But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
Paul isn't foretelling a glorious victory here for the Christian. He doesn't foresee a triumphant parade for the believer overcoming the spiritual attacks and physical hardships of life. This would not pass muster with the modern American prophets of profit and progress. If you were to tease out a definition of Christian victory from Paul's words here it would be something like "survival". We are perplexed, persecuted and struck down, but not completely destroyed. So at least there's that. Paul is playing not to lose. He seems happy with the moral victory; at least it's not utter defeat. His message might be rendered thus:
"Life is hard for a Christian in the world. After all, it was hard for our leader so we shouldn't expect any different. But hunker down and stay alive. Bend but don't break. We can get through this thing."
Not exactly uplifting.
Of course, the circumstances surrounding Paul's writing are all temporary. A great victory does await when Jesus comes to make all things new. But I think there's some realism in Paul's words that make them appealing, if not inspiring; appealing, at least, to those among us whom life has beaten up.
Jesus said our enemy wants to steal, kill and destroy. Sometimes his destruction comes calamitously — as quick as a gunshot. But just as often he prefers to grind rather than explode. He lays siege to our souls, one disappointment, one failed relationship, one blunted hope, one tiny betrayal at a time. He means to starve us out — to weaken our constitution by degrees until surrender seems advisable, hope pitiable, destruction preferable.
I'm intrigued by the ways scripture instructs to resist evil. Sometimes, we are meant to confront it or expel it (1 Cor. 5:13). Other times, we are told to flee from it (1 Cor. 6:18). Sometimes, though, we are meant to bear it, to "stand up under it" (1 Cor. 10:13). It may be that the best way to combat the attack of a thousand tiny offenses is with a thousand tiny redemptions. So we kiss and make up again, we tuck our kids again, we show up to teach that Sunday school class again, we forgive again, choose love over selfishness again, we ignore the temptation again.
Paul knew what it was to suffer dramatically for the gospel, in shipwrecks and floggings and imprisonment. But he also knew what it's like to feel the siege works pressing in, to endure the daily drumming doldrums that drift us toward despair. And to both circumstances, his message was the same: this life is going to beat you up, especially if you stand for the gospel. Endure it with dignity. Your hope is its own victory.
And your victory will be sweet.