- Written by Margaret Bernhart
No book of the Bible is more fascinating or confusing than Revelation. Unlike other scriptures that record the words of God, this Apocalyptic writing is God himself speaking to the seven churches in Asia in the midst of their suffering and oppression. He encourages them to persevere in devotion and good works as the fulfillment of His redemptive plan is at hand. Jesus Christ will be revealed, not as the suffering servant veiled in human flesh, but as a mighty warrior who will crush evil and suffering forever. At long last, we will see God face-to-face. As His resplendent bride, we will be invited to the grandest of all celebrations–the wedding feast of the Lamb. Revelation’s portrayal of the end times offers a glimpse into God’s continual pursuit of His people and the purpose of suffering. It reveals how we are to live our lives caught between two worlds– “groaning and suffering the pains of childbirth”(Rom. 8:22), and waiting for Christ’s return. Just like the early church, we are in need of hearing these same words today.
The persecution and martyrdom of these Jewish descendants came from both the Jews and Romans. Many existed in poverty and most lived in fear because of their faith. Not only were these perilous times, but the churches suffered the same trials and tribulations that we encounter: natural disasters, poor health, mental afflictions, marital problems, trials brought on themselves, and relational suffering engendered by other Christians. As second generation Christians, they were unable to maintain the dynamic faith of their forefathers. Opposition from without and deceptive cults from within slowly eroded their faith, extinguishing their hope. During this time, John, the Apostle, received the Apocalyptic visions and the words of Jesus to the seven churches while imprisoned on a desolate, volcanic rock island in the Aegean Sea.
Jesus commends the churches for remaining true to the teachings of God’s Word, safeguarding orthodox leadership, and persevering in suffering, while not denying the faith. Simultaneously, he rebukes them for succumbing to cultural practices opposed to the gospel, and tolerating sexual immorality and pagan worship by church members. To three of the seven churches Jesus specifically identifies them as either the passionless, the living-dead, or the lukewarm. In other words, their lifeless approach to faith meant they were performing the proper Christian disciplines without enthusiasm and devotion. Jesus speaks of their apathy as nauseating.
Waking the Living-Dead
When in suffering’s crucible we refuse to ache over the disappointment of unmet desires, we deaden our souls. C. S. Lewis says there are three means God uses to arouse our hearts: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience and shouts to us in our pain.” Pleasure makes us feel alive. Hiking in the mountains on a cool autumn day bathes our senses and invigorates the soul, in same way that being in the embrace of the one we love heightens our senses and warms our heart. We are made for pleasure. Our hunger for pleasure is so deep that we easily become ensnared in addictions. All addictions and the idolizing of people, power, and money are forms of worship. Pleasure is never found by focusing on the object of our thirst as that leads to self-destruction. Pleasure is always a bi-product of living for selfless and noble ideals, rooted in devotion to Christ. Because we are so easily satisfied, God in His goodness rigs the world with frustration so our attachments and affections are never fully satisfied. Pleasure’s design is to lead us to the Creator, who is worthy of our worship. Sadly, the passionless often go to great lengths to avoid pleasure.
Like pleasure, our conscience is made to evoke response, but in a far less comfortable way. We are pained when we transgress the relational and ethical laws placed in our hearts by God. Our conscience can be likened to a harness. It chafes when we are going in the wrong direction. If we choose to resist, the inner compass grows silent. Sadly, the living-dead often require little of their inner compass. Instead, they seek others to tell them what to do. Their conscience atrophies from lack of use.
Graciously, God provides yet another avenue to rouse us from our slumber–it is the mercy of pain. Suffering has a way of stripping off shallow affinities and exposing the essential and deepest longings of our hearts. If you have ever struggled with a life-threatening illness, loss of a loved one or gone through a divorce, you know that you don’t go through these agonizing experiences and remain the same. Pain changes us. A biblical perspective on suffering doesn’t minimize pain or seek to emotionally detach, rather it faces the struggle while surrendering to the process. In surrender we offer ourselves to God’s love and goodness to do what is best–the removal of the cancer in our souls. Romans 5:3 says:
…we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (NLT).
