The Implications of Everyone Going to Heaven
Published by Mike Gantt at Shakespir
Self-published 2016. Originally written 1994.
Self-published with Shakespir 2017.
I claim no copyright for this book. However, English Bibles are copyrighted – hence the notice I am required to give below. You are free to copy anything of mine you want, but you do not have the same liberty where the Bible verses are concerned.
Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the
New American Standard Bible®, (NASB)
Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995
by The Lockman Foundation
Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)
Table of Contents
This book is a sequel to The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven. It explores the implications of everyone going to heaven, and how that truth integrates with other biblical truths. All of the author’s work is based on the conviction that Jesus is Lord and that the Bible is the word of God.
This book reflects on ideas explicit or implicit in my previous book on this subject: The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven. Therefore, some of the material – especially in the beginning – may seem repetitious to you, but mere repetition will be minimal – it’s mainly elaboration I’m after. And, after all, some ideas are worth repeating.
In any case, I have written this book in a slightly different style. The previous book incorporated a great many Bible verses. This was, of course, because I was making a biblical case for the claim I was making. In this book, the Bible is no less important in my thinking. However, I refer to what it says without importing extensive quotations from it. This is because that book was about making known and explaining an important truth in biblical terms; this book is about reflecting on the implications of that biblical truth and incorporating it with other, more well-known, biblical truths.
Bible-believing Christians in our day are not used to the idea that everyone goes to heaven. Therefore, it seemed good to spend some time reflecting on what should – and shouldn’t – change in our thinking about how we are to live life on this earth. Thus we need to integrate our belief that everyone is going to heaven with our seeking of the kingdom of God.
If you’re unconvinced that the Bible teaches that everyone is going to heaven, you should go back to the previous book. It’s important not just that you understand that everyone is going to heaven, but that you understand it as the Bible teaches it. Anyone can say that everyone is going to heaven, but only when the Bible says it can we truly count on it being true. On the other hand, if you are convinced of these things, and want to re-orient your thinking and life accordingly, then read on here.
Chapter 1 – How Can God Let Bad People Into Heaven?
Some people, when first considering the truth that everyone is going to heaven, and before they have had enough time to really think it through, are troubled by the idea that bad people get into heaven. If you are one of those people, you need to first acknowledge that compared to God we are all bad people.
That’s right. He’s good and we are not. He’s pure and we are not. He is without sin and we are not. We are like children who have played in the mud so long we have forgotten what clean looks like. Jesus of Nazareth – that’s clean. How does your life measure up to His? If you and I don’t measure up to Jesus, what right do we have to point the finger at someone else whom we deem to be less righteous than we are? There is a lot more difference between God’s behavior and yours and mine than there is between yours and mine and whoever we think we’re better than.
Sooner or later, we come around to acknowledging that if we receive God’s mercy then we have no business denying that mercy to anyone else. Even so, someone might still ask, “What about really bad people like brutal tyrants and mass murderers – shouldn’t they be left out of heaven?” I can only respond with another question: Even if someone has led what seems to us to be a depraved and worthless life, should our limited awareness of the circumstances and issues of that life be accepted as that person’s final judgment? Here on earth we humans can conduct trials and punish crimes, but the whole of a person’s life is beyond us. We can never know all of its details. Because of a mother’s enormous personal investment in each child, she knows where to look for the good in the worst of her children. Because of God’s even greater investment in every single human, He can find a shred of us worth saving – a shred that our horrible behavior may have hidden from everyone else.
The Cleansing Effect of Death
So, is heaven going to be populated with brazen criminals? Not in a million years! The removing of the veil of flesh at death brings every person face to face with the blinding light of pure truth. Jesus told a parable that reveals the dramatic effect death has on the most hardened human attitudes.
The story goes like this: A rich man lives a lavish and self-indulgent lifestyle while a poor man covered with sores lies at his doorstep wanting no more than the scraps from the rich man’s table. The dogs lick the poor man’s sores but the rich man will do nothing for him. In the afterlife, it’s the rich man who’s begging from the poor man, for their places of honor are reversed. The poor man is being comforted for all the misery he endured and the rich man is tormented by the memory of his own greed and miserliness. Here’s an example of how “many who are last will be first and many who are first will be last,” and of how our behavior here on earth has consequences even in heaven. Worldly riches and pleasures have no meaning in heaven – but memories of how we lived here will linger on.
Not only is the rich man miserable that he didn’t show more mercy in this life, he desperately longs to tell his brothers to avoid his error lest they end up burning with the same agonizing regret. This parable reveals the justice of God in the realignment of the rich man and the poor man, the mercy of God in the inclusion of the rich man in afterlife, and the wisdom of God in the attitude adjustment that overcame the rich man. His punishment was redemptive, and brought about the desired spiritual change. He’d have felt even better about it if he’d changed before he left earth, and that’s why he wanted to get word to his brothers still on earth so they could repent. You will not see evil people in heaven, only people who might be very ashamed of what they have done on earth…and who wish to spare others the painful remorse they’re feeling.
