Believers periodically tell me versions of the following: “We shouldn’t be thinking about reunion with loved ones, or the joys of Heaven. We should only be thinking about being united with Christ, who is our only treasure.” This sounds spiritual, but is it?
Paul says to his friends in Thessalonica, “We loved you so much” and “You had become so dear to us,” then speaks of his “intense longing” to be with them (1 Thessalonians 2:8, 17). In fact, Paul anticipates his ongoing relationship with the Thessalonians as part of his heavenly reward: “What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).
Isn’t this emphatic proof that it’s appropriate for us to deeply love people and look forward to being with them in Heaven? Paul sees no contradiction in referring to both Christ and his friends as his hope and joy and crown in Heaven.
Paul then asks, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?” (3:9). The joy he takes in his friends doesn’t compete with his joy in God—it’s part of it. Paul thanks God for his friends. Whenever we’re moved to thank God for people, we’re experiencing exactly what He intended.
Paul also says to the Thessalonians, “You long to see us, just as we also long to see you. . . . How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again” (3:6, 9-10). Paul finds joy in God’s presence because of other Christians. He anticipates the day “when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones” (3:13). He looks forward to being with Jesus and his people.
Paul tells the Thessalonians that we’ll be reunited with believing family and friends in Heaven: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. . . . God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. . . . We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them. . . . And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words” (4:13-14, 17-18). Our source of comfort isn’t only that we’ll be with the Lord in Heaven, but also that we’ll be with each other.
Puritan Richard Baxter longed for that comfort: “I know that Christ is all in all; and that it is the presence of God that makes Heaven to be Heaven. But yet it much sweetens the thoughts of that place to me that there are there such a multitude of my most dear and precious friends in Christ.”
In Philippians 1 Paul writes with unapologetic affection to his brothers in Christ, describing himself as longing for them. Note that he clearly sees no incompatibility between his Christ-centered desire to be with Jesus (1:21) and his Christ-centered love for others:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
Paul’s interest and delight in their lives is perfectly in keeping with the fact that the first and second greatest commands are virtually inseparable: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…love your neighbor as yourself.” (And if your neighbor, how much more your family, which derives its identity from none other but God himself?).
As if anticipating that someone might object, “But God is our only treasure, and God is the only one we should find joy in and long for,” Paul goes on in the following verses to say this:
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
Note the source of Paul’s deep longing and affection for his brothers and sisters: Christ Jesus himself. It is possible to put people over God, and this is idolatry. But it is also possible, in putting God over people, to then find in people a wonderful expression of God himself—so great that it is completely appropriate for us to have them in our hearts, to find joy in them, and to long to be with them.
Such sentiments are not idolatry—it is not wrong to have them. In fact, something is wrong if we do not have them. Finding joy in God and longing for God doesn’t kill our joy in and longing for others, but fuels it. The joy in and longing we have for them is directly derived from our joy in and longing for Him. The two are not incompatible. Indeed, the second thing—our love for others—flows directly from the first thing—our love for God—and then flows right back into it, to His glory.