Hardships Eclipsed by the Glory to Come
First published 25 January 2010
This post is now incorporated with 22 other similar ‘reflections’ in my book, Facing Cancer with Faith.
Last time I wrote I was reflecting on how cancer treatment statistics could affect my approach and attitude to life. I concluded that only faith in Jesus Christ could provide an antidote to the complacency that trusts doctors and medicine more than God, and to the despondency that thinks there is no hope.
As I write this – so you know, when you read it weeks or months later – it is still only just less than two weeks since receiving the news of my cancer. And my chemotherapy treatment is due to start in the next few days. I am apprehensive. I don’t know how I will react. I don’t like feeling ill and tired, and yet all I can see ahead is months of that. So even though my writing can sometimes be a little theological, I assure you I write (especially about hardship) with trembling. I know these things to be true. I taste them. And one of my greatest fears is ever letting go of these truths, forgetting them or taking them for granted.
Neither do I want to be accused of not living in reality. I’m not sure whether you felt this at the end of my last essay, but there is a problem that still hangs over my explanation of the Christian’s antidote to reacting to statistics. And that is that Christians still suffer. Faithful Christians still go through hardship. Christians who are prayed for very specifically by the church still die of cancer. Surely if God were on our side, through faith in Jesus, then He would use His infinite creative power on our behalf to heal and rescue us when we need healing and rescuing?
I’ve already quoted Paul in Romans 8:31-32, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” All things, right?!
I realized as I was writing the last essay that I was picking up quotations from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome in a rather systematic way, almost like I was subconsciously presenting a similar argument. Be that as it may, the main reason I am still left with this problem is that I skipped a few steps in the argument.
A definite shift occurs as Paul progresses through his exposition of God’s grace in Romans. That shift occurs in chapter 8, around verse 17, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
We are heirs. There’s a future focus now that has not been particularly prevalent up to that point in the letter. We look forward to receiving an inheritance, to sharing in “his glory”.
And Paul then makes a contrast. “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) He admits that our present sufferings will continue, and that the full realization of what God achieved for us in Christ is still to be revealed in the future. But the comparison between the two is not worth making.
Until that full realization occurs we feel a tension. There is something we desperately long for and look forward to – a glory, a rest, a freedom – but we have to wait for it. Here is how Paul describes it:
“The creation waits with eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration… in hope that the creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Romans 8:19-25)
Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, Paul says, “For our light and 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. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Likewise Peter says in his first letter, “In [God’s] great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5) That’s one of the longest, most convoluted sentences I think I’ve seen even in an English translation of the Bible! But you can’t really miss the things to focus on. They are:
- the hope;
- the imperishable, unspoilable, unfading inheritance;
- our shielding by God’s power through faith;
- the coming of our salvation in the future.
The point is this. If I focus on my cancer, and what God may be doing with it, whether it will be cured or not, I am fixing my eyes on what is seen. And what is seen is temporary. The temporary things remain temporary and are fading away, groaning, waiting for something better. In fact, illness is one of the things that points to the fact that there is something better.
God has healed people miraculously at various times, when Jesus and His disciples were on Earth 2000 years ago, and since. But we must also reflect on the fact that most sick people that came into contact with even Jesus did not get healed supernaturally. These miracles were/are signs, pointing to the redemption of the world that Jesus achieved by dying on the cross in our place. But the full redemption and the full glory of that kingdom is still in the future.
We cut ourselves off from such joy, and such comfort, if we restrict our view of God’s work in our lives through Jesus to the here and now – the forgiveness we have now for our past sins, the joy we have now in our forgiveness, the peace we feel now in our trials, the prayers that are answered now. This is almost nothing! God has promised us a whole new world, an “eternal glory”, an “inheritance”, the fullness of salvation – in the future – all because of what Jesus has done for us.
This is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:50-57:
“I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, now does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep [i.e. die], but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
“‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.“
This brings us full circle, back to Romans chapter 8:37-39:
“…in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We are “more than conquerors” in “all these things”, because our future victory is assured, no matter what happens in this life. We are assured a bodily resurrection, where our imperfect bodies will be changed and become perfect. We will live in a “new creation”. “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
So I will not trust in statistics, or get depressed by statistics, telling me how likely I am to be cured. In reality, taking the very long view, I am 100% likely to be more than cured – because of what God has done for me in Christ! No comparison really! Praise God!
But I have one more circle back left to do. And that is to Hebrews 12, which is where I started this series (I didn’t realize it would be a series back then!).
“Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
We are following in our Saviour’s ways if we look to him, fix our eyes on him, imitate him. He endured the worst thing ever on the cross – the punishment, the hell, the separation from God, the shame, the wrath, that we deserved – because he looked forward to the “joy set before him”. He looked forward to His resurrection and His vindication and exaltation to the right hand of the throne of God. And we too can look forward to that kind of glory, if we are in Christ.
That’s why it’s so important to “fix our eyes on Jesus.”