How can God show mercy to the human race and yet be fair in His treatment of each individual? The answer, seen in the parable, is a heaven that embraces all and yet in which special compensation is awarded victims of earth’s unresolved injustices. There are perhaps not as many of these unresolved injustices as you might think, for God’s workings of justice in the earth often go unnoticed by us. Nevertheless, there are inequities…and heaven is designed to rectify them. Cain killed his brother Abel for no good reason. All other things being equal, Abel will enjoy a better place in heaven than his brother. God won’t have to forego His desire to show mercy to Cain in order to show justice to Abel. God knows how to be fair with all His children!
This perfect blend of justice and mercy will be important to all of us, for it’s not just the really bad people who will have things of which to be ashamed. We will all be humbled and chastened when we face God at death. A group of men caught a woman in the act of adultery and brought her before Jesus. They pointed to her as an example of human sinfulness worthy of condemnation. Jesus refused to condemn her. This was a surprise because He was known to have condemned adulterous behavior. In fact, His views on the subject of marriage were quite strict. But while Jesus would condemn behavior, He never bullied people. To the woman He simply said, “Go and sin no more.”
To her accusers Jesus said, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” He could similarly say to us in heaven, should we object to anyone else’s presence, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw the ‘bad’ person out.” No matter how despicably the “really bad” person in question behaved, who could answer a challenge like that?
We all have a vested interest in being governed by a mercy mixed with justice. For if we deny mercy to any fellow human, we’ve effectively denied it to the whole race, and thus to ourselves. Giving others a second chance keeps us entitled to the same. There’s nothing strange therefore in the fact that we shouldn’t seek revenge where heaven is concerned. What is strange is that God, who has no sins to cover and therefore no vested interest in showing mercy, has chosen to be so merciful. That’s love. And it’s strangely wonderful.
Put Yourself in God’s Shoes
So, what would you do if you were in God’s shoes? I hope you would follow His example and be merciful. Even one more person on earth who thinks like God would be a breath of fresh air to the rest of us. For in a limited sense, you are in God’s place. You were made in His image and given His sense of morality and freedom of choice. Of course, you don’t have His unlimited power. But you do have more than enough power to help or hurt the people around you. The more mercy you show to them, the better for all of us.
Chapter 2 – The Reason You Exist
The Bible’s promise of heaven for everyone pushes back the boundaries of human existence. One way or another, we ‘re going to live forever! This promise gives us a context for understanding all human experiences, including less dramatic ones like washing clothes, finding a job, and raking the yard.
The promise of heaven even helps explain who you are, where you came from, and where you’re going. I can go ahead and tell you that you came from God, and you’re going back to God. I can also tell you that you are very important to God, and to the rest of us, too. Just think more about heaven and you’ll see why I say these things.
How Heaven Redefines Life
Going to heaven can’t be just a matter of God making us happy and removing us from earthly troubles. If that’s all He had in mind, He could have simply put us in heaven to start with and avoided all the rigmarole down here. We already knew life must be more than putting food on the table and retiring to fish. Now we find out that it is even more than making the cut for heaven. The promise of heaven invites us to rethink the meaning of life itself.
Heaven liberates our minds from restricted views of life that rob it of meaning. Viewing your life in the larger context of heaven and the longer time span of eternity, reveals the significance that your life holds both for God and you. If the space-time continuum in your mind includes only the world you can observe and only the lifetime you can count, then life can become frightening and depressing. Humans are the highest form of life and they can’t all get along; the world can be a scary place. But when your space-time continuum is stretched out to its proper limits, God is the highest form of life and His lack of any disagreement within Himself makes this earthly environment begin to look a lot more negotiable. Even when things are at their worst, you always can grit your teeth until heaven – time will be on your side!
Compare the brief life span you have on earth with the time you are going to be in heaven. The time you spend down here is infinitely shorter. I know it doesn’t always seem that way. But when you add up all your days – the short ones and the long ones – and compare them to heaven’s, the days of this life amount to little more than nothing. Plus, the infinitely greater time we’ll spend in heaven implies that it’s a fuller and greater expression of the life we have here.
This Life Is Part of a Greater Whole
Comparing life on earth to life in heaven is like comparing life in the mother’s womb to life outside it. Inside the womb there is life and hope. There is sustenance and there is growth. But everything in it is nothing but preparation for greater living beyond. By comparison to that greater life, the womb is dark and confining. Leaving it is a shock to the baby’s system – an unwanted disturbance of the status quo. But leaving is the natural course of things. It’s what the whole gestation period was building toward, and…life beyond the womb is better!
Likewise, our earthly life is like the seed and our heavenly life is like the tree that grows from that seed. The seed is buried and smothered. It lives, it grows. But everything is preparation. It’s a wondrous thing that a seed breaks apart and sends forth roots. But what’s far more beautiful is its shoot which breaks the ground and heads for the sky. The apple seed dies so that an apple tree might live. The tree is the goal of the seed. Similarly, heavenly life is the flowering of the earthly one – a fulfillment of destiny.
