When the Bottom Drops Out: Finding Grace in the Depths of Disappointment
Chapter 1: Truths in the Night
A couple of months after Carol [my wife] died, I stood in our laundry room facing a significant pile of laundry. It had been a long day at work—not the best day—and I had just made dinner. (Actually that is an overstatement. I don’t cook, so I had simply reheated a dinner someone had brought to us.) I was tense, and I broke. I looked at the mound of clothing and towels and thought, I can’t do all this; I don’t want to do all this. Where did Carol go? She always did the laundry! Why has this happened? I don’t want to cook. I can’t run our house and take care of the kids. I don’t want to be a single parent. This is impossible!
Raw fear swept over me as my mind darkened and my stomach tightened in one big knot. Then God intervened—right there in my laundry room! Immediately the laundry room became a symbol of everything I hated and everything I needed. There was no audible voice, but I distinctly heard God tell me, “Rob, you can do this; I will get you through this.” Immediately I was flooded with a sense of peace that, remarkably, has largely continued to this day.
I remember that moment as if it were yesterday. There’s no getting around it: deep pain brings us to the end of ourselves and, more times than not, face-to-face with overwhelming fear. This struck me again not long ago when I spoke at a funeral for a twenty-six-year-old man who had committed suicide. I had conducted services for suicide victims before, but this one was off-the-charts sad because this young man had off-the-charts potential. He had simply lost his way. That afternoon I shared some of the bedrock truths God had been teaching me about disappointment and loss. Truths that helped my laundry room become a sanctuary. Truths that gave me peace in the midst of my nightmare.
Please don’t misunderstand: recognizing these realities won’t make the agony of death—especially suicide—go away. It won’t immediately take away all your anger over a job loss, divorce, or a child who has strayed. Nor will it answer the “why” questions. I do not want to oversell. But I can and will tell you, in much more detail here, what I told those heartbroken family members and friends about working through tragedy. And make no mistake, it is work . . . faith-work . . . that enables a person to grieve without losing heart.
So as I addressed the grieving, hurting people who had gathered at that young man’s funeral, I offered what I hoped would be something of a lifeline—four truths that I’ve learned to cling to: (1) we live in a sinful, fallen world; (2) God is wonderfully and completely sovereign; (3) the believer is not home yet; and (4) whoever believes in Jesus will live with Him in heaven forever.
Truth #1: We Live in a Fallen, Sinful World
Cornelius Plantinga’s well-written book on sin is called Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. I love that title! Suicide, earthquakes, terrorism, war, poverty, rape, murder, self-centeredness, hate, hypocrisy, abuse, adultery, addictions, and human trafficking—they’re all products of living in a fallen, sinful world. This isn’t pessimism; it’s realism, biblical realism.
At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, let me suggest that too many of us expect too much out of life. Our expectations are unrealistic because our view of sin and its pervasive consequences is minimalistic. As a result, we unintentionally set ourselves up for disappointment whenever difficulty comes. So listen carefully, and I say this gently: there’s a sense in which we, as followers of Christ, need to lower our expectations, relative to what this life offers, relative to what this life will be like.
When I entered college, I wanted little to do with the Bible, little to do with Jesus Christ or the church, but that all changed when a fraternity brother challenged me during my sophomore year to start reading the Bible. There’s much more to the story of my conversion, but as I began reading, it struck me that the Bible is correct—our biggest problem isn’t the economy, it isn’t a lack of education, it isn’t politics; it is sin—the sinfulness of the human heart. My heart and your heart. That made a world of sense to me, even as a happy-go-lucky but lost college student.
As the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah laments: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). The ancient Israelites, like so many people today, considered themselves righteous and spiritually together because of their religious acts, but God disagreed. He saw deeper into the darkness of their hearts. Likewise, Jesus later admonishes the Pharisees for their phony superficiality. He tells them that it isn’t certain foods that make a person unclean before God, it’s the human heart. As He puts it: What comes out of a man is what makes him “unclean.” For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man “unclean.” (Mark 7:20-23)
Don’t misunderstand. Neither Jeremiah nor Jesus is saying humans are gross, utterly incapable, or incompetent. They are saying we are fallen and even the best things we do are marred by sin. In other words, our biggest issue isn’t our circumstances, it’s our heart. The pride, the hatred, the bigotry, the lust, the self-centeredness that rise up within us and cause us to say and do horrible things are indicative of our sinfulness. We sin because we are sinners.
