When I was a child, I loved thunderstorms. There was something awe-inspiring about hearing the roar of thunder and seeing the sky pierced with forks of light. It somehow placed the world into perspective. My eldest brother (who was great at maths) used to work out how far away the storm was. He did this by counting the number of seconds between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder, then dividing that number by 5. His job was to do the maths; mine was to worry about the storm getting too close.
As Christians, we live between two ages. I heard a church leader describe this recently as living between the lightning and the thunderclap or between the now and the not yet. We live in the time after the resurrection of Jesus and before Christ’s return.
Holding this ‘now and not yet’ tension together is incredibly important. How this subject is taught in our churches can have a profound impact on those who are suffering. Being theologically sound is vital, of course, because there could be many negative repercussions if we get the balance wrong. But it’s equally important to minister theological truth in a wise, caring and pastorally sensitive way.
We belong to the God who is all-powerful. In fact “power belongs” to him according to Psalm 62:11. Our God has power to heal, work miracles and to bestow gifts on his church. Almighty God is also merciful, compassionate and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 145:8). And he is constantly active in our lives and throughout his whole creation – “he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).
When trials or sickness strike, however, it’s easy to despair and forget the compassionate God who acts in the now. We may not think we’re experiencing any answer to prayer or any intervention from God. But we shouldn’t neglect prayer, or discount God acting in the now, or lose heart and doubt that he cares for us if we see no evidence of him acting. Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow, to teach his followers that “they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
There is, however, a danger. The danger is that we expect God’s Kingdom to come in full now. No sickness. No suffering. No trials. But to believe this is to have an ‘over realised eschatology’. Eschatology is the study of end times. So if my eschatology is over-realised, it means that I’m expecting God to do in full now, what he has only promised to do in full in the future.
The not yet
I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis just before I turned 22. Nearly four years on, the pain is sometimes unbearable. As a result, this now and not yet tension has come into sharp focus. Do I believe God can heal me? Yes. Has God healed me? No. Do I believe that God might yet intervene in this life and bring complete healing to my body? Yes. Will he? I don’t know. But I’ve come to realise, contrary to what I was taught growing up, that complete physical healing in this life is not promised in the Bible. Far from it.
So, for example, God worked powerfully through Paul’s thorn in the flesh (whatever that may have been). Three times Paul asks the Lord to take it away. Three times Jesus responds, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
I want to have faith and anticipation when I pray for the sick and I rejoice whenever God intervenes and brings healing. But I also know that God has worked in different ways through my suffering. Making me depend more on the power of the Holy Spirit, for example, and not my own strength.
The now and not yet in Ephesus
Acts 19 recounts for us the establishment of the Ephesian church. The Apostle Paul had daily discussions in the lecture hall of Tyrannus for two years. This meant that all in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. Extraordinary miracles were also taking place through Paul, “so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (verse 12). Amazing.
By contrast, towards the end of his life Paul writes to his beloved son in the faith, Timothy, who is now ministering in the Ephesian church that Paul planted. Paul urges him to have a little wine for his stomach’s sake and because of his “frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23). But why didn’t God just heal Timothy? Why didn’t Paul simply enclose a handkerchief in his letter to minister God’s healing power?
Well, we’re not told the answer. But could one reason be that God chose to work through Timothy’s ailments? After all, as Paul writes elsewhere, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” (Romans 5:3-4).
Timothy is now with the Lord, which is better by far. He’s without sickness and free from every effect of the fall. But when he was around, nearly 2,000 years ago, he had a light and momentary affliction preparing in him an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (see 2 Corinthians 4:17).
It amazes me that God can work both through his yes and his no. He can work through his yes I will heal you. He can also work through his no I won’t do it yet. He can work through our health and our sufferings. And he will be glorified through it all. Because of this, as Christians we need to have a robust theology of suffering.
Holding the tension
God is well able to act and intervene miraculously in this life. But sometimes he doesn’t. It’s not always easy to hold this tension together. We need to work hard at it, though, because the tension exists throughout scripture. So, for example, “…some of you they will put to death” (Luke 21:16). Then just a few verses later “…but not a hair of your head will perish” (v18). I wonder if those listening were thinking – ‘But Jesus… didn’t you just say…?!’
You may find yourself struggling with this tension in the midst of some personal suffering or trial. Possibly experiencing intervention now. Or perhaps waiting for God to act in the not yet. Maybe you’re experiencing some intervention now, but are still waiting for the full realisation of God’s promises in the not yet.
Remember to rejoice
When I was few weeks old, I had advanced bacterial meningitis. I shouldn’t have survived. The doctors told my parents that in the unlikely scenario I did survive, I would be severely brain-damaged. It probably goes without saying that I did survive. And thankfully there was no brain damage. I rarely think about that. I rarely thank God for that miracle. Instead, I’m often asking him to work a new one.
If you’re a Christian, God has already worked the most amazing miracle of all on your behalf. He has rescued you from the dominion of darkness and brought you into the kingdom of the Son he loves (Colossians 1:13). All Christians will face trouble (John 16:33). But in the midst of that trouble, whatever it may be, remember to thank God for what he has already done.
When God intervenes powerfully in the now, let’s rejoice. But when we’re suffering and waiting for the not yet, let’s also rejoice. Let’s rejoice that God is still active, still giving us life and breath and everything.
We’ve seen the flash of lightning. The resurrection has happened, Christ is risen, praise God! Be encouraged that the roar of thunder is not far behind.
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul. 
 Horatio Spafford, It is Well with my Soul