What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man. When that happens, be happy! Yes, leap for joy! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, their ancestors treated the ancient prophets that same way. Luke 6:22-23 NLT
Jesus says that following him may well lead to persecution, and challenges his followers to be happy when they are persecuted. It is not normal to welcome persecution. Our natural desire is to be loved, affirmed, included. Jesus’ challenge is to react not in the normal, natural way, but in an unnatural way: be happy, leap for joy!
How can we do what is so unnatural? Jesus says, simply, by focussing on the rewards of being a Christian, instead of the present suffering. That reward is in heaven.
However, we live in a world where heaven is not a common topic of conversation, even among Christians. We talk about many things when we meet people, but heaven is rarely one of them. The subject of death and what comes after is almost taboo in our society. Even as a doctor I speak seldom of heaven, though the end of life and incurable disease are part of my daily fare.
The goal of so many people’s lives, even Christians, is more about “heaven on earth” than “heaven in heaven” – the reward that comes after earthly life. That is the root of materialism, the pursuit of pleasure, the creation of heaven here and now. If heaven is a place of riches and joy, of great reward, we want it now, not in some vague supernatural future after death. Credit card thinking has taken over – buy now, pay later. Have it all now, fix up the bill some other time. But that kind of thinking is a deception.
Secular humanist thinking has discarded as fantasy the idea of heaven, and has replaced it with the dream of having as much as possible before we die, because after death there is nothing. Heaven is just wishful thinking, they say: “pie in the sky when you die.” Wake up and see that if you don’t have what you want now, you will never have it. This life is all there is. Are we to buy into such thinking?
Sadly, we Christians often do. We find ourselves aspiring to riches and comfort on earth, forgetting heaven. We start thinking in the way of the world, rather than the way Jesus taught us to think. We get deceived into seeing death as the final victor, and spend our life’s energy trying to make this life the ultimate experience.
Some sceptics see the idea of heaven as a construct used by the wealthy and the powerful to keep the masses in their place, to stop them aspiring to more. Rather than sharing their wealth, they offer the poor and needy heaven to keep them happy. They promise the poor riches in a future life, refusing to bless others with the blessings they themselves have received. But this is a distortion of Jesus’ words. He is not promising comfort and hope here to the rich, but to the poor. He has already spoken to the rich: “What sorrow awaits you who are rich, for you have your only happiness now.” (Luke 6:24 NLT)
How much should we focus on heaven? There is a balance to be attained here, since both extremes lead to problems. If our focus is all on heaven, we can end up ignoring the problems of the world around us and become too “heavenly minded” to be of any “earthly good.” If we ignore heaven, living as if it is not real, we expend all our energy on the materialistic deception – that the winner is the one with the most when he dies. But that is meaningless, and a “chasing after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1 and 2).
Jesus says that focussing on heaven will bring us joy in the midst of suffering. And suffering is real. Few individuals are spared suffering of some kind during their earthly sojourn, though many go to great lengths to avoid it. We suffer ourselves, and we see those around us suffering.
The challenge for us, it seems to me, is to focus on heaven when we think of our own suffering, and focus on earth when we think of the suffering of others. This helps us to be like Jesus. However, our natural tendency is the opposite: we focus on earth when we see our own suffering, trying to create a protective cocoon around us, a world of beauty and ease and prosperity. But when faced with the suffering of others we say, “don’t fret, heaven awaits you.”
Heaven is not something we think of much these days. But perhaps it should be.