In our earlier posts (Part 1 and Part 2), we have discussed the importance of rightly interpreting the promises of the Scripture. Now we will discuss what is called “The ALREADY / and the NOT YET” model of the kingdom of God. This is the age in which we find ourselves in, the age of the church.
Matt Chandler, no stranger to suffering as he recently survived brain surgery on a malignant tumor, recently release a book called “Joy in Sorrow.” In a recent interview about his book with The Gospel Coalition, Chandler said many Christians are “ill-prepared theologically to understand suffering.” Chandler said, “The errors tend to be, people have an over-realized eschatology or an under-realized eschatology. And when you err in either one of those directions, it actually adds a greater burden to the suffering itself.”
Some Christians err on the side of under-realized eschatology and say things that are “incomplete.” “With under-realized eschatology, all you’ve got is the will of God,” Chandler said, “So ‘whatever the will of God is, that’s what’s gonna happen. Don’t even worry about it. Just ride it out.’” This mentality, Chandler contended, does “great harm to people who suffer and who want to be healed” and indicates that the desire for healing is “somehow ungodly.” The mindset of “Whatever will be will be” is just too fatalistic and it’s not biblical. The Scriptures point toward a God who hears and who intervenes. The Scriptures teach us that prayer matters and we have not because we ask not. (Js 4:2) Yes, ultimately we accept God’s will and pray for the serenity to do so, but not with a passive attitude of resignation. We are called to fight the good fight of faith.
Chandler continues saying, although well-meaning, those who err on the side of an over-realized eschatology tend to cherry-pick Bible verses and say things that “just aren’t true… and I think well-meaning brothers and sisters … in that really dark moment, the impulse is, ‘let me bring hope,’ when really you should bring presence.” Instead, we’ve got these old taglines, platitudes and fake promises: ‘A breakthrough will happen. God will heal.’”
Chandler says that over-realized eschatology can be “so devastating,” however, because it “doesn’t leave any space for someone to die, or for someone to get cancer, and then ultimately die of that cancer without putting a weight on them that the word of God does not put on them.” This is my concern with some of the responses I’ve seen to our current epidemic. I think what Chandler is saying here is not that we DON’T want to bring hope, of course we do. What he is saying instead is we want to bring hope in this life, hope in this physical realm with certainty, and in doing so this is going too far. The Christian hope we bring is not always healing in the physical realm, at times this is healing in eternity. And today, we bring our presence, we promise to be “with” our brothers and sisters in pain, and we offer assurance of God’s presence, who will be “with us” to the end of the age (Matt 28:18-20).
Three Viable Options
While there is a great mystery involved in discerning the will of God in these areas, the Scripture speaks to three possible outcomes for the children of God when faced with trials:
Option 1: Sometimes God keeps us FROM the trial.
We don’t even know how often God in His grace does this for us, but it is probably countless times in our lives that He has placed over us His hedge of protection and told the enemy, “YOU MAY COME THIS FAR BUT NO FURTHER.” God can do that and does that all the time.
Option 2: Sometimes God keeps us THROUGH the trial.
For example, in Daniel 6 when Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den, while God could have kept Daniel FROM that whole ordeal, that was not His purpose. Instead, there were lessons that Daniel and those around him would learn that could only be learned by Daniel going into the Den of Lions. This is very important. We need to realize that God is not always committed to our “comfort,” He is committed to our “character.” Sometimes it takes going through trials to shape us. I think we all know that it’s in the trial where God does his best work. Sometimes God brings us into a season of temporary deprivation for our own purification. This is important, often people think that God must always choose option 1, but that is not what we read in the Bible. So, if you honestly believe that because you came to faith in Jesus that as a result God has promised you a “tragedy–free” life, with no hurts, no enemies, no sicknesses, no financial problems, If you think that Jesus promised to put you in a protective bubble where nothing bad can happen to you … the problem with that way of thinking is when you get hit hard by those things, rather than running to Jesus for comfort and help you will instead run away from Him in anger and in disappointment with God. And then you will become bitter toward God himself. Friends, that’s a bad place to be. Trials are hard and grueling, but if we know and love God, then they are never senseless. They are always purposeful to refine us, or to prepare us for what’s ahead, and bring greater fruitfulness in our lives. But we must acknowledge that other times, God has another outcome for his children and it’s this:
Option 3: Sometimes God uses the trial to DELIVER US to Himself.
Throughout the scriptures and throughout church history, there have been countless saints who have gotten sick, suffered, died and even become martyrs who stood firm to the end and God took them home. Is that because those believers lacked faith? No, it’s just that God had another purpose in their lives. Here is our greatest hope, since Christ has conquered even death, as believers we can face this outcome without fear. The worst thing that could ever happen to us is not death. The worst thing that could happen to us is being abandoned from the presence of our Heavenly father for eternity, being separated from my creator, because of the judgment of God. However, because Jesus experienced abandonment from the father on the cross on our behalf, when we have faith in Christ, we do not need to ever face this fear, because this already happened to Christ, in our place. Therefore, when a believer’s life is taken, they depart and are with Christ which is better by far. (Phil 1:20-21). The kingdom of God continues to march forward.
Therefore, for the child of God, there are three possible outcomes and whatever God chooses to do whether it’s option 1, 2 or 3, we always have the opportunity to give Him glory as God, no matter the outcome. Let’s go back to the example of Daniel 6 for a moment, in that story, God could have chosen OPTION 1, and kept Daniel from the den, but if God had done that, not only would Daniel have missed the lion, but he would have missed the angel of God who shut the lion’s mouth! And I’ll bet if you would have asked Daniel, he would say, “I wouldn’t trade that night for anything!”
And so whatever option we face, God’s challenge to us is always the same in trials, God says, “TRUST ME.”
After Chandler’s cancer treatment, I remember watching a sermon he preached on suffering and I’ll never forget what he said to his congregation, he said: “I want you to look right up here at me. Following Jesus is not going to make you wealthy. Following Jesus does not guarantee that you’re going to be healthy. The message of Scripture and the gospel of Christ is NOT that in following him everything goes right, but that He is enough no matter what happens… Jesus is enough.”
Christian, you may lose other things – but you will never lose Christ. There is only one guarantee for the Christian in this life—that your life is hidden with Christ and you have been given eternal protection as an adopted child and heir of God. God’s children are hidden with Him and their soul is safe with Him for all eternity. And so when we are hit hard by the waves of suffering, we say with the hymn writer:
“When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay,
in every high and stormy gale, the anchor holds within the veil…
… on Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”
What is the right balance? Chandler said, “I want us to believe together. I want us to ask for the gift of faith while we’re praying and expect God to heal while always having our hands wide open, and believing that God is sovereign and good and He can be trusted with this outcome,” Chandler declared. “So under mercy and not under wrath, suffering then is used according to the Bible, as a purifier, as something that draws us near to the Lord and has us understand that He is drawing near to us,” Chandler explained. “It is used to mature and build … is not punishment for the Christian.” As a Christian leader, I believe we must be careful to strike this balance in a moment like this.
So here’s a challenge for all of us to think through, in times of crisis, which way do you tend to lean? Over realized eschatology or under realized eschatology? How might your personal approach benefit from more balance?
In our next blog post (Part 4) we will discuss what is our distinctively Christian hope.
Matt Chandler, Joy in the Sorrow: How a Thriving Church (and Its Pastor) Learned to Suffer Well. (Epsom, Surray, England: The Good Book Company, 2019).
Matt Chandler’s interview with Gospel coalition: https://www.christianpost.com/news/matt-chandler-many-christians-are-ill-prepared-theologically-to-understand-suffering.html