Pain, Suffering, and the Hope of Eternity

I was recently with a group of people who were asking big questions about life. One of the resounding questions pertained to the problem of pain and suffering. Why, my friends wondered, do good people suffer? Another person chimed in, “Why does suffering exist at all and what does it tell us about the character of God?” Their questions, of course, are not new. They have been discussed within Christian circles for a thousand years or more. Even with all the discussion historically, the reality of pain and suffering continues to cause us unrest. Answers are not forthcoming and our best attempt at answers brings little hope in the face of tragedy or an ailing loved one.

Nonetheless, I think one of the reasons why pain and suffering is so challenging for us is because we fixate on this life while ignoring eternity. I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of people’s suffering, I just believe that we think too much about this life and fail to recognize the eternal glory presented to us in the person of Jesus.

I’m also afraid the allure of this life keeps us perpetually distracted from weightier issues. We want the best job with the highest income potential. We search for the best vacation spots and begin dieting so we can have the perfect body when we arrive at our destination. We want the newest and best tech toys and keep our eyes out for the latest updates to our gadgets. Should I dare mention the pursuit of money?

The truth is, we are extremely busy people. We are taught that we shouldn’t only want the best things in life but are somehow deserving of them. Pain and suffering is viewed as an affront to our happiness and livelihood. Our expectations are crushed when anything other than health and wealth are inserted into our stories.

To be fair, desiring good things from life is not bad; however, when we lose sight of eternity, our desires become ultimatums which in turn steal our joy because they over-promise and under-deliver. Too many of us live as if this life is the end of the story. But, what if there is more? What if we are overlooking something of tremendous value?

The Apostle Paul said it best: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:2-4).

In what follows, I’ll share three reasons why I think setting our minds on eternity can change our attitude about pain and suffering.

1. God set eternity in the human heart.

We were made for eternity. The book of Ecclesiastes says that God has set eternity in the human heart (3:11). We were all made for something more — something weightier than the present moment. The problem is, many of us cannot see past our current circumstances to the eternal matters before us. The Bible speaks of eternal joy for the children of God. Our earthly pleasures cannot compare to the eternal pleasures we will experience beyond this life.

I long to be a person who thinks deeply about eternity. So much of what happens in my life is shaped by what I allow into my mind. When I invite worry in, I live with stress and an underlying anxiety. It seems like everything I do and every conversation I have lacks zeal and sincerity. My attitude in these moments lowers the morale of everyone around me. But what about when I set my mind on eternity?

I long for the day when pain and tears will no longer be normative. I eagerly anticipate the restoration of all things. I will be in the presence of faithful Jesus for all eternity. That is my future. If you are in Christ, that is your future. Regardless of current pain and suffering, there is hope for God’s children.

2. You are a mist.

When you live for this life only, your actions become prideful as you boast in your plans. James said, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (4:14). I’m not sure if you can get more pointed than that! We are merely mist that appears and is quickly gone. That is the reality of life. There is nothing stable about mist.

Our vain attempts at holding onto the things of this life will devastate us when death calls. Unless we understand eternity and our place in it, anything that enters our story not decorated in our earthly desires will leave us empty and brokenhearted.

3. Our suffering is achieving an eternal glory.

When pain and suffering enters our stories, we can rejoice because God is working something eternal in us. Our pain and suffering is not meaningless. Though it may not make sense to us now, what will be eternally revealed in us will far outweigh any amount of pain in this life.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light 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, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

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