Why We Keep Going
Heaven, Death, Groaning, 2 Corinthians
The destination we pursue will determine the path we take. That is true for trips and it is also true in life. Those who believe this life is all there is will live with an: “I have nothing to lose recklessness”. They will grab for immediate pleasures, exploit any weakness and jump at any hint of advantage. They live only for the moment. They will use people. They will measure everything by a simple question: “What will most benefit me?” Many of these people fight death with every dollar they have. They do so because they believe this is all there is.
Those who believe there is life beyond the grave; who believe in a Sovereign and good God who provides a way of salvation, look at life differently. They see life as filled with choices between bad, good, and best. Like a person who passes up a candy bar or something else because they are saving for a home or car, they often deny themselves in the present, to gain something of greater significance in the future. They feel pain in trials and even wish they would go away, but they believe they are purposeful in the hands of the Lord of the Universe. They see death not as the final curtain, but as the key that unlocks the front door of our true home. Your view of the future determines how you will live in the present.
2 Corinthians 5 is one of the “Hall of Fame” passages of the Bible. If you have attended many funerals you have heard these words many times. They are majestic, instructive, and inspiring.
Whenever we read the Bible we must continually remind ourselves that chapter and verse divisions are there to help us navigate the Bible but sometimes they get in the way of our understanding. 2 Corinthians 5 begins with the word “For”. That word reveals a tie to some statement or declaration that has come before. I believe that statement is chapter 4:16: “That is why we never give up”.
Paul told us that he remained hopeful, positive and energetic in spite of hardship. We ended chapter 4 with these words, “So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” (2 Corinthians 4:18). The opening verses of chapter 5 carry that thought further.
The first thing Paul does is tell us what we “Know”.
For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands.
What We Know
The word “know” refers not just to intellectual knowledge; something we can spit back on a test. It means to see or believe with certainty. It’s kind of like saying, “I know this road leads to my parents’ home”. It is something of which you are sure.
Paul was a tent-maker by trade and that is how he supported himself as a missionary. So the image of a tent is one near to his heart. He knew that even though tents are valuable and practical, they do decay and eventually need to be replaced. He said the human body is the same way. In other words, even though our bodies are incredibly complex and wonderful, they are still “temporary housing”. Paul says we know that we will eventually receive an eternal (permanent) home that is made by God. It has to be made by God because all human resources are also temporary. It will be an eternal (everlasting, as opposed to temporary or corruptible) body that is made by God Himself (which means it will be perfect and good.)
The question we can and perhaps should raise is: “How do we know this?” We all want to believe this (after someone dies almost everyone talks about being in a “better place” or “heaven” no one says “the person I love is now just food for bugs”.) So, we want to believe but how can we KNOW it is true?
The only real way to know for sure that there is life beyond the grave is through the resurrection of Jesus! You may have heard people talk about their “near-death experiences”. Some of these are compelling and wonderful (some are terrifying) however they do not bring us certainty! Some of these people may have really been given a glimpse of the life to come, but that isn’t the only explanation. It could have been a hallucination from drugs or a very vivid dream. We can’t know anything for certain about the afterlife from the death experiences of these people,
The Resurrection of Jesus brings certainty. He was brutalized (near death before ever being nailed to the cross), died on Friday afternoon and was wrapped and placed in a tomb. On Sunday morning the stone had “somehow” been rolled away from the tomb, the body was missing but the wrappings were still there! People saw, touched, talked to, and had meals with the resurrected Jesus. These appearances went on for 40 days and before better than 500 witnesses. At the end of that time the disciples actually saw Jesus rise (ascend) up into the sky (Heaven) where Jesus took His rightful place as Lord of the Universe.
The Apostle Paul did not see Jesus during those 40 days. However, on the Road to Damascus some months later Paul was blinded by a great light. Paul cried out and asked “Who are You?” The voice said, “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting”. Paul met the risen Christ. He was convinced.
This one who rose from the dead is the same one who promises that we will live even though we die if we put our trust in Him. Right before his death Jesus told his disciples,
“If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” (John 14:2-3)
Based on well attested evidence, we can “Know” also that we have a “house in heaven”.
Second, we know that we grow weary in our present bodies. Other translations say, “Meanwhile we groan . . . “.
I am finding that as I get older “groaning” is not a metaphor! There are times I groan when getting out of bed or trying to get out of a chair. I groan when pushing back from a big meal (where I ate way more than I should have). We may groan when we lift something. We groan when we hear bad news or the Doctor says it is time for your next colonoscopy.
We groan because our bodies are beginning to decay. Paul says,
We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our new heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to dies and get rid of these bodies that cloth us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life.(2 Corinthians 5:2-4)
Paul says the groaning is not that we want our lives to end . . . it is that we are beginning to yearn for the life that is better. Paul contradicts the popular notion that we will all become spirits that are absorbed into the “oneness of the universe”. We will still be individuals, we will have bodies, but they will be bodies meant for eternity.
Don’t you find yourself at times groaning for that day? I do. When I say such things it is not that I am suicidal. It is more like the child in the back seat of the car saying, “Are we there yet?” It is not a desire to end life; it is really a yearning to BEGIN life.
Paul tells us that God has given us the Holy Spirit as a guarantee. The Holy Spirit in us is like a phone call from God confirming our reservation. It is like a Bill of Sale which shows that something belongs to you. Max Lucado writes,
We aren’t home yet.