Consider, too, that heaven is God’s home. He is spirit, that is, unseen. We are spirit, too, though we’re clothed in an earthly body right now. At death we shed that body for a heavenly one and ascend to live as angels do. Therefore, you are something of an embryonic angel. Jesus’ resurrection appearances to His disciples indicate that our heavenly features will bear at least some resemblance to our earthly ones. But the reproductive process, which pervades every aspect of earthly life, is unnecessary and nonexistent in heaven. People don’t die there! Therefore, heaven will be a mixture of change from, and continuity with, the life we know here.
Earth is like summer camp: there are moments that are glorious, but there’s no place like home. So, what purpose are we to accomplish before we leave? If this life is only a piece of a much greater whole, what are we to do with it? How do we make this stage of life meaningful to the next? How do we make sense of the rigmarole? To find the answer to these questions we turn our focus away from where we’re going to where we’ve come from. We’re going to rethink the story of creation in the light of heaven.
Why Were We Put Here?
Consider the story of Adam and Eve, our mega-great-grandparents. God creates them and gives them dominion over the whole earth. They are not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Other than that, the earth is theirs. But before you finish the third chapter of Genesis, the first couple has already yielded to a serpent’s temptation and chomped down on the forbidden fruit. This disobedience opens a Pandora’s box of ills that the earth still endures. The human race was hardly out of the starting gate before this crippling incident occurred. What gives?
Taken by itself, this story implies failure. It speaks of creatures who blew a good thing, of parents whose disobedience made their children into victims. It speaks of a Creator whose plans were spoiled, of an artist whose painting is marred shortly after the unveiling. For this reason, traditional theology expects God to sooner or later throw away the physical creation and start over with a new one. But in the context of the promise of heaven, we expect a different outcome because we see the problem in a different light. Our attention is drawn to the fact that Adam and Eve were tempted by another. To tempt is itself a sin. That means the original sin couldn’t have been committed by Adam and Eve. That is, evil originated not on earth, but in heaven. Sin was started not by humans, but by spiritual beings – angels who “fell.”
If evil already existed in the spiritual realm before this creation, then what chance was there that God was caught off guard by this encroachment of evil in the garden? And if He wasn’t taken by surprise, why would He have put our human family in such a vulnerable position? Granted, the commandment to Adam and Eve was simple enough to follow. If you give two folks the whole candy store except for the chocolate-covered cherries, you have not been unreasonable with them. Even so, wasn’t God risking far too much by putting this young creation to the test? If there was already evil in the universe, why not seal off the fledgling human family so that the infection would not spread to them?
Wrestling with these questions causes us to wonder if maybe the very purpose of this creation is to do something about the evil that preexisted it. Hmmm…what if the conquest of evil is the very reason you and I exist?
This Creation: God’s Response to Evil
The creation we are a part of is God’s plan for conquering evil. His statement in Genesis that it was “good” and even “very good” was spoken in the presence of evil forces that watched Him make it. It’s not as though everything was fine until humankind sinned, for that would make our afterlife an afterthought on His part. Rather, we and all of creation were fashioned as a strategic weapons system meant to overcome evil that dwelt in the unseen realm. The origin of evil preceded and gave rise to the origin of us.
Remember the sequence of events: First, there was evil. After that, the creation. And shortly after that, the infection of the creation by evil. God would never have put us in harm’s way like this unless His purpose was to deal with the source of harm. God allowed His young creation to be infected by evil for the same reason we allow our children to be infected with the smallpox virus: vaccination. We’re not trying to give the little guys smallpox to destroy them, but to give them the opportunity to overcome it and thus become immune to it. Yes, the time taken for the earth to overcome the virus of evil is proving a lot longer than the time a child takes to recover from a vaccination. But evil is an eternal issue and a time-consuming approach is thus required.
Creation was not a lamb for the slaughter, but God’s Trojan horse that would bring down the heavenly forces of evil. Earth would be God’s means of washing the heavens. You and I are part of that plan to overcome evil with good. This purpose is one of the things that so ennobles our existence. You and I are God’s solution to a problem. We are not a part of the problem; we are part of the solution. We are not the victims in distress; we are the heroines and heroes sent to the rescue.
We advance the cause of goodness in everything our humanity requires of us, including activities which would otherwise seem mundane – such as, washing clothes, finding a job, and raking the yard. Washing clothes to help out someone else in the family is goodness. Finding a job that won’t shortchange family life is goodness. Raking the yard in obedience to your parents when you’d rather be down the street with your friends is goodness. All this goodness adds up, and God uses it in His war against evil.
But if we are to be heroically vanquishing evil with goodness, why do we so often feel like evil’s victims instead? Why do we sometimes feel that life is a losing battle? Because of the forces we are fighting; it’s an element of their strategy. In part, we are victims. We are sent into the world in a helpless state. Even if we figure out that there’s a spiritual war going on, it’s not always easy knowing which side is which. This is one reason why God feels so much compassion for us. And why He’d like for us to know more about how the war between good and evil is waged. The starting point for this understanding – as well as its consummation and everything in between – is the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In Him you will find everything you need pertaining to life and godliness – that is, all the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God.
