Ambassador of Reconciliation
6/10/12 at 10:09 PM 7 Comments

Joy Is a Choice, Part 3

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Parts 1 and 2 of this series were adapted from a paper I wrote more than 20 years ago. Those principles for finding joy are just as true today as they were 2,000 years ago or 20 years ago. But at that time, I did not know about what is now my greatest joy of all. I would like to conclude this series by sharing with you what I now believe to be the source of the most exquisite joy and hope we can possibly have.

About ten years ago I wrote a letter to my pastor describing some of the struggles I was going through and asking for his help in sorting out the issues that troubled me. Under the heading “Joy” I wrote the following:

One of the hallmarks of a Christian and perhaps the quality that is most attractive to unbelievers is joy. Part of the secret of joy is keeping things in perspective and seeing them in light of eternity. The prospect of heaven can make sorrows fade into insignificance. For example, if my house and all my possessions were to burn to the ground, I would grieve the loss, but I know that we are just passing through this world and that God is preparing mansions in heaven for us that will make our houses here look like the temporary tents that they are. Similarly, if (or I should say “when”) my body breaks down, I will be sad, but I can still have joy. I know that in light of eternity it doesn’t really matter what my earthly body is like because I will be getting a new body in heaven.

Remembering that our material possessions and earthly bodies really don’t matter can help us maintain joy even in the face of loss. My problem is that there are some things that really do matter in light of eternity, like the choices we make, the words we speak, and above all, the eternal destiny of people’s souls. Life is deadly serious; our actions now do have eternal consequences, and the choices that our children make will affect them not just temporarily but often eternally. That is what makes me lose joy…. How do I maintain joy not only in the face of trials, but even when the harmful consequences do matter for eternity? We’re commanded not to worry, and I know I can trust God to provide for my needs and compensate for the loss of any temporal possessions, but how do I learn not to worry when there is real cause for worry, i.e., the eternal destiny of souls?

In other words, I believed everything the Bible teaches about keeping earthly trials in perspective by focusing on the heavenly glory to come, but I worried about those who will experience not eternal glory but eternal damnation. I understood the value of suffering to produce positive results in our lives—to refine us, conform us to the image of Christ, give us compassion for others in distress, make us long for heaven, etc.—but most of the suffering in the world is not of that nature; billions of people suffer in this life, die, and then suffer forever, without ever coming to Christ. I knew these principles:

Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all…. 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 (2 Cor. 4:17, 5:1).

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18).

But I understood that unbelievers face eternal torment that will far outweigh in horror anything they have suffered on earth, and that thought robbed me of joy. Sure, heaven would be great for me personally, but how could I enjoy it knowing that billions of others were experiencing eternal pain and hopelessness? Under the heading “Heaven” in the letter to my pastor, I wrote,

Suppose that you and your spouse are about to go on your dream vacation—the trip of a lifetime. You have planned and saved and anticipated for years, and now it is about to come true. Then you find out that your child has been in a terrible accident and is in a coma near death. Do you still want to go on the vacation? Could you enjoy it? Even seeing other people’s poverty puts a damper on a vacation, which is why travel agencies try to shield tourists from slums and begging children.

I have absolutely no doubt that heaven will be glorious and spectacular beyond our wildest dreams. I believe everything the Bible says about the wonderful place that God is preparing for us. I believe that God will wipe away every tear, heal all diseases, and restore all relationships. Yet it is hard for me to fathom how I could ever be completely happy knowing that heaven is this glorious place but the majority of people who have ever lived won’t be there. No matter how I read the Bible, I can’t get around the fact that most people don’t know God. Although countless multitudes will be in heaven, countless more will spend eternity apart from God. Even if all my children and grandchildren and all the people I care about personally are in heaven, there will be untold numbers of people that somebody cares about—somebody’s children and friends and family—who are not there.

