January 6, 2020

When You Doubt Eternity as a Pastor

If you’re a Christian, the words of Revelation 21 should never get old: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4) No matter what season of life you find yourself in, this great promise is incredibly relevant.

I recently read these words with a new believer who I had been pastoring in her final stages of life. When I’d finished reading, I prayed, then said to her: “Don’t worry Carol, it won’t be long until this short time of suffering is going to be replaced with an eternity of joy, worshipping Jesus.”

Not long after that, Carol went home to glory. As I looked at her, I remembered the previous four weeks. I thought about how we, as a church, had spent time at her bedside—praying with her, reading the Bible to her, talking, laughing, and crying with her. I was sad that she was gone, but I was glad her suffering had ceased. I comforted myself and her family by saying: “Carol is with Jesus now. She truly is in a better place.”

Reality of Eternity

Almost as soon as I said this, doubts flooded my inner thoughts: Is she really? Is that really what you believe? Do you really think there is something more than this life?

As a pastor, I preach about the reality of eternity every week. I hold out the hope of eternal salvation and warn people of eternal condemnation. I know that every person will spend eternity either in the presence of God or separated from Him. It’s the most weighty reality in the world. And the thought of salvation—an eternity spent in unending joy with my Saviour—is so real to me that it often brings me to tears.

So after this face-to-face encounter with death, I had to ask myself: Why the sudden doubt?

Treasure on Earth

As I prayed and reflected on this in the weeks following Carol’s death, I became convicted that I’d been doing exactly what Jesus said not to do in Matthew 6.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19–21)

I’ve been a pastor on a council estate in Middlesbrough for many years, so I know that—at the best of times—ministering in hard places can be tough, disappointing, and disheartening. We can be tempted to stop looking for encouragement and comfort from the Lord and seek it from the world instead. This is seriously dangerous, and yet it’s exactly what I’d been doing.

The irony of this was that I thought my walk with God was going well. I was consistent with my devotional and personal prayer life. My study of Scripture had increased, and my sermon prep was much deeper than it had been in recent times.

Yet quantity doesn’t always equal quality. Despite the fact that my workload had increased, my joy hadn’t. Because of this, I was seeking rewards and comfort in the temporary rather than the eternal.

A wandering heart is a huge danger for anyone involved in ministry. We like to think that we deserve rewards for all the hard work we do. It’s when we start to think about temporary rewards that our hearts generally go to things like food, drink, sex, or money. And for those who have seen the size of my waistline, you know where my first port of call is!

Eyes on the Present

As well as personal distractions, I was also distracted by my ministry. I had spent the year travelling the country looking to build gospel partnerships. I was trying to raise finances and gather prayer support, dreaming and hoping that New Life Church Middlesbrough would be able to buy the building that we had been renting, employ our own staff, and build a healthy church membership.

All these things are wise and godly desires, until your joy is dependent on them. I started to notice that every time a partnership didn’t happen, or applications for funding were rejected (making the purchase of the church building very unlikely), my joy and motivation for ministry was dampened.

I was looking for validation as a church planter in the temporary things that I was trying to build. I thought that the church and my role would be validated by bricks and mortar, a flashy website, and a big staff team. All of these are good, helpful things, but they are temporary. And I’d forgotten this.

Eternal Hope

As I sat with Carol’s family—her husband, children, and her mum and dad—I realised that they didn’t care about our building, gospel partnerships, staff, or website. What they cared about was eternity. They were concerned about the eternal gospel and an eternal Saviour, the One who had saved Carol from eternal condemnation and was now giving them hope and comfort.

It was at this moment that God reminded me that almost all my disappointments in church planting have happened when I have put my focus and given my heart to the temporary things of this world. Carol’s faith on her deathbed had taught me that, regardless of what temporary situation we find ourselves in and whatever finances and resources we may or may not have, our joy doesn’t come from the temporary, but from the eternal.

If we are to persevere in ministry, we need to grasp the joy that can only be found by directing our hearts and eyes heavenward. We must fix our eyes on eternity—the eternal gospel that points to an eternal Saviour. After all, when our short race on earth is finished, eternity will be what matters most.

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