Chapter 3 – The War of Good and Evil
When you contemplate the quiet dignity of a tall tree, especially if there’s a gurgling brook close by, it’s hard to remember that we’re in a war. But this very scene – including we who are enjoying it – is part of God’s declaration of war against evil. And the peace that this scene exudes is one of our most potent weapons in that war. Ironic, isn’t it? The way to win the war we’re fighting is to use weapons like peace, love, and patience that we so often associate with the absence of war.
The war of good and evil operates entirely according to rules. The first rule laid down at creation was that whatever humanity says on the earth, goes. Angels would have power over forces of creation, and God would preside as judge over angels and humanity. The words and deeds of humanity, however, would be the leading causes of the universe’s effects. For example, Adam and Eve could be tempted to take the forbidden fruit, but they couldn’t be forced to take it. And until they took it, no wrongdoing was attributed to them. And for His part, God Himself would not make people do right. He would inspire them, but they were free to act according to their own decisions. Summarizing, evil forces could use temptation; forces of goodness could use inspiration. Humanity would be free to follow either.
You and I can recognize these same forces in our own lives. We feel urges to do that which we know is wrong, as well as urges to goodness. Some urges are stronger than others. We can yield so often to temptation that we become weaker in the process. We can also respond to inspiration in a way that makes us more sensitive to future inspiration. Nevertheless, in our strongest moments we can be tempted, and in our weakest moments we can be inspired. As long as we’re on the earth, we’re never completely removed from either force. Yet it is our decisions that are always determining consequences. That’s why we are responsible for our actions – not God or the devil. Free will, or the power to choose, is a defining characteristic of humanity.
Humanity was to rule creation with freedom, but here was the catch: everything said and done would have consequences. Everything. Thoughts, words, and deeds would be like seed sown into the creation. Those that were good would bring forth good consequences. Those that were evil would bring forth evil consequences. Like various physical seeds and fruit there would be varying time lapses involved. Regardless of the time it took, however, results were inevitable. And exact consequences couldn’t always be foreseen any more than the shape and size of fruit can be predicted by the shape and size of the seed. God in His own wisdom would govern all the processes.
The entire creation is thus operating on the principle of justice. Goodness sown brings a harvest of goodness; evil sown brings a harvest of evil. Every thought, word, and deed has repercussions. How many such repercussions do you think are created in a single minute of human existence? Multiply that number by the number of minutes in a day and the number of people in the earth and you have billions upon billions of events to track in the course of a year. Yet heaven keeps up with it all, including a census of sparrows and of the individual hairs on your head. It is precisely because everything matters that it is so hard to sort out the sense and justice of every situation we encounter.
God is both judge of the universe and friend to us all. As a judge, he can’t bend the law for our sake or His own. As a friend, he stays involved with our every situation. He forgives us when we slap Him on the cheek; He simply turns the other. But when we go around slapping other people’s cheeks, His responsibilities as judge require Him to let us feel some consequences. There is no inconsistency between God’s allowing trouble to come on us and His befriending us. His love is unconditional, not unjust. He doesn’t break the rules. Instead, He walks with us through the trouble we’ve caused in order to help us endure and outlast it.
One of the first sentences we put together as children is “That’s not fair!” And we never stop finding occasions to say it our whole life long. If we’re 80 years old and someone cuts in front of us in line we can’t help thinking, “That’s not fair!” The instinctive sense of justice behind these exclamations is a sign of the purpose for which we were created. We couldn’t very well fight a war of good and evil without such a sense. It’s also a sign that indeed unfair things happen in life.
Humanity’s freedom to choose means that you can encounter evil that you didn’t sow. Life is a shared experience. Sometime we reap the evil that someone else has sown. For this reason, we can’t assume that everything that is happening to us is a consequence of our own behavior. Some of our troubles are the result of heredity, a force over which we have no control. Some of our troubles are the result of the behavior of our contemporaries, another force over which we have no control. These troubles are unfair, for we’ve done nothing to deserve them. However, ancestors and contemporaries can also benefit us, and this is an “unfairness” that works to our advantage.
The fact that life is a shared experience makes it even harder to explain the justice of every situation we encounter. It would take omniscience to figure it all out, and that’s why God is the only one who’s qualified to judge the whole thing. By His omniscience, He governs in fairness a world in which unfair things can take place. The ultimate rule of creation – the one it was designed to prove – is that goodness eventually overcomes evil…even the evil of unfair things. That everyone is going to heaven is the grandest expression of this rule.
Death Versus Human Reproduction
The ultimate hostility that the creation shows toward humanity is death. Ejection from the game. People who frequently sin, hasten their death. Illegal drugs, promiscuous sex, and violent behavior are activities – to name just a few – that tend to shorten one’s earthly life span. For this reason, parents warn their children against such behaviors. In support, the Bible tells children to honor their parents, and promises a long life to those who obey this injunction.
God went into the war of good and evil with His eyes open. He knew that we wouldn’t always do good. He knew that the forces of temptation would eventually get to us all. The Bible was therefore only promising a long life on the earth, not an endless one. God knew that every one of us would die sooner or later. Premature death would be a consequence of our own behavior, or a consequence of someone else’s – an unfair thing. Cain’s killing of Abel, for example, was unfair. It was a consequence not of Abel’s behavior but of Cain’s freedom. Fairly or unfairly, death would take us all.
