Unseen Things to Be Preferred to Seen Things

Adapted from a Sermon by Samuel Davies (1724–1761)

“As we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Cor 4:18 ESV

Among all the causes of the dazed unconcern of sinners about true religion, and the weak efforts of saints to grow in it, there is none more common or more effective, than their not having a right appreciation of the things of time in comparison with those of eternity. Our present concerns engross all our thoughts, and exhaust all our energy, though they are but transitory trivial things; while the solemn realities of the future world are hid from our eyes by the veil of our physical bodies and the clouds of ignorance. If these unseen eternal realities broke into our minds in all their tremendous importance, they would extinguish the most desired vanities of the present life, obscure the glare of all earthly glory, make all its pleasures bland, and give us a noble resignation under all its sorrows.

A clear view of these eternal realities, would shock the worldling in his thoughtless course, tear off the hypocrite's mask, and inflame the devotion of the languishing saints. The main concern of all mankind would then be how they might safely come out of this world, and not how they may live happy in it. Present pleasure and pain, would be swallowed up in the prospect of future, everlasting happiness or misery! Eternity, solemn eternity, would then be our serious contemplation. The pleasures of sin would strike us with horror, as they lead to eternal pain! And our present afflictions, however wearisome and severe, would appear but light and momentary, if they work out for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory!

These were the views which the apostle had of things, and this is how it affected him. He informs us in this chapter of his constant zeal to propagate the gospel amidst all the hardships and dangers that accompanied the painful carrying out of his ministry. Though he was always being threatened with death for Jesus' sake, yet he did not faint. And this was the perspective that supported him, that his "light momentary affliction was (is) preparing for him (us) an eternal weight of glory!" (2 Cor 4:17) When we view his sufferings in themselves, without any reference to eternity, they were very heavy and continued for many years; and when he describes them from this perspective, how pitiable it seems. He speaks in chapter 11 of Corinthians of “countless beatings” and being “often near death”. (2 Cor 11:23)

But when he views them in the light of eternity, and compared with their glorious outcome, they sink into nothing! Then flogging, stoning, imprisonment, and all the various deaths to which he was exposed day to day, are but light, trivial afflictions, hardly worth naming! Then a series of uninterrupted sufferings for many years, are but momentary afflictions! And when he views a glorious future, human language cannot express the ideas he has of the happiness reserved for him; it is "an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison!" A noble sentiment! And expressed in the most sublime manner of which our language is capable!

It is glory, in opposition to affliction! It is a weight of glory, in opposition to light affliction! It is a massive, extensive blessedness, which it requires all the powers of the soul, in their full efforts, to support! In opposition to affliction for a moment, it is eternal glory! And to finish all, it is a far more exceeding glory! What greater idea can be grasped by the human mind, or expressed in our feeble language! Nothing but actually feeling that weight of glory could enlarge his conception; and nothing but the dialect of heaven could better express it! No wonder that, with this view of things, Paul wrote, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us!" (Romans 8:18)

The apostle tells us, that he formed this estimate of things, while he looked not at "the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen." By the things that are SEEN, are meant the present life, and all the things of time: all the pleasures and pains, all the labours, pursuits, and amusements of the present state.

By the things that are Unseen, are intended all the invisible realities of the eternal world: all the beings, the enjoyments and sufferings which lie beyond the reach of human sight such as God, the joys of paradise, and the punishment of hell.

We are to look on these invisible things, and not on those that are seen. This seems like a contradiction; but is it easily solved by understanding this act, described by LOOKING, to be the act not of the bodily eye, but of faith and enlightened reason. Faith is defined by the writer of Hebrews to be "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Heb 11:1) And it is the writers main intention in that chapter, to give instances of the surprising power of such a realizing belief of eternal, invisible things. (see particularly Hebrews 11:10, 13, 14, 16, 25, 26, 27)

Therefore to look not at visible but at invisible things, means that the apostle made unseen eternal realities, the main objects of his thoughts, so that he was governed in the whole of his conduct by the impression of eternal things, and not by the present; that he formed his principles and schemes from a wide-ranging survey of things of the future, and not from a partial view of present things; and, in short, that he had acted as an heir of eternity and not as a fleeting inhabitant of this wretched world. This he elsewhere expresses in similar terms in 2 Corinthians were he says: "we walk by faith, not by sight." (2 Cor 5:7)