Just knowing that it is well with my soul is not enough for me to have joy. Any peace or comfort that I have for myself is overshadowed by the lack of peace and joy that I know other people, especially my loved ones, are experiencing or will experience forever.

My pastor did not answer my questions. Books I read and sermons I heard did not answer my questions. I didn’t know anyone who had good answers to these questions. Some say that in the bliss of heaven we will not remember the wicked. Others say that when we are transformed into the image of God we will have a holy hatred of all that is evil, including all evil-doers. But even if I could convince myself that I would forget about the lost or not care about them, it would not change the fact that they would be in torment forever. How could we have a heart for the lost in this life and forget them or turn against them in the next?

I spent several more years wrestling with these questions and not coming to any resolution or peace about them. I wanted to believe that God would somehow mercifully redeem everyone, but I was afraid that believing it would mean that I didn’t really believe the Bible or I had a low view of God’s holiness or I was resistant to His will and purpose. I also worried about opening the door to liberalism, pluralism, Unitarianism, and such. I tried to delight in the Lord, and I managed to have a generally joyful disposition, but there was always a nagging unease—sometimes escalating into full-blown horror—about the billions of people who would never know the joy of the Lord and on the contrary would live with unending pain and hopelessness.

God graciously answered the cries of my heart when I came across some literature indicating that Christianity has a long history of belief in the ultimate redemption of all of creation, going all the way back to the early church and some of the church fathers. Knowing that solid Christians have held this belief (or at least felt that the Bible leaves room for it) gave me permission to explore the idea without fearing that I was stepping outside the boundaries of orthodoxy. As I have continued to dig into it, I have found more and more reasons—both scriptural and logical—to believe it.* It is absolutely not universalism in the sense that “I’ll take this road and you take that road and we’ll all wind up in the same place and live happily ever after.” Judgment is real, and salvation is only through the cross, but I am now firmly convinced that God’s grace reaches beyond death and He will not leave His beloved creatures to fry forever with no hope.

Peace comes from the certainty that God is in control. If human beings have the power to determine their eternal destiny by choosing to accept or reject Christ, then God is not in complete control. In that case, man has the last word—not God—and I cannot have confidence that God will accomplish His purposes. I do believe that we have a great deal of free will—we can make real choices with real consequences—but our will is not absolutely free. God’s purposes cannot be thwarted by man’s sin. God will have the last word; in the end, He will fully accomplish His purpose for sending Jesus to die on the cross: the redemption of all.

I can now get excited about heaven because it’s not a place where I’m in perfect personal bliss while billions more are on the outside, weeping and gnashing their teeth in their eternal torment. Rather, it’s a place where there is great joy over every sinner who repents, right down to the last straggler who comes in on his knees, humbling himself, praising God, being forgiven of every sin, and being received into fellowship with the Lord and His people.

You say it’s too good to be true? I say, Is anything impossible for God? You say it’s wishful thinking? I say, Could I or anyone else even dream up a plan that is better than what God will actually do? You say I’m trying to make God in my own image? No! It was all His idea, and it’s all in the Bible.* He wants us to have pure joy, untainted by the fear that some people will experience endless suffering. We can rest in His perfect love that casts out all fear. We can look forward to an unimaginably wonderful future when everything will be made right and the whole creation will be restored to a state even better than before sin corrupted it. Rest assured that Satan will be completely defeated and God will have complete victory, with absolutely no sin or suffering to mar the beauty and perfection of His creation. Having full assurance of God’s good purposes for all people is the source of the most unshakeable joy and peace imaginable!

Part 4 will offer some very practical keys to experiencing joy on a daily basis.

*This post simply states the view that all mankind will be reconciled to God through the cross. For biblical support for this position, see other posts on this blog, for example:

Reconciliation: The Heart of God’s Grand Plan for Creation

Presuppositions and Interpretations: How Our Assumptions Affect Our Understanding of the Bible, Parts 1-3

Pick Two (Who Got It Right: Calvinists or Arminians?)

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