For this reason, God established the human reproductive system to keep His forces continually supplied. You and I are reinforcements in the battle. Good angels rejoiced when you and I were born because two more human beings were added to their side! (Is it coming through that there is far more interest in your life than you ever imagined?) We are sent here to carry on for our fallen comrades. But we, too, will die. And how can God win a war when He keeps losing all the individual battles? The answer lies in the battle for heaven which He won through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Chapter 4 – The Battle for Heaven
While we humans have been individually battling out the war of good and evil, God has been working quietly behind the scenes. He intended from the very beginning that we would eventually occupy heaven, but He shared His plans with no one. In the beginning of creation, no one imagined that humanity would ascend to heaven. Human beings were descending below the earth with every death that occurred. Painstakingly, through many human generations, God was putting into place the plan that would make heaven our eternal home.
The Longer Time Frame
Think about it from God’s point of view. You have a problem with the spirits you’ve created and you want to solve it. To do so, you create the physical universe and assign roles to those spirits – good and evil – in the governance of it. You put humans, who are spirits clothed with the elements of the earth itself, in charge of the earth. Through these underlings you work for a minimum of 4,000 years to get to a point where those humans – actually just one of them: Jesus of Nazareth – effects a change that significantly alters the heavenly realm where the problem originally existed. Gives a whole new meaning to the word patience, eh?
Our life spans, no matter how long, become minuscule when compared to such a time frame. That God has waged so long a war against evil indicates how important winning that war really is. Although we look at the battle primarily as an individual one, He takes the broader perspective. He is often linking our lives and weaving our maneuvers in ways we perceive only vaguely and fleetingly, if at all. Actions that we take, actions that may even seem insignificant to us, can be part of a larger strategy He is implementing.
Who would’ve thought that a lowly carpenter’s son would be the leading figure in the battle for heaven? Who would’ve thought that the accomplishments and failures of His nation would provide the precedents and the principles for His victory? And who would’ve thought that the ancient texts of that nation could let us visualize the battle’s outcome that has now contained the war of good and evil to earth? God uses our little acts to accomplish His big ones.
Victory in the Larger Context
Viewed in the larger context, the problem of death was not cessation of existence, but separation from God. The Bible describes how death meant banishment to Sheol, a place far below the earth and far away from heaven. Death was thus a stronghold of the forces opposed to God. Forces of evil could taunt the Creator and say, “They are ours.” God’s plan, however, would culminate in a great spiritual battle in the heavens. As a result, Sheol would be eliminated and the heavens would be opened up to resurrected humans.
The good and evil spirits, who populated the heavenly realm before this creation, come in and out of focus as the Bible is read from Genesis to Revelation. The Second Coming of Christ, which marked the elimination of Sheol and opening of heaven for resurrected humans, was a major clash of those forces. This battle for heaven, called Armageddon, resulted in a definitive victory for the forces of goodness. As part of the conquest, resurrected humanity was placed with the Lord above while the spiritual forces of evil were thrown down to earth. Thus peace was won in heaven while the war of good and evil was, from that point forward, contained to earth. (For a thorough explanation of how the Second Coming of Jesus Christ occurred long ago in the late 1st Century A.D. see my book Whatever Became of Jesus Christ? The Biblical Case for the Second Coming as Accomplished Fact.)
As long as we remain on this earth, you and I will have to deal with these evil spiritual forces. They are continually attempting to invade the thinking of people on earth – and that includes people who believe that everyone is going to heaven. At death, however, we are raised far above their reach. There is nothing but peace above, for the heavens have now been washed of evil. This cleansing was a fulfillment of the creation’s purpose. It’s a victory whose sweetness will eternally be savored.
Since the beginning of creation, death had been evil’s trump card against God. Death took humans farther away from Him into enemy territory. No matter what miracles God did for people on earth, Satan and company would end up with God’s warriors in captivity. Jesus’ triumph at the Second Coming in the late 1st Century A.D. was the bringing home of all P.O.W.’s. It was the greatest of escapes. Not only did all the dead and wounded come home, they came home whole and healed. They were clothed in new spiritual bodies, free from deformity and disease. And they were no longer threatened by death…because they had been birthed from it.
When Jesus brought to light that the resurrection led to heaven, He wasn’t just pulling the rug out from under human minds. He was upending spiritual minds as well. Evil forces would not have inspired the crucifixion of Jesus had they known what it would lead to. The apostles seemed quite taken with the fact that the good news was as much news to heaven as it was to earth. And rightly so. For thousands of years, the human experience seemed book-ended by birth on the one side and death on the other. With a resurrection to heaven, God had thrown away one of the bookends. A whole new future was opened up for humanity, and earthly tongues weren’t the only ones hanging out in dumbstruck awe.