In addition, he gives a reason why he had a greater regard to invisible things than the visible, in the regulating of his conduct: "For the things that are seen are transient (or temporary), but the things that are unseen are eternal." An important reason indeed! Eternity when compared to a moment, is infinitely more important! But when eternity is the adjective of the most perfect happiness, or of the most exquisite misery, then it is beyond all comparison! Then all happiness and misery in this world, however great and long-lasting, shrink into nothing, are drowned and lost like the small drop of water in the boundless ocean. "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life!" (Matt 25:46)

The contents of our text, prescribe the following headings in approaching the subject:

I. A Comparative View of Visible and Invisible Things.

I will give you a comparison of visible and invisible things so that you may see the trivial nature of the one, and the great importance of the other. And by placing these two classes of things close together, we may see their infinite difference.

II. The INFLUENCE of Seeing Things Aright

I will show you the great and happy influence which a suitable impression of the superior importance of invisible things to visible things, would have upon us. And so "we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." (2 Cor 4:18)

I. A Comparative View of Visible and Invisible Things

We can compare visible and invisible things: as to their intrinsic value, and as to their duration. By intrinsic I mean their essential, their inherent value in themselves.

1. Consider the infinite difference between the invisible things and the visible things—as to their INTRINSIC VALUE. In this respect, the difference is inconceivable!

We can see this in the two general categories of pleasure and pain. To avoid the one, and obtain the other—this is what we all do naturally. This is its aim in all our endeavors and pursuits. The natural desire for happiness and aversion to misery—are the two great motivators of all human activity! Were these motivations relaxed or broken, all business would cease, all activity would come to a halt, and universal apathy would seize the world! And these principles are part of the soul itself, and will continue in full strength in a future eternal state.

Scripture gives us hints that in eternity, the soul will be matured, and all its powers greatly expanded; this eagerness after happiness, and aversion to misery—will also be stronger! The soul in its present state of infancy, like a young child, or a man enfeebled in mind and body by sickness—is incapable of very deep sensations of pleasure and pain; and therefore an excess of joy, as well as sorrow, has sometimes pushed people beyond their limits. And so, we are incapable of such heights of happiness or misery from the things of this world—as we could were our sense more awake. And much more are we incapable of the happiness or misery of the future world—until we have actually put on immortality!

We cannot see God and live. Should the glory of God shine on us in all its majestic splendour—it would overwhelm our weak nature; we could not support such a weight of glory! And one hint of the agonies of hell would utterly overwhelm it! One pang of hell would convulse and stun it—were not its powers strengthened by the separation from the body.

But in the future world all the powers of the soul will be mature and strong, and the body will be clothed with immortality; the union between them after the resurrection will be inseparable, and able to support the most impressive weight of glory—or the most intolerable load of torment!

Therefore it follows that pleasure and pain include all that we can desire or fear—in the present or future world; and therefore a comparison of present and future pleasure and pain is enough to enable us to form an accurate estimate of visible and invisible things.

By present pleasure I mean all the happiness we can receive from present things: as from riches, honors, sensual gratifications, learning, and intellectual improvements, and all the amusements and activities of this life.

And by future pleasure, or the pleasure which results from invisible things, I mean all the blessings and enjoyments in which heavenly happiness consists.

By present pain, I mean all the uneasiness which we can receive from the things of the present life: such as poverty, losses, mental distress, disappointments, bereavements, sickness, and bodily pains.

And by future pain, I mean all the punishments of hell: such as banishment from God, and a separation from all created blessings, the agonizing reflections of a guilty conscience, the horrid company and torments of infernal demons, and the torture of infernal flames.

Now let us put these in the balance—and the one will sink into nothing, and the other rise into infinite importance!