We are orphans at the gate of the orphanage, awaiting our new parents. They aren’t here yet, but we know they are coming. They wrote us a letter. We haven’t seen them yet, but we know what they look like. They sent us a picture. And we’re not acquainted with our new house yet, but we have a hunch about it. It’s grand. They sent a description.
And so what do we do? Here, at the gate where the now-already meets the path of the not-yet, what do we do?
We groan. We long for the call to come home. But until he calls, we wait. We stand on the porch of the orphanage and wait. And how do we wait? With patient eagerness.
C.S. Lewis wrote,
There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often I find myself wondering whether in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.… It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. [The Problem of Pain p. 145]
So, we know that have an eternal body when this one wears out and we know that in the meantime life is going to involve a measure of “groaning”.
So What Does That Mean Practically?
Paul now gives us the implications of these truths
6 So we are always confident, even though we know that as long as we live in these bodies we are not at home with the Lord. 7 For we live by believing and not by seeing. 8 Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are here in this body or away from this body, our goal is to please him. 10 For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.
The first implication of what we know is we are always confident. Stop and really hear what Paul is saying because even though we underline the verse we don’t really hear them. Paul says that in whatever situation we find ourselves in life we can live confidently because we are convinced that we are living now to live again. This life is not all there is, God is using the events of this life to prepare us for the greater life to come.
When we find confidence lacking (and that happens to me frequently) it means either:
- We don’t really believe there is life beyond the grave because we are not truly convinced that Jesus rose from the dead and by God’s grace we can live too.
- We have taken our eyes off the road. We are allowing the things of this world to get in the way of the truth of God.
In the first case you might benefit from really examining the resurrection of Jesus. You might want to read “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel or “More than a Carpenter” by Josh McDowell. Go ahead and examine the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus! Be sure.
Most likely however, you have gotten distracted. When that happens we must turn back to the truths of God’s Word. We must stop our running and rest before Him. We must listen carefully once again for the voice of God’s Spirit. The reason most of us don’t sense or hear that voice is because we are just too busy trying to “fix things” ourselves. We come to God asking Him to rubber stamp our plans and our designs for our life. But that is not how it works. He is the One who is perfect in wisdom. He is the One who truly knows the way to where we are going. As long as we are trying to “make things happen” we are just “getting in the way” of the Lord.
The Bible frequently tells us to “wait” on the Lord. We need to watch for Him to open doors. We need to wait for His timing and then be ready to move when He summons.
Second, we live by believing and not seeing. People will tell you all the time that you must live by faith and not by sight. However, much of the time it is a trite phrase that means “you just gotta believe”. It is more about positive mental attitude than it really is about faith.
Here’s the difference. With a positive mental attitude you focus on what you want to or believe can happen and you keep your focus on that picture no matter what happens. Faith is different. It is remembering what is true and holding on to truth no matter what else you hear or experience. Faith is holding on to God’s promise of love and forgiveness when you feel worthless or are told you are nothing. It is resting in the work of Christ on your behalf even though you have messed up yet again. It is looking for what there is to learn, looking for ways to grow and insights to gain in the painful times because we know that God is working in all things for our good. It is enduring whatever this life brings because we know that even if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have an eternal house in Heaven that is not made by human hands.
Faith is not opposed to reason. It is not about holding onto something in spite of the evidence. Faith is holding firmly to what you know is true even if it seems to be contradicted by our experience. Tim Keller has writes,
Doubts come when what your mind knows becomes unreal to your heart because of the experience.
Of course, we must always make sure that what we think we “know” is true according to the Bible. And then we must interpret our experiences in light of that truth. We don’t interpret truth by experience.
Finally, we live our life to please Him. Paul says
So whether we are here in this body or away from this body, our goal is to please him. 10 For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.
We live to please Him. We do this because of our gratitude and love for all He is given and all He is preparing for us. We live to please Him because we know we are accountable for the way we live our lives. Our decisions are not measured simply by what is “in our best interest”. God is the One who will evaluate the faithfulness of our choices and our actions.
Living to please Him means we cannot live to please ourselves. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy life. In fact, Jesus says “he who wants to save his life will lose it; he who loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35) In other words, the more selfish we are, the more we insist on making our own happiness, the more alienated and miserable we will be. When we live for Him; when we follow His agenda; when we give up our own selfish pursuits we find . . . surprisingly, that we find the fulfillment we so selfishly sought before. God has made us so we will only be whole and complete when we are walking with Him. We cannot walk with Him and do things our own way.
This runs counter, of course, to everything that is taught in our country. But look around you. How many people are truly and deeply happy, content, peaceful, and filled with joy. They may be “having a good time” but most are running away from the emptiness inside themselves.
Here is Paul’s argument: the destination you pursue at death will determine the path you take in life. Life will either be a mad dash to a grave or it will be a life of faith and trust that leads to a new life, a new body, one that is incorruptible, made by the Lord Himself that will equip us to live forever in the joyful and fulfilling presence of the King. We can live with fear or confidence. We can live by faith or by riding the waves of life various experiences. We can walk in trust with Him or we can trust ourselves.
The choice we make (and we will need to remind ourselves of this decision every day) is not just about where we spend eternity; it is about the nature and the fullness of our lives right here and right now.