When Adam, as the representative head of the human race, fell in the Garden of Eden, the whole human race plummeted into sin. Paul looks back on this event and affirms, “Therefore . . . sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Some call this original sin; others, inherited guilt.
As theologian Wayne Grudem puts it, "All members of the human race were represented by Adam in the time of testing in the Garden of Eden. As our representative, Adam sinned, and God counted us guilty as well as Adam. . . . God counted Adam’s guilt as belonging to us, and since God is the ultimate judge of all things in the universe, and since his thoughts are always true, Adam’s guilt does in fact belong to us. God rightly imputed Adam’s guilt to us."
By the way, Professor Grudem goes on to help us gain perspective on why God is perfectly just to do this. “If we think it is unfair for us to be represented by Adam, then we should also think it is unfair for us to be represented by Christ and to have his righteousness imputed to us by God.” How He views and heals us “in Adam” is also how God views and heals us in Christ. Thankfully, the work of Christ undoes the work of Adam for the believer. But the Fall resulted not just in inherited guilt but also in an inherited sinful nature. So in Psalm 51, David, after confessing his own adultery with Bathsheba, acknowledges the sinful nature endemic to the human experience: “Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (v. 5, ESV). Because David wrote this psalm in the context of his deep remorse over his specific sins against Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah, it’s clear David isn’t referring to his mother’s sexual activity but to his own sinful nature. Paul, speaking about life before Christ, says similarly that we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3, ESV). My experience as a parent confirms this sobering biblical principle—my kids didn’t need to be taught to disobey, it’s inherent in their nature.
Further, the Fall had huge ramifications for creation. In Genesis 3:17-18, God tells Adam and Eve, “Cursed is the ground because of you. . . . It will produce thorns and thistles for you.” When describing the Fall’s impact on creation, Paul uses phrases like “subjected to frustration,” “bondage to decay,” and “the whole creation has been groaning” (see Romans 8:18-22). Connecting these verses to Genesis 3, New Testament scholar Douglas Moo says God alone “had the right and the power to condemn all of creation to frustration because of human sin.” Not only has the human experience been perverted, corrupted, and marred by sin, but plagues and parasites, drought and disease, pollution and famine are all symptoms and results of our deeper problem of sin.
You may not like it, I may not like it, but the Bible is clear: we live in a sinful, fallen world. And it’s not something “out there” or external to us; it’s something “in here,” internal, resident in the human heart/soul. My point is this—don’t be mad at God, be mad at sin! In other words, change your focus. You and I are not to live in denial—and indignation directed toward evil can even have a redemptive effect—but we need to be careful about who or what we blame. I have chosen, for example, not to hate God, but to hate cancer and death and, of course, sin.
When you feel your anger becoming anger toward God, remember that He is big enough to handle it. But then ask yourself, how is it ever helpful or right for a believer to be angry with God? He is all-knowing, loving, and perfect; we are not. So when you get angry at God—and it will happen; it certainly happened to me—confess your anger, repent of it, and walk in submission.
Hannah, a young woman who served as a leader in our student ministry, expressed this righteous indignation about as beautifully as I’ve ever heard it. Not long after her seventeen-year-old brother, Ben, took his own life—he was one in a series of students at his high school who did so—she posted these strong words on Facebook: I have a couple of things to say. So . . . I will say them.
I agree with the people who say that Ben was wrong for not waiting until things got better. Trust me . . . I want to punch my baby brother in the face for what he did.
Suicide is sin. There’s no dancing around that. I hope no one denies that. My brother taking his life? Oh yeah. Wrong. I know a lot of people are sugarcoating his decision with the despair that he felt. The despair is real when people are dealing with it. I went through it. I remember struggling with suicidal thoughts in college. I remember planning out how I was going to make the hurting stop. I remember being so smothered by depression, anxiety, panic . . . the despair is real.