The unseen realm is still one that is vague to us, but we can perceive enough to jump up and down with excitement when we picture what God has done for us. We were His heroes, sent to deliver the universe from evil. We ourselves were captured and made its slaves in the process. But God had not been out-foxed. He had a plan. And when that plan was revealed, heaven went wild – half of it with glee and the other half with stark terror. For a generation, the generation chronicled in the New Testament, heaven gave off sparks that showed up all over earth. The sparks culminated in an explosion (The Second Coming) that still echoes to this day. Our fallen comrades have been restored to the Commander-in-Chief and we will all one day join them.
Victory in the Smaller Context
We who do battle on this side of the Second Coming are now fighting a war whose conclusion is inevitable. The war of good and evil goes on, but the final outcome has already been determined by the winning of that decisive battle. Just as D-Day determined the outcome of World War II even though much blood spilled afterward, so the conquest of death determined evil’s defeat even though it may gasp loudly for a long time to come.
Though the war is going our way, there is still a lot riding on the battles you face. Heaven may yet be many days off and there are despairing people around you who don’t even know it’s coming. Who will touch them if you don’t? God put you where He did when He did for a reason. It’s not just a matter of doing good, it’s a matter of doing good in the face of evil. It’s a matter of letting that strangely wonderful love come to you…and through you to others. It’s not a way we’re accustomed to living, but it’s the kick God gets out of life…and He thought we’d like to share it.
When Jesus was hanging on the cross, He looked like a helpless victim. He looked like He was doing nothing to solve His problem. And it’s true that He was doing nothing to solve His personal and immediate problem. But He was doing everything necessary to solve our common and ultimate problem. He was bringing about a solution to the problem of death. He was overcoming evil with goodness. In overcoming evil with goodness, He was not only fulfilling His own purpose, He was fulfilling the purpose of creation itself. He was letting the strangely wonderful love of God inside Him overcome all the evil around Him.
Jesus survived and overcame what is the most deplorable of situations in the war between good and evil: when we humans turn on each other. We are all soldiers in the same army and answer to the same general. To die by “friendly fire” is the most needless of tragedies. To keep from accidentally firing on our comrades, and to survive when they fire on us, requires us to spend more time reflecting on the consequences of our behavior.
Chapter 5 – All Behavior Has Consequences
When some people hear me or someone else say that everyone is going to heaven, they automatically think, “Impossible, for there must be consequences to our behavior.” I could not agree more with the idea that all behavior has consequences. Even God’s behavior has consequences. Everyone going to heaven is a consequence of God’s behavior, not ours. He has made a decision to be merciful, and He’s going to stick to it.
Our coming to earth in the first place was a consequence of God’s behavior. He decided to be kind and – poof! – here we are. We make many decisions while we’re here on earth, all of which have consequences – both good and bad. We learn from these experiences, but sooner or later we all die. At that point, God once again decides to be kind and – poof! – there we go to heaven. Once there, we gain even more understanding of all the consequences of our earthly behavior. As a result, we’ll experience varying degrees of honor and shame. The degree of honor bestowed on us in heaven is a consequence of our behavior, but our inclusion in heaven is a consequence of His. Let me elaborate.
The Traditional Heaven-or-Hell Scenario
The idea that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell, though out of sync with the Bible, at least communicates that our actions matter. In a rough way, it says that good actions are rewarded and bad actions are punished. This affirms an idea that is altogether true and important: our behavior has consequences. The idea that everyone is going to heaven isn’t a denial of this true and important truth. Rather, it’s a more mature, as well as a more accurate, affirmation of it.
Although the heaven-or-hell scenario affirms behavioral consequences, it often trivializes much of human behavior in the process. First, it defines the total behavioral consequence of this life as either untold bliss or unmitigated horror. Add in the fact that many people disagree about what constitutes qualification for heaven, and you have a situation where the highest of stakes are riding on an issue clouded by uncertainty. Some people just try to live as morally as they can, trusting God will draw the line in the right place (usually looking over their shoulder to make sure they’re at least as good as most of the people they know). Others fix on religious doctrines, church membership, or ethnic background to calm their fears about the afterlife. As a result, they must downplay the importance of everyday behavior. The Bible, however, proclaims a God to whom our smallest good deed is important.
The heaven-or-hell scenario can trivialize not just our behavior, but God’s as well. It implies that our behavior is more important than His. Our actions are very, very important…but God’s actions are even more important! If a no-escape hell is waiting for some of us after this life, then God is letting our actions, not His, determine the eternal state of things. God has ascribed an enormous amount of importance to our actions, but I don’t think He ever intended to abdicate control of the universe. The traditional idea of hell says we can get ourselves into a jam He can’t get us out of. But the Bible proclaims a God for whom “nothing is too difficult.” Thus His afterlife of heaven is the ultimate escape from the hell we sometimes encounter on earth.
Although God has established merciful boundaries to the consequences of our own decision-making so that all of us find heaven when we die, I still believe that our behavior has consequences far beyond what any of us realizes. What you do with your life and what I do with mine makes a very large difference both to earth and heaven. That’s what we’re exploring in this book: the cause and effect nature of the universe we live in.
