As a pastor and theologian, I’ve had to think about a lot of hard questions over the years. Truth be told, however, the most difficult problem I’ve faced is the problem of suffering. We all face suffering in some way, and we all know people who’ve lived such painful lives that we wonder how they can go on.
We don’t ever want to downplay or deny the pain that suffering brings. Christianity isn’t a system of Stoic denial wherein we pretend that everything is OK even when we are enduring the worst things. At the same time, we dare not forget the Christian hope that one day suffering will be gone forever. When we deal with suffering, we tend to have our gaze completely locked on the present, but the Christian answer to suffering, while making it incumbent upon us to alleviate present suffering as much as we are able, looks beyond the present to the future.
The very essence of secularism is the thesis that the hic et nunc, the here and now, is all there is. There is no realm of the eternal. But as Christians, we are called to consider the present in light of the eternal. This is what Jesus preached again and again. What does it profit a man if in this time and in this place he gains the whole world, but he loses his own soul (Luke 9:25)?
Scripture says that the end defines the significance of the beginning (Eccl. 7:8). God alone knows the end from the beginning comprehensively, but in His Word, He gives us a glimpse of the end toward which we are moving. And if we can focus our attention on the end and not merely on the now and the pain we experience here, we can begin to understand our pain in the right perspective.
In unfolding the new heaven and the new earth, Revelation 21–22 gives us one of the clearest glimpses of the future. Let me touch on a few of the highlights.
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (21:3–4). When I was a little boy, life was tough. There was a boy in our community who was much bigger than I was, and he was a bully. Sometimes he would beat me up, and I would run home crying. And my mother would be in the kitchen, and she’d have her apron on, and she’d say, “Come here.” I’d come in, and then she’d lean over and wipe away my tears—one of the most tender forms of communication—with the edge of her apron. When my mother wiped away my tears, I was truly comforted, and I was encouraged to go back into the battle. But I’d go back out, and sooner or later I’d get hurt again, and I would cry again, and my mother would have to wipe my tears away again. But when God wipes away our tears, they will never flow again for all eternity. (Unless, of course, they are tears of joy.)
That’s the eternal perspective. That’s the end from the beginning. Right now we live in the valley of tears, but that situation is not permanent because God will wipe away our tears.