I also know God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. He says so. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
I believe him. So that means my brother could have chosen a different way out. We can do all things in Christ. The times we choose differently end with results that are not what God intended for us. It never surprises him (thank God) . . .
That being said, God is bigger than our failed ability to deal with life. That’s why he sent Christ to die for our sins. Christ died for ALL of our sins, past, present, future. Including suicide. All we have to do is accept that grace, and hand our lives over to God, who is so passionately in love with us. That is a much better option than trying to live life on our own.
Amazingly, Hannah wrote these words within forty-eight hours of her brother’s death. What I find so striking and so healthy is that she doesn’t sugarcoat sin; she faces it. She doesn’t blame God, she blames sin. I once heard a pastor remark, “People say—if God exists, why does this awful stuff happen? My response is, if God doesn’t exist, why does it matter?” Denying the existence of God doesn’t make disappointment and tragedy any easier. Our fundamental problem is sin, not God.
Truth #2: God Is Wonderfully and Completely Sovereign
After I lost Carol, nights were the worst. I hated going to bed, hated being alone. The questions and fears always intensified at night when I was tired and it was dark and quiet. I thought morning would never come. It’s easy to panic in the middle of the night.
Perhaps that is why a second truth was, for me, so significant: God is sovereign, and he invites us to rest, really rest in and cling to his sovereignty. Let’s look at a few biblical examples. Joseph, whose story is told in the book of Genesis, spent some of the best years of his life in an Egyptian rat-hole of a prison. And this for crimes he did not commit! I can’t imagine his disappointment. But amazingly, neither bitterness nor self-pity seemed to gain a foothold in Joseph’s life. Years later he would say to the very brothers who betrayed him, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
Wow! Joseph refused to remain stuck in unforgiveness because he was resting and trusting in the sovereignty of God. Joseph saw past his personal tragedy to the living, active, personal God of the universe who both transcended and trumped his circumstances.
During Carol’s illness, we were given this same gift. We both had a deep, overwhelming sense—better, a conviction—that God was in control and that His good plan for our lives would not fail, regardless of whether Carol lived or died. We weren’t pretending and we certainly weren’t plastic; we were simply believing and attempting to live in submission to our loving heavenly Father. This is why Carol was upbeat even when she was in severe pain and why I didn’t collapse in bitterness and self-pity, especially during those late nights when I had to rush her to the hospital’s emergency room.
Joseph, like all spiritually healthy people, was God-centered, not problem-centered, not disappointment-centered, not man-centered. He was convinced that God had a plan and that God was working that plan. In other words, Joseph believed his beliefs and doubted his doubts, instead of doubting his beliefs and believing his doubts. Believing your beliefs enables you to thrive in adversity; doubting your beliefs, on the other hand, will bury you. And because of his conviction that God was in control, Joseph didn’t quit . . . on life or on God. Then there’s Job. Notoriously godly, Job “was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). He was also unusually prosperous and wealthy by ancient Near Eastern standards, owning vast herds and employing a large number of servants. Yet in a take-your-breath-away sequence of events, Job lost all ten of his children, most of his significant wealth, and his good health.
Making an awful situation worse, his wife was hardly supportive, encouraging him to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9), while his friends condemned him instead of consoling him. Mistakenly, they were convinced his enormous suffering had to be his fault. Just one of those circumstances would do a lot of us in, but taken all together it’s almost unbearable. Imaginable, yes; bearable, no! (By the way, over a century ago Horatio Spafford, author of the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul,” was kicked out of his church in Chicago because the leaders were convinced that his suffering, including the death of his four daughters at sea, was somehow the result of his sin.) Yet in one of the Bible’s most poignant pictures of resting in the sovereignty of God, we read, At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. (Job 1:20-22) Job’s conviction that God was in complete and total control sustained him when everyone else seemed to have deserted him.
