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Laugh and Live? or Cry and Die?

Laugh and Live? or Cry and Die?

Have you ever gotten to the place where you wish you could just check out of this life, just be done with it all – and go on home to Jesus?

Yeah, I’ve felt that a lot, since Dominic.

And apparently, I’m not alone:

  • “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”  1 Corinthians 5:1-5

There is a question that has plagued me, since Dominic, related to this issue of God and suffering: “Why did God even make us for this earth? If heaven is the essence of goodness with no suffering, death, or evil, then why do we have to stay here, in the middle of all of the tragedy and sorrow, when we could go live with Him forever and be pain free?”

Yes, I know that my children need me and I have incredible blessings on this earth, and God has a plan and purpose for me, and suffering puts me in the place to help others, yada yada yada. Sure, all of that is true. But I want a more substantial answer – a more fundamental intention-of-the-Creator soul answer that goes beyond mere responsibilities or blessings on this earth.

And, no, I’m not planning on offing myself or anything, and you don’t need to start asking me, “Do you have a plan?” safety questions. This is an existential crisis. A spiritual, theological, back-to-basics quandary that has everything to do with how well I can live. How well I can invest in this life, with all of its wounds, burdens, and afflictions. Because there is some point, as a Christian, at which the bad of life feels like it outweighs the good, and when you know you are bound for a place where there is only good…

It’s enough to make ya want to just be done with all of this and go there now.

Reconciling God and Evil

It’s the problem that, no matter how well you think you’ve solved it, just keeps coming up again and again: The problem of how to reconcile God and suffering.

I know that for many people, the answer to which they arrive is if God allows suffering in the world, then God must not be good. But that has never been my conclusion; even with Dominic I have had settled in my soul that my Lord is very, perfectly, good. Others assume that if God allows us to experience pain, even if He doesn’t cause the pain, then He must not be completely loving. Yet that, too, hasn’t been a stumbling block for me. The whole of scripture, the cross, and Jesus’ work in my own life have unequivocally demonstrated His overwhelming, comprehensive love for me.

None of those is problematic for me. I know that my Lord is good, and that He loves me and is working within this fallen world to bring good out of my pain and suffering. In fact, I can’t understand how the difficulties of life cause people to run away from Him – because, for me, He is the only good there is! Running away from God because you are suffering is, to me, the equivalent of running away from the fireman trying to save you from the burning building. He is the only rescue, the only relief I’ve got in this world of hurt. How could I possibly hope to escape the bad in this world by moving away from the one Source of good?

For me, the response to pain isn’t to want to run away from God, but to run to Him.

Like, forever.

  • “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” Romans 8:23

Pain doesn’t make me want to quit God; pain makes me want to quit this life and go to God.

Angels and Sin

So…why were we created for this earth, for this place where there is pain and suffering and evil and death?

One could say that we are here to glorify God, but we don’t have to be on earth to do that – the angels in heaven glorify God non-stop. Or the answer might arise that we are here to live in relationship with God. But, again, that could easily happen with us being in heaven. Someone else might posit that we are here to win souls to Christ. And, sure, that’s true – but why is it true? Why is it we were created as earthly beings, who can choose God or not (capable of moral choice), rather than heavenly beings who can do the same?

It is obvious that, at least at some point, the heavenly beings had the capability to choose right from wrong. Scripture indicates that Satan and other heavenly beings created by God were, at one point, angels in heaven who, out of pride, rejected God’s authority. In Luke 10:18 Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Likewise, Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14 both are prophetic writings that directly address historical rulers at the time, but secondarily reference the spiritual power behind those kings – Satan. This ability to reject God indicates that heavenly beings were, like humans, created with the ability to make moral choices.

So, can angels sin now? And, if so, then how does that reconcile with a heaven in which there is no pain, no evil, and only the perfect goodness of God?

