“We hold these treasures in earthen vessels,” Saint Paul says (2 Cor 4:7). These “earthen vessels” are human bodies, which like earthen vessels or clay pots are subject to decay and destruction. The “treasure” is the human heart that is being transformed by the Spirit of the Lord Jesus (see 2 Cor 3:18, 4:6). It is the inner self that is being daily renewed (see 2 Cor 4:16). Through bodily afflictions, Saint Paul says, “we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:11). We have the spirit of faith, “knowing that the one who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and place us with you in his presence” (2 Cor 4:14). “Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:16-17).
Saint Paul is writing about what happens in the heart of a Christian who suffers bodily affliction and is approaching death. In the body, the Christian is sharing in the suffering of Jesus. The Christian’s body – her “earthen vessel” or “outer self” – is wasting away. However, her spirit – her “treasure” or “inner self” – is being renewed, transformed by the Holy Spirit “from glory to glory” (2 Cor 3:18). This inner glory is preparing the Christian for eternal glory, when “what is mortal will be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor 5:4).
The glory of God’s spirit in the heart of the suffering Christian is given as a “first installment” (2 Cor 5:5) of the glory that will be “eternal in heaven” (2 Cor 5:1). This “treasure” points toward the future glory of heaven, but it is presently held within the “earthen vessel” that is wasting away. Hidden within this “transitory” vessel that is “seen,” the “eternal” treasure remains “unseen” (2 Cor 4:18). The “treasure” is “unseen” and yet Saint Paul also says it is manifested or shown forth in the “earthen vessel” that is the body: “We who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:11). What he means is that the “glory,” the “treasure,” the “life of Jesus,” that is within the suffering Christian is invisible to the bodily eye, but is manifested to those who have “the spirit of faith” (2 Cor 4:13).
We who care for the sick are invited by Saint Paul to “see” in our patients the hidden treasures that lie within their afflicted bodies. These treasures are not perceptible by our natural senses, but are manifested to those who have faith. Having “this spirit of faith,” we can perceive that there is more going on in the sick person than meets the eye. Though the body may be wasting away, God’s Spirit is at work in the heart, renewing the inner self day by day and producing an eternal weight of glory. To the person of faith, what is unseen can be made manifest. The light of Christ shining in the heart of the sick or dying person can be perceived (see 2 Cor 4:6).
Seeing our patients in the light of faith, we perceive that we, their caretakers, are not just in the business of treating illness, curing disease, or managing infirmity. We are charged with the care of the “earthen vessel” that is the treasure chest of a person in whom God is continually at work, producing (we have reason to hope) an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. As we seek to repair the cracked vessel that is a person’s sick body, we would do well to be mindful of the treasure it holds.
There is a paradox here. For a healthy person, the body manifests the spirit. We can naturally perceive much about the qualities of a person’s heart through the words and actions that are expressed by his healthy body. When a person is sick and his body is severely afflicted, his spirit is not manifested in that way. We have more difficulty perceiving the qualities of a person’s heart when his body is not functioning well. Yet Saint Paul says, “We who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:11). To those enlightened by the spirit of faith, the life of Jesus is manifested in a person’s heart, not in spite of that person’s infirmity, but in and through that person’s infirmity. Bodily affliction does not obscure the presence of God’s glory; it is a sign of God’s glory. For, as Saint Paul paradoxically says, “we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:18).