I have lived with and ministered to drug addicts, alcoholics, and others battling life-controlling problems for almost my whole life. I have been exposed to much suffering. I have seen first hand the devastating power of rejection, abuse, broken promises, divorce, illness and death.
I remember Kendrick* whose mother used to tie him to a chair, whip him, and then lock him up in the basement cellar. Then there was Jenna whose arms were covered with burn marks from the times her father would put out his cigarettes. Jeremy was a troubled young man whose father was the first person to stick a needle in his arm at the age of 15 and get him hooked on heroin. Sheila was an overweight woman who always wore pants with suspenders (even to bed) because of the sexual abuse she received as a little girl from men in her family. Anthony was given up by his mother at the age of 5 and spent the next three years in 28 different foster care homes until he was adopted at the age of 8. I could go on.
How do you help such people deal with the pain, trauma, and brokenness? How did Jesus?
He put heaven before the eyes of the hurting: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven” (Lk. 6:20-23).
The New Testament authors follow in this tradition by linking the hope of heaven to their discussion of suffering. One such example of this is found in 2 Cor. 4:16-18 where the Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Our hope of heaven does not erase the pain or remove the sorrow, but it does cause us to grieve differently. Paul comments, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Knowing that all wrongs will one day be made right and that injustice will be swallowed up in righteousness and that all our pain and suffering will be swept away in perfect harmony and order and joy, has a redeeming effect on our mourning. We grieve, but we grieve with hope.
Karl Marx quipped that “religion (or fixation on heaven) is the opium of the people”—a way for people to check out and not have to deal with reality, a means of blinding and numbing ourselves from the hardships of life on planet earth.
No. Religion—specifically, belief in heaven—is the power of the people. The hope of heaven gives those who suffer the will to keep going in the face of adversity. It gives them the needed confidence that there will be a happy ending—if not in this world, in the next.
In fact, Paul tells us that the “hope of salvation” is our helmet protecting our mind from deadly, despairing thinking (see 1 Thess. 5:8). It keeps us sane, our hearts whole, and our lives stable. As the writer of Hebrews stated, this hope serves “as an anchor for the soul” (6:19).
Just after the climax of the trilogy The Lord of the Rings when Sam Gamgee discovers that his friend Gandalf is not dead (as he thought) but alive, he cries, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
The answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” The Apostle John wrote, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. . . . I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, For the old order of things has passed away.’ He who was seated on the throne said, I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, For these words are trustworthy and true’” (Rev. 21:1-5).
For the believer, heaven is the last and final word. The best is yet to come.
The night might be long, the weeping intense, but morning is coming. And with the morning comes joy (see Ps. 30:5)!
*The stories are true but the names have been changed.