But there’s more to Job. Many Old Testament scholars suggest Job was the first Old Testament book written. That means the first inspired, authoritative book of the Bible that God gave us is a book on suffering. Do you think our pain matters to God? Do you think God is aware or cares? Don’t you think God wants us to know we are not alone, that others have gone before us? And don’t you think God wants us to know how to respond when the bottom falls out? I also find it instructive that, in the book of Job, God never answers the “why” question for Job. God never tells him why he lost any of his children, his livelihood, or his health. He doesn’t unpack Job’s tragedy. And God could have . . . easily. Instead, at the end of the book when God reveals Himself to Job, He addresses the “how” question—how He wants Job and all His people to respond to suffering by submitting to His sovereignty (Job 38–41). Please, please, dear friend, learn from the book of Job; don’t lean your ladder of frustration against the “why” question. Instead, lean into the “how” question. Focus on how God wants you to respond.
Job, then, may be the first recorded biblical hero, not because of his understanding—he didn’t get his questions answered—but because of his willing submission to God, in spite of his questions.
As I was going through my own ordeal, considering Job’s response to his personal crises was huge for me. He helped me affirm that God is on His throne, in control, and using both the good and the bad in my life as He sees fit (even when I can’t see it). Like Job, I came to rest in the sovereignty of God. The apostle Paul—no stranger to suffering himself—offers this comforting promise from God in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” “All things” means all things. I have chosen to believe this.
In her book on suffering, When God Weeps, Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic, helped me better understand what the Bible says about the intersection between God’s sovereignty and suffering when she wrote: “God permits what he hates to achieve what he loves.” James Means, a seminary professor who also lost his wife to cancer, shows what this looks like when someone is in the throes of suffering:
"In the days of my grief, my great turmoil tempts me to charge God foolishly. The truth, however, is not that He casts me into a black pit to leave me to wallow in despair; rather, He superintends all the events of my life so that His purposes might be achieved. This superintending grace of God includes events distasteful to me, but essential to His plan. Therefore, I hold God ultimately responsible for my grief because He is sovereign and has permitted cancer to prove fatal. Rather than responding to this truth with bitterness, I worship Him. By faith I trust Him in my pain and believe He is infinitely good in permitting this to happen to me."
Notice the incredible theological balance Dr. Means maintains: “God [is] ultimately responsible for my grief. . . . I worship Him.” Wow! What a brilliant and vivid statement of submission to the sovereign grace of our loving heavenly Father.
Let me be blunt. As I mentioned, I couldn’t and can’t understand how it was good for my son to lose his mom at the age of twelve, let alone my teenage and young adult daughters. And you’d better believe that we fought hard against the disease as it ravaged Carol’s body. Yet we had a growing awareness that perhaps God was up to something other than bringing about healing. Our assignment was to learn to deal with it. To submit.
I found my greatest comfort, in fact, in a third and supreme example of submission to the sovereignty of God in the Bible. While in Gethsemane, the night before He was crucified, Jesus said to His Father, “Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). His prayer became a model for my own as I alternated between hope and despair during Carol’s illness: “God take this from us. Please take this cancer from us! Yet not my will but Your will be done.”
I prayed this way, not only because Jesus did so in Gethsemane, but because in the Gospels He promises to answer prayer—in His way and His time, of course: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
Like our Lord in Gethsemane, though, we do not stop after bringing God our request. Instead, we move to submission; that is, we balance our aspirations and our desires with submission to God’s assignment. We leave the outcome to God.
Jesus’ words are extraordinary. Facing the greatest agony of His earthly life (Jesus was fully human), completely cognizant of what was ahead (He was fully God), Jesus prayed the richest words of submission in all of God’s Word, words that I personally repeated hundreds of times in my darkest moments; “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”
Please understand: just because Carol and I submitted our future to God doesn’t mean we liked what we were living through. We were, however, willing to accept our ordeal as God’s assignment to us. Was Carol ever scared? Did she sometimes worry? Yes, but she remained positive, knowing she could give her fears and concerns to her loving heavenly Father, whom she believed was completely in control of her situation. Those of us around her could see this peace reflected in her eyes and in her infectious smile. Less than a month after discovering the first lumps on her neck—a dreaded sign that the melanoma was spreading to her upper body—Carol wrote this to those people praying for us: I take great comfort in 2 Corinthians 4:16-19: “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.”
