I feel helpless as I watch and wait with my friends.
Friends with debilitating chronic pain who have no contact with the outside world. Others with all-consuming family situations that leave them exhausted and desperate, with no end in sight. Still more whose lives have been marked by disappointment, by shattered dreams and unfulfilled longings that keep escalating.
As I watch and wait, pray and grieve, I also wonder whether heaven will bring added reward for those who persevere in suffering. Will there be any compensation for those who respond to the loss and the emptiness by leaning into God for fulfillment? Will there be any prize for the sufferer who looks to God for the grace to endure the physical or emotional pain that screams through the night?
Rewards in Heaven?
When I first heard the idea of “rewards in heaven,” I wondered whether it was inconsistent with the doctrine of grace. But then I saw that Scripture is full of references to different rewards in heaven — all of them in response to the working of God’s grace within us.
Among the various rewards Scripture mentions, some will come from the foundation we build on and the work we’ve done (1 Corinthians 3:11–15), and others will be related to our perseverance in afflictions, which are producing unrivaled glory for our future selves. As 2 Corinthians 4:16–17 reminds us, “We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
Paul didn’t grow weary in his suffering or lose heart, as God was renewing him daily and assuring him of the coming glory. And Paul understood pain: he was brutally beaten, scourged, and stoned; at points he was near starvation; he was continually burdened for the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23–29). Yet he knew that his pain had a purpose.
The Greek word for “preparing” in 2 Corinthians 4:17 (katergazomai) means “producing, accomplishing, or achieving.” Paul knew affliction would bring about or produce something magnificent later on. Suffering not only develops perseverance and character, teaches us to rely on Christ, enables us to comfort others, and refines our faith on earth; it also results in greater coming glory.
This hope applies not just to extraordinary suffering like Paul’s, but to all suffering that we surrender to God. When we turn to God and not to the world in our pain, when we bless God rather than curse him, when we trust his goodness rather than doubt his love, we store up heavenly reward. It will draw us closer to Christ today and will result in greater glory later. As John Piper says,
All our troubles — all of them — are on a continuum from easy to horrible . . . whether it is a pimple on prom night to the loss of a child. . . . Any trouble, from the smallest hiccup to the greatest horror . . . [has] the potential for working for us an eternal weight of glory, because the issue is this: Does it throw us on God as our help and our treasure and our joy?
The first time I realized the importance of acknowledging and offering every loss to the Lord was in a conversation with Joni Eareckson Tada. We were having dinner, and I noticed how she couldn’t have each bite of food quite as she wanted, couldn’t get her coffee at exactly the right temperature. When I mentioned it, Joni responded, “With quadriplegia, nothing is exactly the way I want it. But it’s all these little decisions, these everyday things I surrender, the choices I make daily, that will one day shine in glory. These will all count.”
While Joni has been through monumental suffering, our conversation reminded me that she faces the everyday choice, just as we do, to turn to God and depend on him in loss and disappointment. From the unexpected layoff before the holidays, to the relentless sickness that confines us to bed for days, to living for years with a cold and disengaged spouse — in all these trials, as we lay them before the Lord and ask for grace to endure, not only will we grow in our faith, but we’ll also store up a reward.
Broken Ankles to Final Cries
God sees all our suffering. He tenderly cares for us in it. He knows every sleepless night, every unspoken hurt, every agony we endure. We are seen, known, and loved by the God who brings purpose to all our pain.
Even seemingly unseen suffering at the end of our lives has a purpose. While this pain may not change our character or be an earthly example to anyone, God is witness. And as he watches what we endure, our faith will glorify him and receive a reward. As John Piper, addressing those suffering in their final hours, would say,
As God gives you the grace to endure to the end without cursing him, resting in him as much as you can, these next twenty hours are going to make a massive, precious difference in the weight of the glory you experience on the other side. These hours are not pointless. . . . They won’t make your character here shine because you are going to be gone. There will be no character left to shine. But as soon as you cross that line from now to eternity, in some way God is going to show you why those twenty hours were what they were and what they did for you. That’s good news.
This is great news for all of us. All our suffering matters. All our losses and longings, as we turn to Christ in them, will produce a reward for us. From a sprained ankle to a life-changing diagnosis, from the daily sacrifices of quadriplegia to the painful last hours of life, none of it will be wasted.
Sorrow Turned to Joy
One of the greatest joys we can experience is the joy of restoration after loss. Both Psalm 126 and John 16 — the two chapters in the Bible that use the word joy most frequently (in the ESV’s translation) — are about restoration. Psalm 126 says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. . . . Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” (Psalm 126:1, 5). And John 16 says, “You will weep and lament . . . but your sorrow will turn into joy. . . . Your joy [will] be full” (John 16:20, 24).
Jesus tells us that the joy of finding the lost coin is greater than the joy of never losing it. The joy of finding the lost sheep is greater than the joy of simply staying with the sheep in the pen. And the joy of a repentant sinner leads to more joy in heaven among the angels (Luke 15:7). While no one seeks loss, restoration brings us more joy. For everything we’ve suffered, every loss we’ve endured, every unfulfilled desire for which we’ve longed, our joy will be that much deeper when it is restored and fulfilled in heaven.
And as Jonathan Edwards says,
It will be no damp to the happiness of those who have lower degrees of happiness and glory, that there are others advanced in glory above them. For all shall be perfectly happy, everyone shall be perfectly satisfied. Every vessel that is cast into this ocean of happiness is full, though there are some vessels far larger than others. And there shall be no such thing as envy in heaven, but perfect love shall reign through the whole society. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 50:53)
In heaven, no one will begrudge the faithful sufferer’s rewards, because everyone will be overflowing with joy. We all will be fully satisfied, fully happy, completely fulfilled. But some may be larger vessels of happiness, containing more of heaven’s joys, than others. And perhaps the added reward for persevering through affliction will bring this capacity for more joy.
If you are suffering today, whether through a minor setback or a massive tragedy, don’t lose heart. Turn to the Lord Jesus in it, as you ask for grace to endure it. Trust that your struggle is producing an eternal weight of glory that will far surpass your pain. Let God be your treasure even in your affliction. And as you trust him to the end, your reward will be great.