Consequences in Heaven
Heaven is a place where we will think long and hard about what happened while we were on earth. The Bible speaks of all the details of our lives being recorded in books. It also speaks of each of us “giving an account” to God of all we have done. These images convey the idea that earthly life is important. And if we don’t see all of its meaning while here, we surely will once we get to heaven.
As a result of having our life experiences evaluated, we will be variously honored and shamed. This is because we will have all done some things worth remembering and other things we’d just as soon forget. The apostle Paul said we would shine in the spiritual heavens just as the stars shine in the physical heavens: that is, with varying degrees of glory. Star differs from star in the degree of brightness it displays. The light each puts forth is by no means uniform. Likewise the honor or glory our individual lives are due will vary significantly.
The glory of heaven is not based on the glory of earth. Some people who have a great deal of honor down here may or may not have honor in heaven. Actors and actresses, for example, receive a great deal of earthly glory. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television all give them attention, attaching importance to their words and actions. We call these people movie stars and luminaries, using the same sort of imagery Paul does. While the imagery is similar, though, the qualifications for stardom are quite different. A star on earth may or may not be a star in heaven. For in heaven, God will be directing where the attention goes. He will be far more likely to talk about justice, mercy, and faithfulness – which don’t attract near the attention down here that they should.
The purpose of this heavenly honor will be to further teach us about right and wrong, about what’s good and what’s bad. We can learn much here, but there is still a lot that’s hidden and it will take heaven to reveal it. In heaven, the greater honor or attention will be given to those lives that have the most to teach us about goodness. Less attention will be given to lives that displayed wickedness. Your grandmother might receive a hundred times the honor as a president or king does. Heaven’s interests go far beyond those of earth’s, and highlight the goodness that so often escapes notice or praise on earth.
You may have heard the expression that Jesus was “raised to the right hand of God” in heaven. This expression means that He received the highest place of glory it is possible for God to give. While on earth, He wasn’t a president or king. He was a carpenter’s son and itinerant rabbi. He was a citizen of a small, obscure country under military occupation by a great world power. He died in His own land with little protest. Yet He is the human being who was given the highest place of honor in heaven. He was given this place because of the unprecedented generosity of His life in the face of unprecedented hostility. Before His rejection and crucifixion, two of Jesus’ disciples asked for places of honor close to Him. He answered that it was not His to give, implying that they would have to earn their place of honor by the way they lived. Such honor couldn’t be given out based on favoritism or request.
We will, therefore, face consequences in heaven for what we have done here. Everyday issues carry implications for the life beyond. Just because Cain and Abel are both going to heaven doesn’t mean that Cain “got away with” killing Abel. In heaven Abel will be honored, and Cain will be ashamed of having cut short his brother’s earthly life. But that’s not all the negative consequences Cain brought on himself. He paid a price on earth, too.
Consequences on Earth
After the murder, God encountered Cain and made clear that Cain’s evil deed demanded justice. God went on to say that Cain would be cursed from the ground, that the earth would no longer be productive for him, and that he would be a vagrant and wanderer. Cain then cried out that his punishment was too great to bear. What made God’s responses so painful to him were that they all touched his chief occupation: farming. God could not have given him a punishment more appropriate to his crime or his situation.
Put yourself in Cain’s shoes. You’ve been supporting yourself by farming. Farming is hard work, and lots of things can go wrong. Now, everything that can go wrong, will. That activity of your life has been “cursed.” Further, you can’t even own land anymore because you’ve been made a vagrant and a wanderer. You’ve gone from successful farmer to unproductive migrant worker as a result of your crime. The ground that used to be a blessing to you has now become a source of misery. And it’s all because your spilled your brother’s blood on it. You will never be able to think about the ground again without thinking about what you have done. Considering all this makes us more understanding of why Cain whined that his punishment was “too severe.”
God wasn’t being spiteful to Cain. He was giving him a punishment that fit the crime, and that, more importantly, was redemptive. It had the potential of humbling Cain and making him think – if Cain took it to heart. Surely he would hesitate before letting himself get that angry again. He was learning the hard way that short fits of temper can have consequences that last much, much longer. His consequences for the murder began on earth and continued into heaven. The Bible’s cryptic account of Cain’s story doesn’t let us know the degree to which Cain may have learned from God’s response to his sin, but at least we know he had the opportunity to learn. Likewise, we should try to learn from our own mistakes, and from the unpleasant consequences they can bring.
Just because God doesn’t send people to hell for an eternity doesn’t mean that we “get away with” sinning. On the contrary, His responses to all our actions – good and bad – are certain and thoughtful. Thinking through those consequences can lead us to improve our behavior. God’s judgments of our behavior may not be as clear to us as this case was with Cain. Nonetheless, we can glean understanding from the consequences of our behavior because justice and mercy rule over all. As a result, God’s universe is – in spite of some appearances – is not at all chaotic.
Chapter 6 – An Ordered Universe
The world is filled with consequences, big and small. Everything we see is a consequence of something else. Every effect has a cause or causes. Every action has results – both short-term and long-term. Today I have an ugly purple bruise about two inches above my left knee. “Why?” I ask myself. Then I remember that a few days ago I was loading a ramp into the back of a truck, using the weight of my thigh to help push the ramp forward. the ramp caught on something and instantly ceased yielding to the pressure of my thigh. It hurt. And in case I hadn’t learned from the pain not to use my thigh to load heavy metal ramps, here was a flashing purple sign giving the same message.