Scripture does not provide enough information on this issue to give a definitive answer, so I can only give an educated speculation. My best guess is that angels do still have free will, but that they do not choose to sin (hence, the reason there is no sin, death or suffering in heaven) because of

  1. not being created with a sin nature  (Ezekiel 28:11, 15)
  2. living in close relationship to the Source of Perfection, with no temptation for sin (Revelation 21:27; 7:15-17; 21:4; Isaiah 25:8; 1 Corinthians 15:54; Matthew 13:41)
  3. being able to see the consequences of sin lived out in those beings (heavenly ones and earthly ones) who did rebel against God (Ezekiel 28:17-19; Isaiah 14:15).

Angels, I believe, have the benefit of both experiencing the complete and utter perfection of God and also knowing fully the horrendous consequences of sin. The veil that temptation pulls over the eyes of those of us on earth (the lure that sin might just get us good, after all) does not exist in heaven, where we “shall know fully”, (1 Corinthians 13:12). As a result, it is my best assessment that angels have full free will – the capacity to reject God if they so desire – but they do not. They would have no reason to – they experience the fullest possible joy and goodness in heaven, and they are clearly able to understand that sin holds no gain and only fundamental, total loss.

So, again, the question for me has nagged:

Why didn’t God just create us to be angelic beings, who live with Him in heaven, without a sin nature and never having to experience the temptation of sin?

Seems to me that doing so would have helped us bypass all of this earthly pain and suffering and would’ve been a much better deal for everybody. But, then, that’s why I’m not God.

Laugh and Live or Cry and Die

Recently, when talking about grief with my father, he shared something that his mentor, Wayne Oates, seminary professor at Southern Seminary, and Father of modern pastoral care psychology, once told him. It perfectly articulates the very struggle of my soul:

“At some point in everyone’s life you come to a point where you have to make a choice:

Am I going to laugh and live?

Or am I going to cry and die?”

The answer to the question about why were created for this earth, for me, is part of my desire to do the former. So I started searching, because now, after Dominic, I need an answer. I need a God-ordained, omnipotent plan from the Source of Good that gives me the oomph to embrace my place in this afflicted, temporal life. I don’t want to walk through this life, crying and dying – a half-empty, worn and weary soul simply biding her time on this floor of suffering until she can go be with her Maker. I want to live with purpose and conviction, with passion and gusto. But I can’t, without this.

The good news is that after quite a while of struggling and searching, I think I’ve found the answer.

The Greatest Good

Why did God create us for this earth, and make us with the capacity to freely choose evil?

It’s because God doesn’t just want good – He wants the greatest good.

  • “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he”. Deuteronomy 32:4
  • “…Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Hebrews 12:2
  •  These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” Hebrews 11:39

God didn’t just want creatures with the ability to choose to love Him, although He certainly did want that. He wanted the greatest good possible. He could have created humans with the ability to choose (such as between two good options), without the ability to choose between good and evil. The capability to make choices does not require the liberty to make moral choices. But for God’s beings to attain the highest good possible – the greatest moral good achievable – they had to be able to freely choose good, when evil was a fully available option.

If God had created beings who were incapable of choosing between good and evil, then those beings would be good, but not the absolute best beings they could possibly be. It is, ironically, evil – suffering – that promotes moral growth.

  • “And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Romans 5:2-4

Consider, for example, that some of the most admirable (and Christ-like) character qualities could not exist without the presence of evil: forgiveness, patience (long-suffering), mercy, peacemaking, self-control, courage, discernment, perseverance. These virtues can only be attained by souls that have experienced evil and chosen to overcome it. Although moral freedom creates the atmosphere in which suffering can occur, it also creates the capacity for moral growth. And God wants us to be the best us possible. The greatest joy comes not from beings who love because they are good and cannot choose otherwise, but from beings who are not fundamentally good yet choose to love good in spite of the evil in them and around them.

Jesus explained it this way:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven…If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48

God wants not just good, but the greatest good possible. And to attain it requires suffering.