Consider these three points:

i. Temporal things are naturally limited, and not sufficient to meet the needs of the human soul; but eternal things are great, and capable of communicating all the happiness and misery which the soul can receive.

ii. The soul in its present state is not capable of such levels of happiness and misery—as it will be in the future, when it actually dwells among invisible realities.

iii. All that pleasure and pain which we receive from things that are seen, are intermingled with some ingredients of the opposite kind. That is, in this present world, our good and evil are blended. Our happiness has some bitter ingredients, and our miseries have some agreeable parts. But the pleasure and pain which we receive from things that are unseen, are pure and unmixed.

Let's look at these facts in detail:

i. VISIBLE things are not equal to the capacities or needs of the human soul. This little spark of being, the soul, which lies obscured in this prison of flesh, often gives hints of surprising powers; its desires in particular, have a kind of infinity. But all temporary objects are base and limited; they cannot give the soul a happiness equal to its capacity—nor render it as miserable as its capacity of suffering will bear. Hence, in the greatest flood of temporal enjoyments, in the midst of honors, pleasures, riches, friends, and such, it still feels a painful void within, and finds an unknown something lacking, to complete its happiness.

Kings have been unhappy on their thrones—and all their grandeur has been but majestic misery! This is what Solomon found, who had both curiosity and the opportunity to make the experiment; and this is his verdict upon all earthly enjoyments, after the most extensive and impartial trial: "Vanity of vanities" says the Preacher, "vanity of vanities; all is vanity and a striving after wind!" (Ecc 1:2, 13)

On the other hand, the soul may possess some degree of happiness, even under all the miseries it is now capable of suffering from external and temporal things. If a soul has no reason to accuse itself, no anguish resulting from its own reflections—then the worst of visible afflictions cannot render it perfectly miserable; its capacity of suffering is not put to its utmost capacity. This has been attested by the experience of multitudes who have suffered for righteousness' sake.

But now, when we consider INVISIBLE things—we find them all great and majestic, not only equal, but infinitely superior to the most enlarged powers of the human and even of the angelic nature. In His eternal worlds—the great Invisible God dwells, and there He acts with His own direct hand. It is He who directly and personally communicates happiness through the heavenly regions. And it is His direct and personal breath that, like a stream of sulphur, kindles the flames of hell. Whereas, in the present world, He rarely communicates happiness, and inflicts punishment—but by the means of creatures; and it is impossible that the extremity of either happiness or misery—should be delivered through the means of creatures.

This the infinite God alone can do, and, though in the future worlds He will use His creatures to heighten the happiness or misery of each other—yet He will have a more direct and personal role in them Himself. He will communicate happiness directly and personally from Himself, the infinite fountain of it—into the vessels of mercy! And He will directly and personally show His wrath, and make His power known to the vessels of wrath.

I may add, that those BEINGS, angels and devils, which will be the instruments of happiness or misery to the human soul in the invisible world—are incomparably more powerful than any in this present world—and consequently capable of contributing more to our pleasure or pain.

And let me also observe, that all OBJECTS about which our faculties will be employed then—will be great and majestic; whereas, at the present time, we grovel among little sordid things. The objects of our contemplation, will then be either the unveiled glories of the divine nature, and the unveiled wonders of creation, providence, and redemption; OR the unveiled terrors of divine justice, the dreadful nature and aggravations of our sin, the horrors of everlasting punishment, and such.

And since this is the case, how little should we esteem the things that are seen—in comparison of those which are unseen? But though visible things were adequate to our present capacities—yet they are not to be compared with the things that are unseen, because:

ii. The soul is at present in a state of infancy, and incapable of such levels or degrees of pleasure or pain—as it can bear in the future world. The enjoyments of this present life—are like the playthings of children; and none but childish souls would preoccupy themselves with them, or fret and vex themselves or one another about them!

