Like most believers, I only think about eternity at particular times.
Like during funerals. Or whenever I hear news about a freak accident or terminal illness. If the victim is a Christian, I feel immense relief: they’ve gone home. If they’re not a Christian, I feel overwhelming sadness.
In the unsettling moments that I think of my own eventual death, I also think of eternity. Any fears that I might have about the end, or about what it will be really like to meet God, are swept away by reassurance. I am a believer; Jesus is my righteousness. There are wonders untold ahead.
Beyond that, though, I don’t think of eternity much. I mean, every now and then a pastor preaches a sermon on it or I have a moment like I did during my visit to Ireland where I think I’ve maybe glimpsed the barest shadow of the magnificence that God has in store. But otherwise?
Nah. And I’m willing to bet you don’t either.
See, I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. There are a lot of things going on. And by “a lot on my mind” and “lot of things” I mean earthly stuff: the school year cranking back up, random job duties and paperwork, a few new opportunities perhaps coming down the pike, some events my husband and I planned, projects for my leisure time. And all of that is well and good…
…but it’s small. It’s small stuff. Even the big stuff is small stuff, compared to eternity.
And I think that’s why we don’t often think about it. Eternity – the prospect of a God beyond time, of endless endlessness with Him, of what it means – makes everything small: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Eternity dwarfs the worst wars and the brightest moments of human history. Eternity is precisely what renders our days “a mere handbreadth” and the span of our years “as nothing” (Psalm 39:5). We are, as Scripture tells us, at best a mere breath. Phantoms.
To a degree, it’s incomprehensible: we’re finite beings striving to comprehend something infinite. More pertinently, it’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable because everything that is so small by the standards of eternity seems so big to us: the hurt feelings, the family tragedy, the argument, the lost opportunity, the job decision. We’re conditioned our whole lives by the world around us to view ourselves as important, to view what happens to us as important, to see ourselves as the center of our universe of things and feelings.
And we are important, to God. The things that we care about are important to God. But we are also small. We are so, so small.
Stephen was small. Stephen’s life was less than a blip in the span of eternity. But before he dies, he is granted a glimpse of the larger picture that dwarfs his own lifespan:
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”(Acts 7:55-56)
His glimpse of eternity didn’t terrify him. It strengthened him. It gave Stephen a reason to rejoice. And – I believe – it informed his last words: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (60).
I like to think that in that moment, Stephen saw the real and honest truth of things: that for the believer even the greatest and most painful human suffering is a passing shadow. That the things we have to fear the most, the things that seem enormous and important and life-altering, are in the great span of God’s eternity and His fathomless love not much at all.
Eternity is so much bigger than us. But Love is, too.
And as uncomfortable as it is, I think it’s worth confronting – daily, hourly – the uncomfortable truth that this is small stuff. If we are believers, and we are suffering? It’ll end. And the timespan of that suffering, no matter how long or enormous it seems here, will eventually be a speck to you. The stuff you’re working for, and all those things you’ve got? Vapor. The things that worry you, upset you, make you mad? Odds are, they’re dross, too. Eternity will burn them away.
It is God and the things of God that will last. Our holy love for Him and for each other. Our relationships to Christ and to each other. The works we did for Him, the thoughts we thought for Him, the time we spent for Him. The richness of the Word. The inner life of prayer. The sacrifices we made. The forgiveness we accepted, and that we gave.
By that standard, oughtn’t we be reordering our lives on the priorities of eternity? And shouldn’t we maybe be a little bit terrified by how much we’ve built, staked, and invested on the material or meaningless aspects of our transient breath of time here?
Stephen’s bucket list was simple: dragged before the Sanhedrin and accused of blasphemy, we don’t see him fretting over all the things he didn’t do or buy or all the moments he would miss. Instead he seizes the opportunity to deliver a Spirit-on-fire sermon before he dies. He knew that greater things were ahead, as they are for all who believe: indeed, the Bible promises that we can’t fathom the greatness that God has in store (1 Cor. 2:9).
I’m not saying that you can’t be sad over “small” things, or angry, or frustrated, or that you can’t feel deeply and live deeply and love deeply. God is the God of both the big and the small. The smallest indulgent joys we know, the littlest loves, the small happinesses…those are His, too, and evidence of how deeply He loves. What I am saying is that we should do all those things with eternity written into our hearts: we should strive to understand the here and now, the where-we-are, for precisely what it is. And in doing so, we’ll realign ourselves with the God we worship:
In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
Like clothing you will change them
and they will be discarded.
But you remain the same,
and your years will never end (Psalm 102:25-27).