Putting Our Spiritual Eyes on Christ
Paul entered into this subject of the love of Christ by talking about the outer and inner man and about earthly and heavenly dwellings. These are legitimate concerns, but notice that in speaking of them, we always are centered upon ourselves—what is our nature and what is good for us as individuals.
But when we consider the love of Christ, our eyes move off ourselves and we become focused instead on Christ. When the love of Christ is the center of our attention, we find that we are not torn in two directions. We have come to understand that it is the inner man that should receive our priorities. This is the part of our nature that has communion with Christ. The outer man may cry for our attention, but the love of Christ keeps us focused on what is truly important. We keep our eyes on Christ.
Neither are we quite as anxious about “momentary, light afflictions” that we suffer. Nor will we even be worried about the judgment seat of Christ. It is the love of Christ that constrains us.
The life of a Christian should not ultimately be focused upon himself or herself. If it is, we shall always find ourselves torn in two directions. If we are to live a life that is focused upon what will endure, it is the love of Christ that will constrain us.