Why the Last Things Matter for All of Life
Lucy (not her real name) came to me for counsel about a year ago. She felt guilty about feelings of dissatisfaction in a deeply flawed marriage.
For Lucy, eschatology mattered---even though she didn't know it. Eschatology is concerned with "the fulfillment of God's plan for human history." That fulfillment began at Jesus' first coming through the cross and resurrection and will be completed when Jesus returns. All Christians live between these two comings. Therefore the matrix of every Christian life is eschatological. This is why eschatology is potent, highly practical stuff. It provides massively helpful categories for understanding and living the Christian life.
Let's consider Lucy's situation to see how eschatology makes sense of normal life. There is a good kind of dissatisfaction in marriage and a bad kind. The bad kind involves questioning God, blaming the marriage problems exclusively on your spouse, emotionally checking out of the marriage, or committing adultery. This dissatisfaction is impatient, unproductive, and destructive. To the extent that Lucy has cultivated such dissatisfaction, she should confess it as sin and receive forgiveness from God. But there's also a good kind of dissatisfaction in marriage. This is the humble, honest, and hopeful posture of knowing that nothing apart from God in this imperfect world can fully satisfy.
So my counsel to Lucy was two-fold. First, be patient: don't expect or require a perfect marriage in this present, sinful age. Perfect relationships won't exist until Christ returns, so don't grow disheartened or bitter when things are tough. Second, be restless. Don't feel guilty about being dissatisfied with marriage. Humbly work to improve it. And allow its deficiencies to increase your desire for the perfect intimacy Christ will provide forever.
Eschatology matters deeply for Lucy---indeed, for all Christians. Unfortunately, we don't often teach a biblical and practical view of eschatology in our churches. Many churches devote a lot of time to end-time speculations, but eschatology simply doesn't form our categories in approaching everyday life.
In this series of three articles, my aim is three-fold: (1) to introduce two simple and productive eschatological categories for the Christian life; (2) to suggest two ways of cultivating those categories as an experienced reality in our own lives; (3) to point to two differences a "practical eschatology" will make in our lives and in our churches.
Restlessness and Patience
The Bible describes the Christian life as a time of waiting. Here's how the apostle Paul described the conversion experience of the Thessalonian Christians: "you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come" (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
Paul told the Corinthian Christians that they were not lacking any spiritual gift, "as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:7). To the Galatian Christians, Paul wrote, "For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness" (Galatians 5:5). He told the Philippians that "our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Philippians 3.20). Jude urged his readers to "keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life" (Jude 1:21). We learn in the Book of Hebrews that the people Jesus will save when he returns are those who are eagerly waiting for him (Hebrews 9:27-28). Christians are spiritually reborn is future-oriented hope: "For in this hope we were saved" (Romans 8:24).
The question for all Christians is not, "Will we wait?" By virtue of becoming a Christian, we will. The question is rather, "How should we wait?" The New Testament tells us: restlessly and patiently. We don't naturally think of these two attitudes as compatible, but they correspond in the Bible and should also go together in the Christian life. Think of the biblical imagery of a runner straining toward the finish line (Philippians 3:13-14) or a farmer waiting patiently for his crops to come out of the ground (James 5:7). Restlessness and patience are urged together in one short phrase in the book of Romans. Paul says, "But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait eagerly for it with patience" (Romans 8:25, author's translation).
The creative tension of the Christian life is trusting fully in God's timing even as we ache and yearn for the fulfillment of his promises. This tension is so keen that Christian writers struggling to express it sound almost nonsensical. Here's a delightful sentence from John Chapman: "We must learn to be content with the dissatisfaction of not yet being what we one day will be." All Christians are called to live with "great impatience and patient endurance." According to Walter Grundmann, we are to be characterized by "burning expectation in conformity with the divine plans."
Challenge of Restless Patience
Living out this biblical tension of restlessness and patience is a challenge for every Christian. In the West, where life is comfortable and entertainment abundant, we become so enamored of our present that we cease to lean forward restlessly toward our much greater future. We wouldn't admit it, but perhaps we feel like the teenage girl in the 2009 documentary film Waiting for Armageddon who believes Jesus will return very soon. Reflecting on the fact that her grandparents lived full and rich lives but she won't because of Jesus' imminent return, she complains, "It doesn't seem fair." Sounds crazy, right? But when was the last time you actually yearned for the new creation? We're more comfortable than restless.
Or perhaps we fail not to wait restlessly but rather to wait patiently. Americans don't like to wait for anything. The massive appeal of the modern prosperity gospel can be attributed in part to our desire to have right now the fulfillment of all of God's promises.
Many of us who recognize the health-and-wealth gospel as terrible theology nevertheless create our own mini-versions of it every day. Of course we don't intentionally formulate a bad system of theology. Instead, we do it mainly through our false expectations of what this present world can and should offer us. As we enter a new day, we expect things to go right, not wrong. We have a baseline expectation that there will be ample and good food for breakfast, the car will start, the job will go smoothly, and the children will go to sleep immediately at bedtime. These false expectations are exposed when things don't go according to our plan and we respond sinfully, as though God has failed to give us something he had promised.
God calls us to wait restlessly for Jesus with a patient assurance founded upon his promises: "But according to his promises we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13). Eschatology gives us resources for understanding and addressing the brokenness we experience in this imperfect world as we wait for Jesus. It also reminds us of the great victory Christ has already achieved and the final victory he promises. Eschatology matters for all of life.