For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Philippians 1:21)
Today I asked my kids what they pictured when they thought of heaven. My 7-year-old responded, “I’m pretty sure there will be gold streets and cupcakes. Lots of cupcakes.” To be fair, he can’t eat gluten, dairy, or corn, so I can’t blame him for longing for cupcakes. My 5-year-old thought hard and responded, “I’m not really sure, but I’m pretty positive that there will be boats and beaches.” I think she’s associated heaven a little bit with Florida, but at least she’s picturing something beautiful. My 3-year-old simply looked at me with a confused look and plainly responded, “Huh?”
I remember having similar thoughts about heaven after I had surrendered my life to the lordship of Jesus Christ at a young age. I pictured a place where we enjoyed our favorite things and did as we pleased. Sure, it sounded great, but the tangible things of earth were far more enticing.
Today, my view of heaven is drastically different. It is no longer this far-off world of floating angels and harps but instead is the home I long for more each day. So what has changed?
God has used the tool of suffering to cultivate in me a greater desire to be in the presence of Christ above anything else. He has been teaching me that the days of my life are a gift to be used how he chooses, for his purposes, and yet being with Christ is truly what I long for.
When I was young, I felt I could conquer the world. There were things to achieve, places to go, and exciting days ahead. Sure, there were bumps along the road, but overall, my world was comfortable. I had no real reason to long for heaven when earth felt like my home.
So I began seeking satisfaction through athletics, friends, and outward morality. It didn’t take long till many of those attempts at happiness brought emptiness rather than satisfaction, confusion rather than confidence, and stress rather than peace. I was seeking something that could not be found within myself or the world because I was created to be in Christ.
But God shows his grace and love for us when he allows us to suffer the pain of our sin and the false hopes of the world. He does this to shows us that the home we long for is with Jesus Christ, by whom we were created and in whom we find our life.
Over the years, as my naivety has been met with the realities of life on this earth, I have begun to find treasures I never knew to seek. I believe God uses suffering in our lives in several ways to turn our eyes from an earthy focus to a heaven-bound hope:
1. Suffering reminds us that the world can never fully satisfy our desires.
Suffering exposes temporal pleasures for what they really are: counterfeits disguised as treasures. The grace of suffering pushes us to seek something greater than the world and lifts our eyes to the eternal hope of storing up treasures in the kingdom of heaven. We can then endure, knowing that one day we will fully experience the presence of Christ without sin or the pull of the world.
Temporal treasures can include:
- Money or success
- Seeking our own solutions when God doesn’t seem to answer us the way we think he should
- Serving and doing good for our own glory rather than God’s glory
- Planning our lives around what is comfortable rather than seeking God’s will through his Word and prayer
While the Lord graciously blesses us with things far beyond what we deserve, we can end up seeking those blessings as if they are of more value than Christ. Sometimes it takes the stripping away of a “good” thing to reveal what we are treasuring. We can either anxiously toil for temporal treasures or we can lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven, which will last for eternity and ultimately bring us the satisfaction we seek. As I recently heard Jerry Bridges say:
“We must preach the gospel to ourselves daily because our default setting is performance.”
Are you seeking something other than Christ in the hope it will satisfy you? Most of us do at some time or another, even when we are too blind to see it. We must fight discouragement when we catch ourselves once again being pulled into the pleasures of the world. For as long as we live in the flesh, we will wage war against our fleshly desires.
We can bring these things to Christ seeking forgiveness and his strength to let go of anything that hinders us from seeking things of eternal value.
2. Suffering that comes as a result of “taking up our cross to follow him” strengthens us by helping us experience a greater oneness with Christ until the day we find eternal rest in his presence and glory.
We can be confident, that although we suffer as Christ did, we also will be glorified as Christ is.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection of the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)
What gain did Paul have that he counted as rubbish? His godly heritage, comfort, abilities, achievements, and self-righteousness. But he counted it all loss for the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” I’m sure the loss of those things was not an easy or painless process for Paul. In fact, he clearly says that he suffered the loss of all things. But even as he suffered these losses, he was confidently able to say that he counted them as rubbish in comparison to gaining Christ.
God ordains every single moment of our lives. Nothing is outside of his sovereignty, so we can trust that whatever he allows will be used for his eternal purposes in our lives and those around us. Although I often still struggle with embracing my suffering, I’m thankful that Christ has graciously allowed me to experience pain in order to open my eyes to see glimpses of what Paul so confidently stated: “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”
3. Suffering strips away the facade of self-righteousness to reveal the deeply rooted sin within our hearts, creating in us a greater desire for the righteousness found only in Christ.
We then strain towards the prize and long for the heaven-bound hope to be free from the constant battle within us.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (Philippians 3:12-16)
It is possible to suffer and long for heaven only for relief of the pain. While heaven is a glorious reward for those who ran hard and fought the good fight, there is an even greater desire that suffering can produce as Christ pours his strength into us. Over time, he changes our desires from relief of pain alone to desiring the presence and fullness of himself beyond anything else.
As we endure the seasons of suffering Christ has ordained in our lives, we can long for the day with hope that Paul described in 2 Timothy 4:7-8:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
So persevere, brothers and sisters in Christ! Do not give way to despair in your suffering and do not fear it. For it is preparing you to find your greatest joy in sitting at the feet of Christ and basking in his glory for eternity with a crown of righteousness. Let’s not settle for anything less. Eternity is at stake.