How do you prepare for sleep every night? Count sheep? Deep breathing patterns? Earbuds playing your favorite soundscapes or audiobooks?
You may have your routine, but I bet you’ve had one of those nights before. The day is over, your belly is full, you’ve completed the latest episode of your favorite Netflix show, your body is exhausted. But your brain has not received the message that it’s time for bed. So, you lay there staring off into the darkness and praying that you can fall asleep. Over and over again, your brain slaps you awake and fills your head with all kinds of thoughts.
What failures have I experienced? Did my friend mean what I thought he meant today at lunch? Do I need to get gas on the way to church tomorrow? What color should we paint the kitchen in our new house? Why did God do this? Why didn’t He do that? For crying out loud, who wrote the book of Hebrews!? Why the heck did God create mosquitos or other creepy crawlies?
They just don’t stop!
A Pastor’s Insomnia
Recently, one of the questions I have been grappling with–night after night with no rest—has been, “Is Steve in heaven?”
Steve was a known drug addict around our neighborhood who had all but been forced to never leave his home, not because of Covid but because he owed money to multiple drug dealers. He was literally scared for his life. We learned not that long ago that Steve was at his home, an abandoned burned-out house, when he dozed off in a drug-induced trance and never woke up. His girlfriend found him dead in the middle of the night.
This is not the first time something like this has happened. Death knocks at the door quite frequently in our neighborhood. Violence, overdose, hypothermia, and hunger all have brutally taken people from our church family over the years. And with each bit of crippling news, my mind races to a series of questions that every pastor has asked at one point or another.
It’s a question that I personally wrestle with as I, and a handful of others, teach and preach numerous times throughout the week to the people at our church. We speak to, we pray with, we offer counsel, and we love on all the people who find their way into the Family of God in inner-city Detroit. When death tragically strikes, doubt creeps in and I wonder:
Did they make it to heaven? Will I really see them again? Were they saved?
The Search for Answers
It is easy to answer questions like these when you are confident your loved one believed in Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26, ESV). Jesus says these words right before He raises His good friend Lazarus from the dead.
Seems simple enough, right? Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved (Acts 16:31). This is exactly why believers in Jesus do not grieve like the rest of mankind who have no hope after death (1 Thessalonians 4:13). In faith, we confidently know that those who die in Christ will surely be raised from the dead and brought into the new kingdom that God has prepared for us (Matthew 25:34).
But what about those who we aren’t sure about?
What about those who we think die in faith, but maybe they didn’t lead lives that reflect Christ? Maybe they claimed to be a Christian, but what if they only came to church a handful of times a year? What if they boldly pledged allegiance to God, but then relentlessly chased after other gods? What if they preferred personal glory, money, or status and reputation over Jesus’ unending love?
Or perhaps you know someone like my friends, people who are so caught up in their battle with addiction that any faith conversations you have had with them leave you wondering if any of it was even heard, let alone comprehended.
God works through His Word to create and sustain faith. We speak the Word to others based on the hope it will heal and save everyone. After all, faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).
Who You Know
Our senior pastor said something to me a long time ago that echoes in my heart and mind whenever we see Satan working overtime at my church:
“When you don’t know, rely on who you know.”
The only one who we certainly know at all times is Jesus.
We can make assumption after assumption, judgment after judgment, about our loved ones’ hearts of faith. But ultimately, I am incredibly grateful Jesus doesn’t give us the task of judging others’ eternal souls or even building the body of the church! Jesus says to Peter, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock (the confession of Peter), I will build MY church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, ESV).
What Can We Do?
Perhaps by now, you’re thinking, “If worrying won’t get me anywhere on those sleepless nights, what’s my job as a follower of Christ? What can I hold on to?”
The answer is much simpler than you may realize. Conversion never has, never is, and never will be a work of man, but only of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). So we speak words of love, grace, and forgiveness. We share the love of Christ with our family, friends, and neighbors by showing kindness, mercy, and love in all we do. And then we trust in what God does best.
He is the pursuer, He is the converter, and He is the redeemer. We must trust in those words, especially when we face uncertainty. We trust in the promise of Jesus’ love, even for those who confess their faith with dilated pupils and slow speech. After all, those who die are in the hands of God, and He is a far better judge of souls than we could ever be.
When you are face to face with confusion, frustration, or grief of a loved one, take heart in these wonderful words from the prophet Isaiah. These are the words of truth and promise, words in which God reveals so much about His heart for all of His children:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
Christ’s love and promises are like water in a thirsty garden. So speak boldly. Walk beside a friend on the hard days. Share the empathy and grace of the Lord Jesus. Because God creates faith, sustains faith, and carries His children to heaven, whether we lose sleep over it or not.
This much we know for certain.