I believe God is able to heal completely, and He is also able to use our troubles for His glory. We can trust Him no matter what the outcome, that He will always love us and always be intimately involved in our lives. From Carol I learned that contentment isn’t a function of your circumstances; it’s a function of your convictions. The summer of her death, our son, Ryan, was playing baseball. I have vivid memories of my wife, barely able to walk, coming to a couple of Ryan’s games. She was thrilled to be there watching her son and was determined to support him. Actually, she thought it a great blessing to be there, even as she winced in pain.
More vivid still was Carol’s demeanor on our oldest daughter Shannon’s wedding day, just six weeks before my wife’s death. When Carol walked down the aisle as the mother of the bride, she was a fraction of herself physically. Everyone knew it—no one more so than Carol—yet Carol’s smile filled the room. Instead of being concerned about how she looked, she was thrilled to still be alive. Her contentment because of her convictions was palpable.
You give God your submission; He gives you His peace. You give Him your confidence; He gives you His joy, His hope. Paul, nearly beside himself with the joy and hope available to us in Christ, longs for this in all of our lives, when he writes, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
Joseph, Job, and Jesus taught me an invaluable secret: central to resting in the sovereignty of God is submission. In spite of all the bad press, submission—especially submission to God—is our friend, not our enemy. Submission is a beautiful thing, a Jesus thing.
The New Testament word for submission is hupo-tasso, a compound word in the Greek, a mix of a preposition and a verb, which literally means to “place oneself under.” James used it when he wrote: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). James is telling us to “place ourselves under” the greater agenda of almighty God (and watch the devil run.) Biblical submission, born in faith, is the rock-solid belief that God is always loving, always good, always in complete control. It is coupled with a childlike willingness to place ourselves under the authority of God. Submission, then, is both head and heart. It is not a getaway but a gateway—the gateway to peace, contentment, and joy. It’s the only way I have been able to sleep at night, and I am a lousy sleeper. Always have been.
Truth #3: The Believer Is Not Home Yet
Jim Harrell, a member of our church and a good friend, began experiencing pain in his left calf in 2001. Always active, Jim assumed he had suffered a minor athletic injury. After all, he seemed to be in the prime of his life. He and his wife, Linda, had been married for over twenty years and had four children, the oldest of whom was in her early teens. He was respected for his work as a consultant on railroad labor relations, and he was loved by his friends for his big heart and practical jokes.
Gradually, Jim realized that the pain in his lower leg was not going away with rest and physical therapy. After running batteries of tests, his doctor called him on a Saturday morning in early 2003 with a grim diagnosis: Jim had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A terminal illness, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes the brain to lose the ability to initiate and control muscle movement. The illness progresses at different rates among ALS sufferers. Jim lived nearly seven years past his original diagnosis—years beyond normal life expectancy with this disease. Yet its effects on Jim were no less brutal. One day near the end of his life when I was with Jim, I noticed that one of the few parts of his body that he could still move was his right hand.
As physically weak as he became, Jim taught me a significant principle for handling tragedy: we, as followers of Christ, are not home yet. Jim would tell you he didn’t get that immediately. For the first year after he learned he had the disease, he really struggled. Then a friend asked him to speak to a church group about living as a Christian in the business world. Near the end of his talk, Jim mentioned how much easier it was to talk about God with non-Christians now that he had a terminal illness. Jim’s suffering was drawing him to Christ, making him more like Jesus.
In fact, after his diagnosis, Jim had begun leading neighbors to Christ—lots of them. He also wrote countless e-mails lifting up Christ and accepted dozens more speaking engagements, sharing his story with business groups, high schoolers, and college sports teams. I had him share his story in our church’s morning worship services several times from his wheelchair as well. When his disease had progressed to the point that public speaking was nearly impossible, Jim produced a DVD of his story, which he had boldly sent around the world and to such places as the White House.
