The other day my four-year-old daughter excitedly told me that she counted to 105 all by herself, and it quickly led to the bold proclamation, “One day I am going to count to the highest number there is!”
At this point, my six-year-old son was quick to jump in with a monotone voice, “Brinley, there is no such thing as a highest number, they go on forever.”
“WHAT?!” exclaimed Brinley with a look of shock on her face. “Dad is that true?! There HAS to be a highest number!”
As I set out to explain to my daughter why there is no highest number, I quickly found out that it’s difficult to explain why there’s no highest number. As I fumbled through my words trying to say you can always count higher, even when we run out of language to label those numbers, I realized her reaction is a small glimpse into the way many Christians view eternity. There will always be another day, and our days will be without end. When it comes to numbers, Brinley was merely confused, but when it comes to eternity, it can make us seriously anxious.
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.
Psalm 90: 12
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
There are two ways those who have unsettling feelings about eternity without end can go. One is to distract ourselves, stop thinking about it, and shake it off. The second is to see those feelings through, hold them up to the light, and allow it to strengthen our purpose in the present.
When you dwell on the reality of days without end, it reminds us that our life right now and forever in the future is not about getting somewhere or doing something, it’s about being someone.
Not Getting Somewhere…
There is a tendency in life to be primarily driven by what’s next. In high school, you work hard to set you up for the next phase of life in college or the workforce. In college, you work hard to set you up for the start of a career. During your career, you set yourself for an earlier-than-typical retirement. Life is defined by what’s next, but by the time you reach that place, you can’t enjoy it because there is a new next to work hard for.
This doesn’t just hit the school/work/career pathway, but it can be often be true relationally. There are implicit and at times explicit expectations that with each decade, there is the optimal next level – from singleness to dating to marriage to babies, young children, teens, young adults, and finally empty nesters. This pursuit of always looking to what’s next is defined by time and cultural expectations, where you are puffed up if you are “on track” and crushed if somewhere along the way, it doesn’t happen as expected.
This is how life is defined in every facet – beginning, middle, end. Therefore, when we take that approach to life, peeking into the realm of eternity is a completely foreign land because there is no beginning, middle, or end, there simply just is. Perhaps, then, life isn’t primarily about working hard for what’s next.
Not Doing Something…
Similarly, we can put the primary focus of our life on accomplishing something. Maybe we’re not consumed by working for what’s next, but we are consumed by making an impact that we and others around us will be proud of. Life is about leaving your mark in a tangible way, by producing, accomplishing, and achieving so that everyone can’t help but always be remembering you.
The degree that hangs on our wall from a school we’re proud of, the trophy and/or encased ball that sits on a mantle and reminds us of the glory days, the dream house that declares to everyone who sees it that you’ve made it. These are the kind of things that helps us sleep at night, because it is the tangible evidence we’ve done something, or if it hasn’t happened yet, these are the pictures in our mind that motivate us to keep pushing to go and do something.
In this way, eternity still seems daunting because if we believe that there will be no evil, sorrow, or sin in eternity, what will we actually, well, do? We won’t need solutions if there are no problems, we won’t be achieving to leave our mark if the mark has already been made, the motivation to do vanishes when you realize that in Christ, all has already been done. Perhaps, then, life isn’t primarily about working to accomplish something.
…But Being Someone
It is not wrong to have aspiration to go places, literally or figuratively, and it is not wrong to have desires to accomplish things in this life. The Bible will actually encourage grace-filled action and proactive ambition as long as the foundational motivation is the glory of God and not ourselves.
1 Corinthians 10:31 “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
And yet, there in lies the point – it is not wrong to want to get somewhere, or do something, but once those become our primary desires in this life, that which fuels and drives our lives day to day, we live outside the bounds of what God has designed us to be. We will either accomplish those things and feel puffed up with pride, or we will fail at those things and be crushed in humiliation.
God’s primary desire for us is not to care most about where we go, or what we do, but who we are becoming in the process. God cares most about us being someone, and more specifically, growing in our journey of becoming like Someone, our Savior Jesus Christ. Locating our purpose there is not contingent upon circumstance in this world, because nothing can separate us from who we are in Him.
2 Cor 4:16-18
So 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, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
When our focus and joy is found in who we are in Christ, then an eternity of living out who we are and worshipping Him doesn’t have a beginning, middle, and end. It simply just is. This is the only way we will view eternity not with angst and dread, but rather with hopeful anticipation.
I don’t know how eternity will look. I do think we will be working as God designed work to be before the Fall, and I do think we will be in community with others the way God designed community to be before the Fall, but above all, I believe we will find our purpose squarely for all of eternity, without end, in the assurance of who we are as children of God, not what we do.
So, my contention is this: if that is where we will find purpose and meaning for eternity with days without end, then that is where we will find true purpose and meaning today.
Paul Tripp sums it up best in his book Forever:
“We were not created for our own liberty, happiness, or fulfillment. We were not created to find our own way and to discover our own joy. We were not designed to define what our needs are and to give our lives to meet them. We were not made to treat the world like an endless buffet of delights for our consumption. We were made for God, made to live for his glory, and made to find the fullest expression of our humanity in loving, worshipful community with him.”
Finally, my question is this: if eternity truly is days without end, and the primary purpose we have then and now is to be who we are in Christ – are you in Christ? Have you put your faith in Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of sin and the restoration of righteousness as a child of God, adopted by the Father? In the words of Jesus, “do you believe this?”
Next time you feel tempted to feel anxious about the reality of eternal life, don’t simply distract yourself in hopes that you stop thinking about it altogether, but rather, hold it up to the light, and join the Psalmist in asking the Lord to teach you to number your days so that you can locate your purpose in who you are (and whose you are), so that you will be prepared to enter into glory where there will be days without number.