But the invisible realities awaiting us are manly and great, and such as an adult soul ought to concern itself with. The soul in the eternal world, can no more be happy or miserable from such earthly toys—than men can be happy or wretched in the possession or loss of the toys of children! In the eternal world, the soul will then require great things to give it pleasure or pain. The apostle illustrates this matter in this manner: "For we know in part and we prophesy in part, (10) but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. (11) When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways." (1 Cor 13:9-11) How foolish is it then, to be chiefly governed by these childish earthly toys—while we neglect the great and manly concerns of eternity—which alone can make our souls perfectly happy or miserable, when their powers are come to perfection!

iii. And lastly, All that pleasure and pain which we receive from things that are seen, are intermingled with some ingredients of an opposite kind. In this present world, our good and evil are blended. Our happiness has some bitter ingredients, and our miseries have some agreeable relief. But the pleasure and pain which we receive from things that are unseen, are pure and unmingled.

We are never so HAPPY in this world—as to have no uneasiness! In the greatest material comfort—we languish for lack of some absent good, or grieve under some current evil.

On the other hand, we are never so MISERABLE in this world—as to have no ingredient of happiness. When we labor under a thousand difficulties, we may still see ourselves surrounded with, perhaps, an equal number of blessings. And where now is there a wretch so miserable—as to endure unmingled misery, without one comfortable ingredient?

But in the invisible world, there is an eternal separation made between good and evil, pleasure and pain; and they shall never more intermingle. In heaven—the rivers of pleasure flow untroubled with a drop of sorrow. In hell, there is not a drop of water to soften the fury of the eternal flame! And who then would not prefer the things that are unseen—to those that are seen?

2. Now in the second place, in our comparative view of visible and invisible things, consider the infinite difference between the invisible things and the visible things—in terms of DURATION. This is the difference particularly intended in the text: “For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."

The transitory nature of visible things, implies both that the things themselves are perishable—and they may soon leave us; and that our dwelling among them is temporary—and we must soon leave them!

And the eternity of invisible things implies quite the contrary: that the things themselves are of endless duration; and that we shall always exist to receive either happiness—or misery from them!

Before we illustrate these particular differences, let us take a view of TIME and ETERNITY in themselves; and as compared to one another.

TIME is the duration of creatures in the present earthly state. Time began at creation, and some six thousand years of it have since elapsed. And we do not know how much of time yet remains.

But this we do know: that the duration of the world itself—is as nothing in comparison to eternity. But what is our personal duration, when compared with the duration even of this world? It is but a wink, a hair's-breadth; sixty, seventy, or eighty years—is generally the highest limit of human life, and it is by far the smallest number of mankind who arrive to these upper limits. Most people die like a flower blasted in the morning, or at noon; and we have more reason to expect that this will be our fate—than to hope for a long earthly life.

The short span of time we enjoy in life—is all the time we really have; we have no more property in the rest of time—than in the years before the flood! And beyond our brief span—is eternity. ETERNITY! Endless eternity! We are lost in the view of it!

Eternity with respect to GOD—is a duration without beginning—as well as without end. Eternity, as it is the attribute of HUMAN nature, is a duration that had a beginning, but will never have an end. And we, poor, dying worms, are inescapably hears of this "eternity"! Let us survey our inheritance:

Eternity! It is a duration that surpasses all counting and numbers: days, and months, and years, yes, and ages, are lost in it—like drops in the ocean! Millions of millions of years, as many years as there are sands on the sea-shore, or particles of dust in the globe of the earth, and these multiplied by the greatest number—all these are nothing, when compared to eternity! They do not have the least imaginable proportion to it—for these will all certainly come to an end! But eternity will never, never come to an end! Eternity is a line without end! Eternity is an ocean without a shore! Alas! What shall we say of it! It is an infinite, unknown something, that neither human thought can grasp, nor human language describe!

Now place TIME—in comparison with ETERNITY—and what is it? It shrinks into nothing, and less than nothing! What then is that little span of time in which we have any present interest? Surely! It is too small a point to be conceived! Indeed, properly speaking, we can call no part of time our own—but the present moment, this 'fleeting now'!

Future time is uncertain—and we may never live it; the breath we now breath out may be our last!

And as to our past time, it is gone—and will never be ours again. Our past days are dead and buried, though perhaps their guilt, their 'spirit', may haunt us still. And what is a moment—when compared to eternity? The contrast is too great to even be compared!

Let us now resume the former reasoning, implied in the transitory nature of visible things—and the eternity of invisible things.

