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Hope April 24, 2008

Posted by Tim in Life in Christ.

There are a few moments in my life when I’ve wrestled with a concept so huge it threatened – no, succeeded – to restructure my fundamental understanding of myself, faith, and God. The first was sophomore year of college, when I finally internalized the truth that I as a believer am a participant in the righteousness of God by faith; no longer am I mercy-delivered sinner, but instead a grace-transformed saint. The second was the revelation that Christ dwells in the fellowship of believers. The clearest scriptural expression of that I did not find until long after I had laid claim to it: Paul’s description of the church” as “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” In the course of a few weeks, the trite concept of “a personal relationship with Jesus” was radically infused with new life.

In a sense, God has taught me anew about faith (in the first case) and love (in the second). Of the three that remain, one is left: hope. Guess what God’s teaching me?

Where to begin?

Some groundwork. In the last several years, there is a phrase that has cropped up in my evangelical circles: eternal perspective”. We should have an eternal perspective, I am told, and that’s hard to deny. A missionary might come to church and grieve the loss of life in a natural disaster, and plead for the congregation to do something that “mattered for eternity” and give to relief and evangelical groups. Leaders in Christian organizations might test their effectiveness with the crucible of will this have an eternal impact?” The net result of this thinking, I have found, is sober-mindedness and a vague, almost despairing, guilt: “Yes, we should be eternal-minded. And dammit, I’m not. Oops, I cursed. Dammit.”

Then the new Christian book on the block shows up, a book called Heaven by an expert on the eternal, Randy Alcorn. I have not read his book, but I have read the introduction. It is, truly, profound. He talks about death candidly, and after declaring that Christians are afraid of heaven, dares to ask why. I laughed with his description of believers squirming as pastors rejoiced over the forever worship service in the sky. I laughed, because it is true: that is my basic concept of heaven, and I don’t want to go there. Then, Alcorn goes on, we feel guilty and spiritually immature because we can’t get worked up about a mass that will go on through millennia. In contrast, he puts forward examples from the ancient world: merchants who inscribed “Think of Death” at the top of their ledgers, or Philip of Macedon, who commissioned a servant to stand before him every day and say, “Remember, Philip, you will die.” Alcorn makes his point effectively: we should embrace death, not reject it. If our view of heaven was righted, we would be free to rejoice in our passing. But we are ignorant of God’s promises.

I agree, we are ignorant, and that needs to be corrected. But knowledge alone rarely solves anything. And in my experience, the details of the coming kingdom have been much more the ammunition of pin-head debates than the source of comfort it is meant to be.

For me, the true shift began at the casual Wednesday night Bible study at my home church in Mineola, Texas. They were coming to the end of a series on the end times that had begun in Daniel and had moved to Revelation. My pastor shared this story: A young boy had a dog, and it died. Heartbroken, the boy went to his pastor and asked, “Will my dog be in heaven?” The pastor, sensing the boy’s emotional needs, but not wanting to depart from the truth of Scripture, replied, “Son, whatever it takes to make you happy, God will have it there.”

I wish I could describe the fountain of relief that statement poured over me, like a spiritual massage relaxing tense muscles of the soul that were so clamped-up I had forgotten they existed. It is what happens when profound truth inspires profound joy: there is nothing that can resist.

Soon after, on Easter, I was at my church in College Station. The pastor took the occasion to dwell on the resurrection, our resurrection. The sermon was titled, a bit annoyingly: “Your Best Life is Not Now”. But the point was good, a call to a right understanding of now. But what is a right understanding of now?

For far too long, I have believed in a false dichotomy. There is the wrong understanding of the present, a hedonistic or nihilistic view of life that says, this is all there is, enjoy life while you can, eat, drink, and be merry. The right understanding of the present was: eternity is coming, making the most of now so that you have the maximum number of jewels and crowns to throw at his feet. You don’t want to weep when you walk into heaven, so be sure your life matters! Share the gospel so that as many who can be there will be there!

But there’s a chink in that thinking (as there may be in mine). I want to fix in on that last statement, which sounds familiar and reasonable enough: share the gospel so that as many who can be there will be there. Said another way, “Let’s accomplish as much of God’s work as we can!”

The trouble with that thinking, as good as the heart is behind it and as spiritual as it sounds, is that it is in conflict with the message of scripture. Heaven is not something we usher in, it is something God ushers in. Eternity is not something we forge, or even participate in. It is something accomplished by God, and God alone. We are his handiwork, it is God who is at work in us. The result of our surrender of heaven into the hands of God is that heaven is now secure. It is something to delight upon, not fret over. It is a source of comfort and peace, not a cause for panic or remorse. It is, in the words of the early Church fathers, our “hope”. That word has been cheapened by politics in our lifetime, but it still somehow remains powerful. For when the believer speaks of hope, he speaks of a hope that does not disappoint”.

The fundamental truth of hope is this: God will accomplish. As we gather around his throne to inaugurate the age of the redeemed, he will declare Behold, I am making all things new. …. [T]hese words are trustworthy and true. It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” Those words are a powerful echo of the words already spoken by the dying Lamb: “It is finished.” When we gather on the other side, the corrupted things will pass away and the work God set out to do will be accomplished. That is the best kind of truth, the truth that brings rest for the weary and engenders praise for the Savior. Paul can hardly write without rejoicing in this secure hope: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” “Remembering before our God and Father your… steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” “Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Truth never comes without consequences. And profound truths should have profound consequences. Paul says to Corinthians, “We do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. for this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 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.

A wrong view of eternity brings anxiety and guilt, and an emphasis on the works we must do. A right view brings peace and hope, and an emphasis on the works of God. They both place emphasis on the superiority of the eternal over the transient. But the distinction lies in this: in the wrong view, the eternal is influenced, deeply, by the transient. What an emaciated view of eternity and the work of God! Rather, I am learning, that the transient is moved by the eternal. If eternity is what matters, why emphasize the now? Rather, emphasize the eternal God and the eternal life he offers. Revel in that profound and secure truth, hope in it against all hope. As we press our souls to hear to the eternal heart of God, we will fall in love again, and we will only want for his kingdom to come, for his will to be done.

On earth, as it is in Heaven.



1. Julie - April 24, 2008

Thanks, Tim.

2. Joe Moderate - April 24, 2008

You write beautifully, Tim! I hope God uses your talent as a writer to advance his Kingdom.

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