And what was Jim’s primary message? Although he’d been a Christian since college, he admitted that, like so many of us, he had spent most of his adulthood more focused on his life here on earth than on what would come next. His prognosis—a few more years at best to live on this earth—changed everything. “Suffering is the icy cold splash that wakes us up from the complacency of living this life,” he said. “We truly don’t see God and his purpose and strength without suffering, because we just become too comfortable.” “All our days are short,” he observed. “I’m living life with eternity right here. And I know that what I’m doing matters in eternity.”
As his body deteriorated, Jim increasingly longed for heaven; more specifically, he longed to be with Jesus in heaven. Jim and I spent hours talking about our eternal destination. Jim loved talking about heaven. He would cry while praying as he thanked God for the promise of his future in the presence of Jesus. He would weep with joy at the thought of getting a new resurrected body. In an e-mail he sent me shortly after I’d given a message on worship, Jim confessed that for most of his life he had cringed whenever he heard about the nonstop worship in heaven. To him, it had sounded incredibly boring. In his note to me, Jim explained how his perspective had changed: My view of heaven is radically different than it was even a few years ago. I now realize that all of our experience in heaven will be worship but with an unimaginable variety of experiences and interactions. . . . I am comforted by the Great Commandment found in Deut. 6 to love God with all our heart, soul, and might. I realize that we will never be able to attain such a love for God in this present age. Once we are with our Lord and sin has been eradicated from our being, we will be able to truly love and worship our Father in heaven. The other aspect of the verse that encourages me so much is the word “might,” which refers to our whole being, including our physical bodies. As I sat in church last Sunday in my wheelchair, using my breathing machine, I was overcome with joy at the thought of worshiping King Jesus with my body again intact. To be able to bow, kneel, lie prostrate, dance, and hug my Lord and Savior gives me incredible hope.
In the latter stages of Jim’s sickness, he became friends with the author Randy Alcorn. Randy tells pieces of Jim’s story in his book If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil. By readily sharing his story, Jim impacted so many of us. Perhaps he put it best: I’ve seen more accomplished in the time I’ve had ALS than in the first fifty years of my life. This illness is a blessing because God is really working on my soul. I’m going into eternity with my soul in a lot better shape than if I hadn’t gotten ALS.10
As I sat by Jim’s bed as he lay dying, I realized that Jim had never lost sight of God’s sovereignty or God’s love for him, something he would experience fully only in heaven. But the game changer for him was a bitter and beautiful mix of his awareness that he had a terminal illness and absolute confidence that heaven was his ultimate home.
He also learned something many of us miss—that one of the great benefits of suffering is the way it prepares and readies us for heaven. What soap is to the hands, suffering is to the soul. It cleanses us as we prepare to meet the Savior. In a real sense, this was exactly what Jesus was offering the rich young ruler. Luke 18:22 says Jesus told him to “sell all your possessions . . . and you will have treasure in heaven.” If he had made this sacrifice, the rich man could have been set free from his idols while his soul was cleansed for heaven. There, his treasure would have been complete. Tragically, he refused Jesus’ invitation.
We see this connection between suffering and heaven in the life of the believer when Jesus says “if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. . . . Whoever loses his life for me will find it. . . . The Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory . . . and then he will reward each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:24-25, 27). When you embrace suffering, you gain glory.
In his book Don’t Waste Your Sorrows, Paul Billheimer points out that God created us to love him, yet love by definition must be voluntary. That’s why God also created us with the capacity for choice: the choice to love God or not love God, to obey God or not obey God. We are not robots. Giving us this option, of course, made the Fall and sin possibilities. And God knew that. God knew that sin would require redemption, and redemption would require atonement, and atonement would require suffering—the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross. Therefore, Billheimer argues, from all eternity suffering has been a part of God’s plan.
As staggering as that is, the point I want to make is that suffering is also a part of God’s plan for us. As Billheimer says, "All the circumstances of this life are arranged for this one purpose: to enable one to learn agape love in order to be qualified to administer the law of love in eternity. Natural affection does not have to be learned, but agape love is learned only by being utterly broken, by suffering without resentment."
Heaven is the endgame. Heaven is our final destination. And you couldn’t spend too long in the presence of a man like Jim Harrell without realizing that heaven matters now! Heaven changes things. It sifts things. It infuses the Christian with perspective and rekindles hope. It makes us weep for joy. In my three decades of pastoring, never have I met anyone so joyfully focused on heaven as Jim Harrell.