VISIBLE things are perishable and may soon leave us. When we think that they are ours—they often fly from out of our grasp!

Riches may vanish into smoke and ashes—by an accidental fire! We may be thrown down from the spotlight of honor—and sink into utter disgrace! Sensual pleasures often end in excess and disgust—or in sickness and death! Our friends are torn from our grieving hearts by the inevitable hand of death! Our liberty and property may be torn from us by the hand of tyranny, oppression, or fraud! In a word, there is nothing which we now enjoy—that we may not suddenly lose!

On the other hand, our miseries here on earth are temporary. The heart receives many wounds—but it heals again. Poverty may end in riches. A stained reputation may be cleared up, and from disgrace—we may rise to honor. We may recover from sickness. And if we lose one comfort—we may obtain another.

But in eternity—everything is everlasting and unchangeable! Happiness and misery are both without end—and those who experience them well know that this is the case.

It is this endlessness and sureness, which completes the happiness of the inhabitants of heaven; the least suspicion of an end—would intermingle itself with all their enjoyments, and embitter them; for the greater the happiness, the greater the anxiety at the expectation of losing it. But, what a delight for the saints on high, to look forward through the succession of eternal ages, with an assurance that they will be happy through them all, and that they will feel no change—but from glory to glory!

On the other hand, this is the bitterest ingredient in the cup of divine wrath in the future state—that the misery is eternal! And with what horror does that despairing cry, "Forever! Forever! Forever!" echo through the dungeons of hell!

Eternity is such an important property, that it gives infinite weight to things that would be insignificant, were they only temporary. A small degree of happiness, if it is eternal—exceeds the greatest degree of happiness that is only for a moment. And a small degree of misery that is everlasting—is of greater importance than the greatest degree of misery that soon comes to an end. You would prefer to endure the most painful tortures that nature can bear for a moment—rather than an eternal toothache or headache!

Again, should we look into all the ingredients and causes of future happiness and misery—we would find them all everlasting. The blessed God is an inexhaustible and always present fountain of happiness! His image can never be erased from the hearts of glorified spirits—the contemplation of the great God will always be obvious to them; and they will always exist as the partakers and promoters of mutual joy. On the other hand, in hell the worm of conscience never dies, and the fire is never quenched! Divine justice is immortal. Evil spirits will always exist as mutual tormentors, and their wicked habits will never cease.

And now, is anything more, needed to convince you of the superior importance of invisible and eternal things—to visible and temporary things? Can a rational being be confused as how to choose, in so plain a case? Can you need any arguments to convince you that an eternity of the most perfect happiness—is rather to be chosen than a few years of sordid, unsatisfying delight? Or that the former should not be lost—for the sake of the latter? Have you any remaining doubts, whether the little concerns and mortifications of a pious life—are more intolerable than everlasting punishment? Surely! The case is plain! Why then, does the infatuated world, lay out all their concern on temporal things—and neglect the important affairs of eternity?

Let us illustrate this matter with a little story. Suppose a little bird were to pick up and carry away a grain of sand or dust from the globe of this earth, once in a thousand years, until this present world should at length be wholly carried away. The amount of time which this would take up, appears as a kind of eternity to us. Now suppose we were give the choice, either to be happy during this length of time—and miserable forever after; or to be miserable during this length of time—and happy forever after; which would you choose? Why, though this duration seems endless—yet he would be a fool who would not make the second his choice! For behind this vast duration—there lies an eternity, which exceeds it infinitely more than this duration exceeds a moment!

But we do not have such a seemingly puzzling choice as this; the matter with us is as follows—Will you choose the little sordid pleasures of sin that may perhaps not last an hour, or at most, not many years—rather than everlasting sublime pleasure? Will you prefer to endure intolerable torment forever—rather than endeavor to be holy here on earth for a short time? And in answer to these questions, what does your conduct actually say? If your tongues reply, they will perhaps for your credit give a right answer; but what does your prevailing disposition and common practice say? Are you not more concerned about time—than eternity? Are you not more concerned about visible vanities—than invisible realities? If so, sadly but truly, you make a foolish choice indeed!

