Think about this passage in Revelation 7 for a second:
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
“Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
(Revelation 7:13-17 ESV)
“God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” What does that even mean? Does it mean that there will be no more suffering, no more pain? Does it mean that it will be the end of all sadness and that there will only be joy?
Or does the passage say something more nuanced, more difficult, and yet… more beautiful? Does it mean that rather, God will comfort me in my grieving, yes, even the grieving that occurs standing before the throne?
The reason why I am bringing it up stems from a conversation I had yesterday. She told me of a conversation her sister had with her parents about a passage in the Old Testament, detailing the destruction of the people of Ai. Then as she described the conversation, she asked me this:
“God chose to spare Nineveh but completely destroyed Ai. Why do you think God saved one and destroyed the other, Jason?”
Here’s the thing – this question evokes a visceral response from me. If you have already forgotten, my entire family is atheist. My entire family denies the existence of the Christian God. And while I have so much to thank them for in how they have influenced my faith, ultimately this question boils down to a parallel question, a question that my brothers and family are entirely free to read :
“God chose to save you, Jason, but the rest of your family does not believe. Why do you think God saved you but not the rest of your family, Jason?”
Okay, hold up a second.
I live in the Mid-West now. This is a place that is brimming with an underlying assumption that everyone is Christian to some degree or form and that it’s unfathomable that someone would possibly reject the incontrovertible evidence of a risen Savior. This is in stark contrast to my time at home, in Berkeley and Cornell where the majority of my friends and family have no interest, and not just that, but openly deny the resurrection and God Himself. It’s not just my family. It’s practically everyone.
This is not a theoretical question. This is deeply personal.
I remember when I was in small group learning about the sovereignty of God and my Christian, born-and-raised-in-a-Christian-Family-and-will-probably-marry-a-good-Christian-girl-and-have-lots-of-Christian-babies, intelligent small group leader matter-of-factly went through Romans 9, teaching us how some were made to be vessels of honor, and others to be vessels of destruction. God is sovereign, yes? God works all things for His glory, yes? Then what’s the problem?
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” God is sovereign, yes? God works all things for His glory, yes? Then what’s the problem?
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” God is sovereign, yes? God works all things for His glory, yes? Then what’s the problem?
Let me tell you what the problem is.
These answers are not happy answers. These words do not comfort me. They do not satisfy the questions my heart bears. These words do not suddenly make me glad to know that God has my back and not everyone else. There is a deep problem that hasn’t been answered from the Bible Study about God’s sovereignty. I didn’t know how in the world this knowledge is supposed to affect me. My parents are still going to die. My brothers are still going to die.
Seven years later, I still don’t have a complete answer. Their atheism prevents me from having a pat-answer that makes everything rosy. It’s impossible.
The sovereignty of God means that God is in control. It means that of all possible ways that God could bring about redemption of His creation, He chose the most fitting way that displayed His love and justice all at the same time. His sovereignty means that he predestined His people to be adopted as sons through Christ Jesus, to the praise of his glorious grace.
Sovereignty means I don’t see it… yet.
When I teach Introductory Chemistry, I struggle with trying to explain Quantum Mechanics in the very first lecture. The students (most of which don’t have any mathematical understanding beyond Algebra) are forced to merely accept my explanations of quantum mechanics and don’t have any necessarily tools to wrap their heads around the given conclusions of probability distribution maps or electron orbital diagrams. They can ask me why things are they way they are, but it’s just not possible to explain with what they know.
They just don’t see it… yet. They only see in part. They only see what feels like contradictions, abstract ideas that have no bearing on reality. They can only trust that I really do make sense, that I really am explaining the world as it really is. This is my role as their instructor.
The atheism of my family reminds me that I just don’t see it yet. They remind me that I am still living on this side of the resurrection, at a point where God has not yet wiped every tear from my eye. They remind me that I am still in a place where I am called to grieve as Christ grieves for Jerusalem, to mourn at the coming of the justice of God, to lament that everything has not yet fully expressed the beauty of God’s grace. I am called to be torn by God’s judgement.
This is what it means when Christ looks at the Rich Young Ruler and loves him. Jesus’s response to the Rich Young Ruler is… sadness. It is being torn between love and the realization that the Kingdom of God will arrive in glory… but also in power. The Kingdom of God will sweep through in love… but also in justice.
And somewhere in between all the turmoil of the Kingdom, at some point that I am not going to understand, I will be raised from the dead. I will be given a new body, I will be made right, I will be able to stand before God and worship him directly, and even then I will remember my grieving and my sadness and the knowledge of those before me who are no longer before me. And then God’s promise comes. In the midst of my body that does not hunger, in the midst of a thirstless throat, between the light of the morning Son, here is my God, personally wiping those tears from my eyes. I don’t know how He will do it.
God will unravel my past and show to me His glory. Somehow, the time of mourning will end. I do not know how. I am not sovereign. I cannot rule with Him. I can only stand idly and allow him to dry my eyes.
On this side of the resurrection, I cannot possibly see why my God has allowed my family to bear one fate while I bear another. I pray and hope every day for a different direction. I love my family, without caveat, without reservation. But even as my parents understand, “you love Jesus more than you love us.”
Only Jesus can somehow turn an irreversible tragedy into comfort. Only Christ can turn my family’s atheism into an impassioned plea for God’s sovereignty to carry me through painful mystery. How could I love another more? Only Christ gives me the comfort to know that the answer that I just can’t see yet… will ultimately satisfy.
It doesn’t satisfy now.
But it will.
When I rise again.
Thank you, Jesus.