This is all very countercultural and counterintuitive, even for us as Christians. That’s why the author of the book of Hebrews encourages us “to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). This is not complicated. The joy set before Jesus was heaven, specifically His restoration to the immediate presence of God there. In turn, our great privilege and great opportunity is to fix our eyes on the One whose eyes were riveted on heaven. If heaven was central to Jesus’ focus in this life and if Jesus is all knowing, can our focus be on anything better? So Hebrews 12:3 adds, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
And keep in mind what heaven will be like. Randy Alcorn reminds us in his book Heaven that it is a real, physical place created for real people to live forever in the presence of the one and only real God of the universe and his Son, Jesus Christ, with new but very real and physical resurrection bodies. There is a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem coming, according to Revelation 21 and 22. The new Jerusalem will have streets, rivers, and fruit trees—all the stuff of a very tangible, physical place. Therefore, the common misperception that heaven will be a boring place (as mentioned by my friend Jim in his e-mail) where we just float on clouds and strum harps is shortsighted and biblically inaccurate. We will have cities, not to mention a universe, to explore; untold and unimaginably privileged service to render; worship to experience; and all sorts of things to learn, people to meet, and loved ones to reunite with.
Alcorn talks about receiving people into our heavenly dwellings. Personally, I can’t wait to have dinner with the likes of David and Job; Martin Luther; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer! And while I love the Google Sky Map app on my smartphone, I know it will pale in comparison to learning new-creation astronomy in heaven; can you imagine the celestial light shows?
This life is not all there is. According to Jesus, death isn’t a termination for the believer, it’s a transition. Life on earth is a temporary assignment. As Billheimer points out, God uses this life to prepare us for the next one. We are not home yet. Jesus told His followers, “You know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14:4). Do you? Jim, Tom, and Carol did.
Truth #4: Whoever Believes in Jesus Will Live with Him in Heaven Forever
Not too long ago, my small group did a get-to-know-you exercise called “Three Truths and a Lie.” You probably have heard of it and maybe even done it. You make a list of statements about yourself; three are true and one is a lie, and you try to fool people about which is the lie. It’s quite fun and a good excuse for us pastors to lie, which we don’t get to do very often!
I’ve added a couple of true statements, but here’s essentially what I shared with our group about me.
1. I was robbed in an airport in Eastern Europe by a soldier holding a machine gun.
2. I spent a night in jail for a DUI.
3. I chased a bear out of a campsite in the middle of the night.
4. I punched my alcoholic father in the face.
5. I barefoot water-ski on lakes where there are alligators and make my kids do the same.
6. I lived such a wild life that decades later my old friends are astonished that I’m a pastor.
Based on what I told you in chapter 1, you might remember that number 5 is true. The lie here is number 4. My father was an alcoholic, but I never punched him; I never even came close. I just felt sorry for him, actually. I really didn’t know him.
What I really want you to notice in this exercise is that my life has been totally and radically transformed by Jesus Christ. My life of faith began way back in 1973 in Dallas—in the fraternity house where I was living, no less. When that happened, when God drew me to Himself, everything—I mean everything—changed for me. The purposelessness and emptiness I had felt as I bounced from one party to the next was immediately replaced with a deep love relationship with Christ and an overwhelming sense of significance and mission. Life suddenly made sense. The dots connected.
I want that for you, too. Why? Because according to God’s Word, we don’t need tips, we need transformation. That is, you and I don’t need spiritual tips so we can get a better handle on our own lives; we need spiritual transformation of the one life we can’t handle—our own. This is why Paul insists in 2 Corinthians 5:17-18, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.”
Either we are “a new creation” or we are not. To be in Christ, according to Paul, doesn’t mean we have better insights or are nicer people; it means we are radically and completely converted. Salvation, then, isn’t something we attain by living a certain way; it’s a miracle we receive. As Francis Chan says over and over in his book Crazy Love, salvation is to be obsessed with Jesus—and the obsession is a gift of God. New creatures have a new obsession!