But let it be further considered, that the temporary nature of visible things may imply that we must before long be separated from them! Even if they were eternal—it would be nothing to us, since we are not eternal ourselves in our present state. Within a few years at most—we will be beyond the reach of all happiness and misery from the things of time!

But when we pass out of this transitional state—we enter into an everlasting state. Our souls will always exist, exist in a state of unchangeable, boundless happiness—or misery. It is but a little while ago, that we came out of a state of eternal non-existence, and into being; but we will never go back into that state again. These little sparks of being will never be extinguished! They will survive the ruins of the world, and continue into immortality! When millions of millions of ages are past—we will still be in existence! And consider! in what unknown place? In that of endless bliss—or of unending misery? Is this not the most urgent question of our lives?

Seeing then we must soon leave this world—and all its joys and sorrows; and seeing we must enter on an unchangeable, everlasting state of happiness or misery—it must be our chief concern to end our present pilgrimage well. It matters but little whether we live easy or not—during this short night of existence—if so be we awake in eternal day. It is but a trivial thing, hardly worth a thought—whether we are happy or miserable here on earth—so long as we are happy forever hereafter! Why then—all this hustle and bustle of mankind about the fleeting things of time? Think of it, Eternity! Solemn, all important eternity—is the only thing that deserves a thought!

II. The INFLUENCE of Seeing Things Aright

And now we come, to show the great and happy influence a right impression of the superior importance of invisible to visible things, would have on us. And we will do this considering a variety of instances, with respect to saints—and sinners.

When we are tempted to any forbidden pleasures—how we would shrink away with horror from the sinful pursuit—had we a due sense of the misery it leads to, and the happiness lost on account of it!

When we find our hearts excessively eager after earthly things, had we a right view of eternal things—all these things would shrink into trifles hardly worth a thought, much less our main attention!

When the sinner, for the sake of a little present ease, and to avoid a little present uneasiness, suppresses his conscience, refuses to examine his condition before God, casts the thoughts of eternity out of his mind, and thinks it too hard to attend on all the means of grace—has he then a proper estimate of eternal things? Certainly not! He only looks at the things that are seen. Were the mouth of hell open before him—that he might behold its torments; and had he a sight of the joys of paradise, they would harden him into a general insensibility to all the sorrows and anxieties of this life, and his question would not be whether these things required of him are easy—but whether they are necessary to obtain eternal happiness, and avoid everlasting misery!

When we suffer any reproach or contempt for the sake of Christ—how would a due estimate of eternal things fortify us with undaunted courage and make us willing to climb to heaven through disgrace—rather than sink to hell with the universal applause of men!

How would a clear view of eternal things, animate us in our devotions? Were this thought impressed on our hearts when in the secret or social duties of religion, "I am now acting for eternity," do you think we would pray, read, or hear with so much indifference and laziness? Certainly not! It would rouse us out of our sleepiness, and summon all the energy of our souls. With what unwearied insistence would we cry to God! With what eagerness would we hear the word of salvation!

How powerful an influence would a view of future eternal realities, have to alarm the secure sinner who has thought little of eternity all of his life—though it is the only thing worth thinking of!

How would it awaken the determination of the lingering, wavering sinner, and shock him at the thought of being unprepared to meet God, while living on the very brink of eternity!

In a word, a suitable impression of this would quite change the aspect of things in the world, and would turn the concern and activity of the world into another channel. Eternity then would be the main concern. Our questions would not be, "Who will show us any (temporal) good?” (Ps 4:6) “What shall we eat, or what shall we drink?" (Matt 6:31) —but rather, "What must we (I) do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30) How shall we escape the wrath to come? Let us then endeavor to impress our hearts with invisible realities, and for that purpose consider these three closing thoughts:

1- We shall, before long, be engulfed in this solemn eternity, whether we think of it—or not. A few days or years will surely launch us there—and what surprising scenes will then open to us!

2- Without deep impressions of eternity on our hearts, and frequent thoughtfulness about it—we cannot be prepared for it.

3- And if we are not prepared for it— surely, how inconceivably miserable is our case! But if prepared, how inconceivably happy!

So “we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor 4:18)