The Reward for Choosing Good

It stands to reason, then, that if heaven is a place without evil, because its creatures (for the reasons listed above) are always good, that means that heavenly beings do not have the capacity for moral growth. The angels will remain at whatever level of “goodness” at which they were created. Humans, on the other hand, have been endowed the ability to increase their level of goodness. When humans, being born with a sin nature, and surrounded constantly by the temptation to sin on this earth, voluntarily choose good – it has eternal impact on their soul.

What is that impact? What is that “hope” that Paul referred to in Romans 5:4?

The more good our soul becomes through enduring pain and suffering and choosing good over evil, the greater the reward we will receive for eternity.

Salvation by Grace, Reward by Works

Let’s be clear. Salvation – getting in to heaven, if you will – comes by faith, not by any works we do on our own (Ephesians 2:8). It is God’s grace to us, which we simply accept; once we have repented of our sin and chosen to become disciples of Christ, we gain our inheritance in heaven, forever. However, the rewards we receive when we get there, scripture indicates, are based on our actions:

  • “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” Matthew 5:11-12
  • “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Matthew 6:1
  • “Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection.” Hebrews 11:35
  • “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” 1 Timothy 4:8
  • “But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” Isaiah 49:4
  •  “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:6
  • “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.” Matthew 10:41
  • “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” Matthew 10:42
  •  “The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.” 1 Corinthians 3:8
  • “…Because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.” Ephesians 6:8
  • “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.” Hebrews 10:35
  • “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Colossians 3:23-25
  • “He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.” Hebrews 11:25-26

The Hebrews 11 “Hall of Faith” details the trials that men and women of God willingly endured out of faith “so that they might gain an even better resurrection” (v. 35) – there is a connection between choosing good in this life and rewards in the next. Voluntarily choosing godliness – righteousness – in this life, where both our natures and our surroundings tempt us toward the opposite, gain us something tangible in eternity. Although the Bible doesn’t exactly specify what those rewards are, I have a feeling they are going to be pretty freaking awesome. And I, for one, want them.

Growing My Soul, One Choice at a Time

So it seems that there is a special kind of soul growth that can only be obtained by those who live in a world in which evil exists; there is a greater goodness that comes from moral beings voluntarily choosing good over evil (especially when they are actively tempted by that evil), than can come from simply being created “good”. And it is a soul growth that can only occur in this life.

The consummate Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, wrote, in Mere Christianity:

“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.”

I have obtained the answer I’ve been looking for. This idea lends a special purpose and urgency to my time here on Earth: I am here, in this world, to become more like Christ with every choice I make. I long for heaven, like Paul, and I cannot wait for the day when I get to see my Dominic and bask in the glory of God’s unfathomable goodness, and experience nothing but beauty, joy, and utter fulfillment. But my experience of that beauty, joy, and fulfillment will be even greater, the more my soul is like His. It is the successful struggle over evil in this life that produces the greatest good in our souls. And each pain, every sorrow, all suffering – are opportunities to choose good over evil, to transform our character and personhood into what it will be for eternity. Every single trial, every individual action, every tiny decision between God’s way versus my own way in this life is the chance to transform my soul, bit by bit, into its greatest good – so that, in eternity, I can experience the greatest reward.

The verses at the beginning of this post from 1 Corinthians detailed Paul’s desire to leave his earthly body and go on to heaven to be with His Lord. But His message didn’t end there:

  • Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” 1 Corinthians 5:6-10

We may prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord, but we make it our goal to please Him while we are here, with every single choice we make. Because, when we do, we will have an unbelievable reward waiting for us when we finally get to Him.

Grief has brought me here, to this crossroads of coming to terms with why the Lord has me on this earth. But the answer will spur my soul far beyond the confines of my grieving. It gives meaning to every decision I elect, to every seemingly insignificant moment of struggle. It is all, every bit of it, the process of transforming my soul into whom I will be for eternity with my Lord – and the reward I will be able to enjoy forevermore.

I can wait for that. And, with this knowledge, maybe I can even make the choice to laugh and live while I’m still here.

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