Salvation is by faith alone, through grace alone, based on the work of Christ alone. It is not something you earn or deserve; it is a gift you receive. This is why Michael Horton warns in Christless Christianity that our ultimate need isn’t for divine assistance in the process of moral transformation, it’s for a one-sided divine rescue operation in which our responsibility is to believe. Horton writes, "Our intuition tells us that if we just hear more practical preaching (that is, moving exhortations to follow Jesus), we will improve. When this becomes the main diet, however, we do not find ourselves improving. . . . But bring me into the chamber of a holy God, where I am completely undone, and tell me about what God has done in Christ to save me; tell me about the marvelous indicatives of the gospel—God’s surprising interventions of salvation on the stage of history despite human rebellion—and the flickering candle of faith is inflamed, giving light to others."
That doesn’t mean Christ followers never experience difficulty. But as Tim Keller points out in The Reason for God, “If we again ask the question ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition.” I have found it enormously helpful to keep looking at the Cross. The fact that Christ was crucified in my place for my sins means that God loves me so much that He took my sin and put it on His beloved Son. Really, I have no worries. I know God loves me because Jesus died for me.
The New Testament tells us that although our sin has separated us from God, Christ died on the cross, not because the Jews or the Romans outmaneuvered Him, but to rescue us from our sin. To prove that the work of Christ was acceptable to God, God raised Him from the dead. This is the gospel. And responding to the gospel in faith is how people like you and me are made right with God and radically transformed. We were once sinful (truth #1); are now submissive (truth #2); but are still alienated, that is “not home yet” (truth #3); but one day will live with Jesus forever (truth #4).
According to the New Testament, saving faith doesn’t come merely from believing that Jesus existed (James 2:19 tells us even the demons believe God exists); it comes from trusting Jesus to be our Lord and Savior, our sin bearer and cosmic King. All sorts of Americans believe Jesus existed, just as they might believe a chair in their living room exists. But they aren’t trusting Him and Him alone to be their Savior. Saving faith, biblical faith, is like sitting in that chair; it’s putting the full weight of one’s eternal destiny on Jesus. Period. If you have never done so, come to Jesus. For God’s sake—for your own sake—sit in the chair. Turn to Jesus. Trust Him for forgiveness.
When you do, your perspective will change forever. J. C. Ryle, who ministered in England about 130 years ago, explained how to keep the main thing the main thing: "The Lord Jesus is an actual living Person, . . . deal with Him as such. . . . Cease to regard the gospel as a mere collection of dry doctrines. Look at it rather as the revelation of a mighty living Being in whose sight you are daily to live. Cease to regard it as a mere set of abstract propositions and abstruse principles and rules. Look at it as the introduction to a glorious, personal Friend. This is the kind of gospel that the apostles preached. They did not go about the world telling men of love, and mercy, and pardon, in the abstract. The leading subject of all their sermons was the loving heart of an actual living Christ. . . . Nothing, surely, is so likely to prepare us for that heaven where Christ’s personal presence will be all, and that glory where we shall meet Christ face to face, as to realize communion with Christ, as an actual living Person here on earth."
As I said earlier, I am a hard-charging, constantly-in-motion, easily reactive controller. A type A. Perhaps that’s why the experience in my laundry room just after Carol’s death affected me so deeply. In those moments I knew I couldn’t do what I needed to do. Not anymore, not without Carol. In effect, the laundry room personalized the death of my wife. It was my tipping point, in the worst way. I felt stripped, hung out to dry, powerless, and overwhelmed. Carol had carried me in so many ways; she was the music of my life. And now the music was over. But God stepped into my despair, assuring me of His presence and power in a very personal way. My panic gave way to peace, my sorrow to joy, my confusion to conviction.
I realize the four truths we’ve examined in this chapter are basic Christianity—principles we easily assent to when times are good. Yet each one of them took on new meaning for me as I climbed out of the pit of my grief and began to make sense of life in the aftermath of incredible loss. These truths have, in ways I never experienced before, become deep and sustaining friends. Now I know, based on personal experience, that they will not fail. That’s why I commend them to you.