Sometimes as pilgrims on this earth, we look around bleary-eyed and say, “Are we there yet?” Perhaps you have felt so lonely, discouraged, or overwhelmed that you wished you could just already be with Jesus. Maybe you were—or are—very depressed and it is hard to imagine pressing on, or you miss a departed loved one so much that you feel you can hardly wait any longer to join them in paradise. It can feel unbearable to keep trudging through the daily pain of sorrow here on earth. Working as a psychiatrist, I have heard believers during incredibly difficult seasons experience this. They may say, “If I just fell asleep and tomorrow I woke up in Heaven, I would be okay with that” or “I really just wish I could be with Jesus now.”
Though I can’t comment in this brief article on the whole spectrum of thoughts or desires that people may experience when they wish to depart from this frail body, I want to emphasize just how frequently I hear people say this. Know that this is a common longing. I worry that many people do not even feel comfortable sharing these weighty thoughts with close friends for fear of being judged or misunderstood. Christians may fear what others will think if it seems they could be contemplating ending their life (even if they are not), which can really hamper their ability to be vulnerable with others during times of intense emotional pain and need. Depression, grief, and burnout are not moral failures even though they may feel that way.
Is this thought of wanting, even hoping, to be with Jesus so soon a wrong desire? Should we try to not to think about it? Or might this sometimes be an understandable and even, perhaps, reasonable longing to have, particularly during times of significant difficulty?
One of the most poignant and well-known verses in all of Scripture is Paul’s statement, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). He goes on to say that he wants to honor Christ whether he is living and continuing to minister on earth, or whether he dies in prison and goes to be with his Lord. Indeed, there is a special joy and glory in faithfully serving God during our short time on earth, but there is an unsurpassably greater joy basking in the glory of God’s own presence. We should all long expectantly for our heavenly home.
Usually we focus on Paul’s beautiful description of glorifying God both in life on earth and the life to come. However, this wasn’t just a passing “happy thought” before Paul moved on to something else. After mentioning the major advantage of ongoing earthly service—which is “fruitful labor”—Paul says these two options, life on earth or life in glory, actually present a conundrum for him. “Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil 1:22-23). It is a bit surprising Paul would say he was “hard pressed” and having to “choose”. We have no reason to think Paul is lying about his struggle or that he was considering ending his life (either of which would be breaking one of the Ten Commandments), so how can he even say this is a dilemma?
I think he says this because he truly did have to make a conscious choice to keep laboring fruitfully for Christ rather than succumbing to discouragement and defeat. It was right for him to have a longing to be in Christ’s presence, yet, even during his difficult and discouraging time in prison, he saw there was work to be done and worked to see the good, the Kingdom work, in what he could still accomplish for the Lord during his short time on earth. Indeed, as the poem says, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” We are called to serve God in unique and significant ways during our life here.
And yet, it is very clear from Paul’s words that he was legitimately conflicted about remaining on earth, let alone in such an unpleasant, long-term circumstance like being in prison. He may have been very depressed or discouraged at times, wondering if his letters and his time sitting in jail were a waste of time compared to when he was preaching and planting churches. We don’t know exactly what he was feeling, other than his strong “desire to depart and be with Christ.” But I think Paul’s intense vulnerability here, his heartfelt longing to skip right to heaven, is giving other Christians permission to feel this way, too.
If you are struggling, if you are hurting, if you are grieving… this is often part of life here in a broken and fallen world full of sin and strife. Reach out to your pastor, talk to friends, speak with a counselor. God has given us community to come alongside us when we do not feel the joy of His presence. Relating with others who care about us can help make things feel a little bit better in this life even if it still can’t compare with heaven. We’re not there yet.
Sometimes you just really want to be with Jesus.
And that’s okay.