Sadly, instead of allowing pain to transform, the lukewarm often bail on suffering’s process and either enter more deeply into cynicism and acrimony or pursue the magical thinking of psychological methods or religious movements that promote the quick and effortless path.
God’s three devices for stimulating desire (pleasure, our conscience, and pain) can lead us into a gloriously divine trap. As apathy is replaced by hunger, we begin to search for something to sate our craving. After chasing all manner of pleasure, we come up empty. We are left with two choices, either the pursuit of an unmanageable God or deadening our souls with the less risky, minimally pleasurable substitutes.
Two questions come to mind: Do we believe God is our deepest desire? And, Do we want God more than relief? If the answer is “no” to the first question, then we are stuck chasing the fruitless alternatives to fill our God-shaped void. If we doubt God is our deepest desire, then question two is already answered. Seeking relief will become a lifestyle. Running from pain and carrying the burden of protecting others from hurt becomes our goal. Our actions speak of a belief that God is inept at running the world and we must help in the chaos. Seeing God as small and impotent makes us have to take up the slack and become big and powerful. Since we are not designed for this role, eventually we reap the pain we are trying to avoid. What we fail to realize is that this world isn’t meant to be Shangri-la (though we long for it). All good is spoiled. Control is an illusion. Emancipation from corruption involves suffering. Jesus is our example. Surrender is the path.
Fallenness has spoiled our desire for God and caused us to doubt that He is good. Dan Allender says, “It is in the midst of darkness and heartache that God most richly reveals the glory of His strength and mercy. It is in heartache we will find hope. And the deeper the hope, the more we will live the gospel with honesty, boldness, and humility.”
Our suffering is not without purpose. God’s plan is what is best for us (although perhaps not what we would choose). In His mercy, we are privileged to participate in the usurping of evil and the transforming of sorrow. Yet, some redemption wait’s for eternity. However, we know God remembers and redeems every last tear. Until that time, He offers reminders found in beauty, food, good friends and sexual intimacy that whisper there is more. That more is found in God as we wait for the Great Consummation. He loves us enough to not give us what we want–what in the end will kill us. Rather, He gives us what we desire most–Himself.
The Inheritance of Persevering
In Revelation chapters 2 and 3, God communicates to each of the seven churches the glorious inheritance of those who overcome in suffering. The word overcome in Greek refers to current and continuous action, not something completed. Listen to what waits for those who persevere:
- We will be invited to eat from the tree of life (live eternally)
- We will survive the second death (have no fear at Christ’s return)
- We will be given hidden manna (sustenance that sates completely)
- We will receive a white stone with a new name written on it, known only by us
- We will rule over the nations (with authority to rule, discipline and judgment)
- We will receive the morning star (a symbol of royalty and ruling)
- We will have our names recorded in the Book of Life (assurance we are His children)
- We will have Jesus speak our name before the Father and the angels
- We will be a pillar in the temple of God (no longer separated from God’s presence)
- We will be inscribed with God’s name (a sign that we are His sons and daughters)
- We will be invited to sit on the throne with Jesus
The battle is not over. We are a part of a much Grander Story–God’s unending pursuit of His people. The last chapter has been gloriously revealed. Evil and suffering will be disarmed and annihilated. Our battle against evil is to persevere in bringing our hearts into the daily chaos and pain of life, resisting the temptation of heartless devotion and robotic living. Through the struggle our hearts are transformed, hope is inflamed. The good deeds of faith done with an enthusiastic heart, disarm the kingdom of darkness.
As we take our first step into heaven, in a retrospective flash, we will realize that the things we wanted most but were denied were the severe mercies that opened our hearts to what our fallenness wanted least and what our souls longed for the most. At that moment worship will begin.