Living in the Tension Between Life and Death

By Mark D. Roberts

March 19, 2023

Treasure in Clay Jars

Scripture — 2 Corinthians 4:8-11 (NRSV)

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.


The Christian life involves living in the tension between death and life. While we experience hard things in this life, and while suffering is very real, we also have the life of Jesus within us. This life enables us to be resilient when hard things threaten to tear us down. Suffering helps us draw near to Jesus. It beckons us to trust God even more than we have in the past. As we do, the life of Jesus comes alive within us.

This devotion is part of the series: Treasure in Clay Jars.


In last Friday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we examined Paul’s statement that he has God’s “treasure in clay jars” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Today we see how this dual reality—divine treasure in human jars—causes us to live in the tension between life and death.

Paul continues in 2 Corinthians with four parallel statements describing his experience as a Christian: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (4:8-9). Paul is referring, in particular, to how he has suffered as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Later in 2 Corinthians, he supplies more detail about his travails. In comparison to the false apostles in Corinth, Paul has

far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).

Now that is a sobering list of afflictions! Yet, Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 4 is that although he has experienced many hard things, he has not been crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed.

Paul links his experience of hard times to the death of Jesus. When Paul suffers, he experiences in his own body something like what Jesus experienced in his passion. Thus, suffering actually draws Paul closer to Christ. Yet, according to Paul, the life of Jesus is also present and visible in Paul’s body. He suffers “so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). Notice that Jesus isn’t present only in a spiritual or internal way. His divine life is manifest in Paul’s body as he lives faithfully in service to the Lord. Paul lives in the tension between life and death, between the life of Christ and the death of Christ. Both are present in Paul’s experience, even in his body.

What Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:8-11 refers immediately to his personal experience as an apostle of Jesus Christ. But in Paul’s description we can see ourselves and our experience of the Christian life. Like Paul, we face hard things that can feel as if they might defeat us. Death can feel imminent and pervasive. But because Jesus lives within us through the Spirit, we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed.

Now, a part of me wants to object, “Wait! Even if we’re not destroyed, sometimes we do feel crushed, driven to despair, and forsaken.” This is part of what it means to be “clay jars” in which God’s treasure dwells. This is one way we live in this age, in the tension between life and death. Yet Paul would urge us to pay attention to the life of Jesus in us, to let his life energize and encourage us.

How can we do this? There are many answers to this question. Paul supplies one in his letter to the Galatians when he writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20). How can we experience the life of Jesus in us? One way is living by faith. Remember, New Testament faith isn’t only a matter of believing the right things about God, though this is essential. Rather, faith is trusting God, putting our full weight down upon God, relying on God completely in all times, places, and situations. Therefore, when we feel as if death is winning the battle for our souls, we reach out to God, trusting in God’s mercy, grace, and love. We won’t be crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed, not because we are so strong in ourselves, but because we trust in the one who is strong beyond all measure.


Can you relate to what Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians 4:8-11?

Have there been times in your life when you have been “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; [or] struck down, but not destroyed.” If so, when? What helped you to hang in there?

What helps you to trust God in hard times?


Is there some area of your life that you need to surrender to the Lord, trusting in God’s grace and mercy? If so, set aside some time to talk to the Lord about this and to surrender it.


Gracious God, in this broken world sometimes we feel afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. Thank you for Paul’s honesty about such things. It helps me to be honest about my own struggles.

Lord, I confess that I can feel crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, and almost destroyed. I wish I could say with authenticity all that Paul says. When I am struggling and suffering, help me to trust you more.

And may the hard times of life draw me closer to Jesus rather than pushing me away from him. When I suffer, may I know more deeply and truly the suffering of Jesus. . . yes, his suffering for me. Amen.

Banner image by Diogo Nunes on Unsplash.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: No Stranger to Troubles.

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Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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