What About Heaven?
Living among people whose suffering is relentless, heartbreaking, mind-numbing, has changed me. I am hungrier for heaven’s healing than I have ever been, especially for my friends.Take Mary.* Her childhood was a train wreck—dysfunctional family, sexual abuse, religious abuse, crippling mental illness—her adult life more of the same. In and out of institutions more times than she can count, her struggles are nearly constant, with only brief reprieves. Not yet 45, her body is disintegrating; she’s not likely to live long. Bright and gifted, she won’t realize her potential in this world.A phrase comes to mind: Life is hard and then you die. Mary’s life is indeed hard; soon she will die. We know others like her, different details, same reality. Lives filled with suffering so intense I can only face it in small batches. People finding scraps of hope while facing conditions that will likely haunt them until an early death. Life is hard and then you die—a grim truth. Were it the only one, despair would win.
But there is the greater truth, the heavenly home Jesus lovingly prepares for those, like Mary, who love him. At times she fears death, other times she longs for it. Yesterday, my wife, Diane, came back from seeing her. Weary of her suffering, Mary asked her to pray that Jesus would come and take her home.Thinking of Mary, I hole up in a coffee shop to try a Puritan practice, meditating for an hour on heaven. Headphones on, eyes closed, heart open, I think of what awaits Mary. Here, she hears voices speaking terrible things; there, those voices silenced, she will hear life and love. Here, intestinal system destroyed, she cannot eat; there, the great banquet awaits. Here, memories of abuse and crippling PTSD; there, pure peace and joy. Meditating about Mary—fully restored, fully alive—I weep.
The apostle Paul said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Given the level of suffering we see, if Paul is right, the glory that awaits is glorious indeed.Somehow, seeing our friends suffer, feeling their relentless pain, causes me to think more frequently of heaven, longing for it—for them, for me. Eternal things become clearer and more desirable.I think of the world I came from, the comfortable world of suburbia, where life seems much better than here on Colfax Street. Recently, a “Jesus on Colfax” team member, a resident of that suburban world, made a striking comment. Speaking about the challenge of radically pursuing Jesus in a pleasant world, she said, “They already have their heaven.”Having lived in both worlds—wealthy and poor—her words resonate with me. There is truth there, though not complete.Here is the deep truth: Most of those who are reading this post live lives of almost indescribable comfort and privilege, lives better than almost anyone, ever, anywhere. Pick a category—food, technology, education, creature comforts, opportunities—and you will see abundance.
Please understand—there is real suffering in the world of comfort. I don’t want to minimize that. People are people. We all suffer, and death awaits both rich and poor. However, suffering in the world of comfort and privilege is less pervasive and only rarely as deep. Most of the time, many of us have a pretty good life, even a pampered life.If you are like me, you will argue that. We don’t feel rich or pampered; we feel normal. But think about things that irritate us—our latte is not hot enough, the grocery store was out of something, our kid didn’t get into their top college choice, we have to cut back because of a financial bump, we wait another year to redo the kitchen.Air travel comes to mind. Have you ever been frustrated with it, angry because a flight was late or it was noisy or the temperature was wrong? But do we recognize that those magical birds safely deliver us to places all over the world in amazingly short times, even a little bit comfortably?
Merchants compete for our money, addressing needs and wants. Jeff Bezos became mind-numbingly rich by bringing endless stuff to our door, ordered without leaving the comfort of home. Minutes ago I ordered hiking shoes and a T-shirt. In two days they will appear at my door. And while I write this, someone is sweating away, trying to come up with a plan to crush Amazon by bringing us even better stuff, faster and cheaper.Yes, in some sense, many of us who live in comfort and security already have our heaven. Not complete, not eternal, not without suffering, but a heaven on earth filled with much lovely stuff. Is it any wonder our thoughts here so rarely turn to heaven? Or that we speak so little of heaven? Nice that it’s out there, but we can think of it later.Living among people whose lives are broken, I have learned that most of us live in a pleasant bubble only rarely pierced by harsh reality. We are poorer for that, settling for this-worldly pleasures rather than eternal ones. Our deep sin is that we are often shallow, too busy with this world to radically invest in following Jesus, loving God, loving neighbor.I say this to myself as much as to you—many of us who will inhabit eternity with Jesus live shallow lives here. That hard thought makes me wince, a likely sign it’s true.
Mary’s suffering pierces my bubble, lifting my eyes to heaven. I am richer for that. Deeper too, I think—motivated to keep eternity’s healing in mind while still serving Jesus well here.Whatever it takes—drawing alongside those among us who are suffering, being attentive to our brokenness, confronting our shallowness—we would all be richer if we thought more of heaven.*Name changed to protect her identity.This was originally published in the Banner in the "I Was Saying" column.