Now and Not Yet There’s one certain answer: that given to Job
For 37 years during the early 1900s, nondescript man named Arthur Stace wandered the streets of Sydney, chalk in hand, writing the word “Eternity” in an elegant copperplate. This one word, repeated over and over, led a generation of people to wonder exactly what Stace meant.
Why the word “eternity”, when eternity is so far away? Why not a word we can experience in the present, like “love” or “peace”? What does eternity have to do with us today?
Plenty. While for many people eternity is more a sentimental concept than a reality to be dealt with here and now, for the Christian it is of crucial importance if we are to have a biblical understanding of how to live in the two worlds we occupy — the now and the not yet. The world which is seen and the world which is unseen, as Paul writes.
At every turn we are painfully aware that we live in a fallen world. And part of living in that world means that we endure suffering and pain and trials. Suffering causes us to sit up and take notice because it is a very real part of the present world. Eternity seems so far away. The pain is here and very present. Our natural human response to suffering is to focus on the microcosm of our lives, while God wants to paint a much grander, larger picture of His redemptive purposes.
So, how is the Christian to make sense of the suffering we do and will inevitably face? And how can the promises of God regarding eternity bring us hope and comfort in the midst of trials and suffering?
Throughout the Scriptures we are shown portraits of individuals who suffered in various ways — Job, Joseph, Mary, Noah, David, to name but a few.
As I read these accounts slowly and try to put myself in their shoes, I am staggered by the ordeals they were called to endure — loneliness, physical beatings, abandonment, ridicule, carrying a child out of wedlock, imprisonment, losing children through disasters, sickness, isolation.
But the Bible doesn’t dwell on their pain. It focuses on the importance of their, and our, response to that suffering.
As George Schwab writes, “The way that any sufferer emotionally and spiritually deals with his or her situation is more significant than the precipitating cause”. We certainly see this in the book of Job. While the writer says little about the various calamities that befall Job (though the sketchy details of the deaths of his children, abandonment by his friends, and debilitating and painful illness are enough to make me shudder), we are given a full account of Job’s responses to his circumstances. Two aspects of God’s dealings with Job serve as a pattern for helping anyone who is suffering and in pain. First, Job needed personal contact with God. “Before, I had only heard about you, but now I see you,” he says (Job 42:5). It is not enough for us to merely acknowledge certain theological truths. The cure for Job lay not in getting answers to the question of why it all happened to him; it was in encountering God in the midst of the “whirlwind” of life. When we suffer, we need to have a sense of God’s presence.
As Warren Wiersbe recounts, “People write to me and say, ‘I am going through this circumstance and I don’t understand it’. I write back and say, ‘I don’t understand it either, but I don’t have to understand it. We don’t live by explanations, we live by promises’.”
The promises of God revealed in His Word point to His very real, ever constant nearness to us.
Second, when we are going through suffering we need what God gave to Job — complete restoration. The New Testament book of James implores Christians to patiently endure all things, waiting for the coming of the Lord. James interprets the book of Job in the light of its last act.
James claims, in effect, that we are all in the same situation as Job before his restoration. We are called to endure various trials in this life, looking forward to the day of our complete and satisfying restoration at the coming of the Lord.
What is the ultimate solution to the problem of pain and suffering? Restoration. Through Job’s restoration, God’s purposes are most clearly seen. Pain is not to be philosophised away through rational thinking, talked out, ventilated through catharsis, marginalised, medicated into oblivion, ignored, given a silver lining or explained. Only the hope of restoration, and the knowledge that God has a purpose behind and beyond the pain, enables the suffering Christian to endure the pain faithfully, in hope of Christ’s return. As the Apostle Paul writes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
Despite the pain of suffering, there can be a purpose in it, if we respond correctly. For what purpose does God allow believers to suffer? There is not one main purpose in suffering, but rather several reasons why God allows believers to experience times of pain and suffering. These include the greater sanctification in the life of the believer; for the benefit of others in the body of Christ; to be able to identify with unbelievers; and for God Himself and His glory.
Suffering also can take the believer through the refining fires of holiness. If life was always good, and we never faced pain, we would never see a need for our character to be conformed into the image of Christ’s.
We can often too easily privatise and temporalise the gospel. We reduce its purpose and promises to whether or not we currently experience individual happiness. We lose sight of the grand agenda of the gospel that is more about the coming of Christ’s kingdom than it is about my individual happiness.
God is at work to radically change us at the level of our heart — how we live and what fruit we bear. This is the redemptive good that He is doing. And He has given us everything we need to live a godly life in the midst of the situation in which He has placed us. God’s focus is redemptive, eternal and spiritual. To the degree that our focus is individual, temporal and physical, we are at cross-purposes with God.
Job gained wisdom through his suffering and encounter with God. He put himself, rightly, in the position of dependence upon God for wisdom.
Sufferings enable us to grow in faith. As James states, trials are an occasion for joy because they produce perseverance, bringing maturity and spiritual wholeness to the believer. However, in order for pain to have its way in the Christian, we must be wise (James 1:2-5).
When the problem of suffering burned like an inextinguishable fire in Job’s bones, and he cried for a personal hearing before God to vindicate himself and ask why, he received one answer, and one alone. From out of the whirlwind came the final unequivocal word to be spoken concerning human suffering:
I do in all the world according to my own good pleasure. I scattered the stars in the sky as I saw fit, and I created the beasts of the field and stream according to my desires. Job — where were you when all this took place? And who are you to question what I do with my own? I am sovereign.
God governs even the tumultuous and chaotic aspects of life, even evil. Job, Joseph, Moses, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, to name but a few among a host recorded in the Bible, attest to the sovereignty of God through all the circumstances and situations of life. His sovereignty is the ultimate truth that meets human need. And nothing less than this truth can satisfy the longing heart or calm the troubled soul.
We have a God who rules the now and the not yet. The present and eternity. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully...” (1 Cor 13:12).