Everything happens for a reason. Good things happen for a reason; bad things happen for a reason. We don’t always know the reasons, but that doesn’t mean the reasons don’t exist. Part of the challenge in living is find out the reasons behind events. If the police find a crime scene, they immediately set about looking for a criminal. They don’t throw up their hands as if they were living in a random universe where such things happen for no reason. All mysteries – whether of crime, of science, of human nature, or of anything else – beg, to one degree or another, to be solved. It’s one more indication that the universe is not random, but ordered.
A Creation of Consequence
As we’ve seen, this very creation of which we are a part was God’s ordered and thoughtful response to evil instigated by angels in heaven. God did not show evil in return – it’s not in His nature. Instead, He created humanity to re-order the chaos that evil angels had brought to the heavenly realm. The heaven that we go to when we die is not the same heaven that existed in the beginning. As a result of the work of Jesus Christ, evil angels were cast down out of heaven, even as they had been casting down humanity at death prior to that time. The evil that these angels did was brought back on them. This is a principle of God’s justice: He lets the evil of the evildoer come back to the evildoer.
Humans, who had been thrown down to an underworld of the dead for centuries, were lifted up by God to heaven. And since that great lifting, each of us is now lifted directly to heaven when we “fall” at death. This is another principle of God’s governance: God lifts up those who are cast down and oppressed. God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery in the Exodus was guided by these two principles of lifting up the oppressed and giving the oppressor a dose of his own medicine. Pharaoh may have been puzzled by the plagues against his nation and the shifting of the Red Sea, but more thoughtful people saw these things as a consequence of his nation’s behavior in subjugating foreigners.
Thus consequences, both positive and negative, surround us. Divine, angelic, and human behavior all have consequences. Actions taken in heaven ripple to points as far away as earth. Likewise, actions taken on earth ripple to points as far away as heaven. The promise of heaven provides a backdrop to all consequences. In other words, whatever happens is going to happen on earth before we die, or in heaven afterward. You have nowhere to go when you die but heaven. Nothing you do can alter the fabric of creation. Yet that entire fabric reverberates with actions and reactions. All these reverberations are governed by principles such as evil returning to the evildoer and God lifting up the fallen. This gives everything order and meaning, but that order and meaning can be difficult for you and I to sort out.
To illustrate, when you throw a pebble into the pond, you can trace the ripples from the point of impact all the way to the farthest edges of the pond. But if your every action is a pebble then you have lots of pebbles going in at different points and producing lots of ripples. Then add in God, the angels, and everyone else who is throwing pebbles and you’ve got a pond that’s swishing, splashing, and swirling in every direction. Principles are still governing, but it becomes harder to distinguish your own ripples from everything else that’s going on.
Sorting Out the Ripples
Real life is seldom as tidy as our discussions of it, but only by analyzing life’s parts can we grow in our understanding of the whole. Therefore, we have to compartmentalize certain situations to find principles. Someone will always be able to come up with an exception to our principle (which usually involves intersection with another principle), but we can’t let that stop us from learning and valuing that principle.
Take baseball, for example. When swinging a bat, one should aim to hit the ball squarely. Yet I can remember hitting a ball squarely one time and my line drive landed squarely in a fielder’s glove. I was out. I can recall another instance when I inadvertently hit the ball weakly, and the fielder made an error trying to scoop it up. I was on base safely. I chose to interpret these two events as exceptions to the rule that hitting the ball squarely was a good thing. I could have chosen instead to view baseball as a game of randomness in which one never knows what will happen next, but then I would never have improved as a player.
There is a certain amount of randomness in baseball, but it’s not due to randomness. It’s due to the interaction of many principles and many players. We learn to play it better when we allow for exceptions, but play according to the law of averages. Likewise, the element of unpredictability we find in life can be attributed to the interplay of God’s principles and God’s people. What appears to be happening for no reason at all is simply complexity that is currently beyond our human ability to fully understand or explain. We learn to play the game of life better when we follow the principles God teaches us – expecting good outcomes while always allowing for unexplainable (to us in the here and now) exceptions.
To learn more about consequences, we must isolate certain situations for discussion, but we must also remember that life means ripples that can never be completely isolated from one another.
Looking for Moral Causes in a Scientific Age
Not only are the ripples difficult to sort out, but the nature of the age in which we live blurs our vision so that we have trouble seeing those ripples. Let me give some examples of how we make it hard for ourselves to trace the moral principles that are governing life.
Consider your own spirit and body as a miniature version of the universe. Your moral behavior comes from within, but it has its effects on your body without. You can recognize this cause and effect, which has both moral and physical dimensions. Gluttony, for example, has both moral and physical aspects. Gluttony (which is greed when it comes to eating) takes its toll on the physical body. The obesity it leads to increases chances for heart attack, stroke, and other physical problems. The moral law to be recognized is not that all obesity is the result of gluttony, but that gluttony leads to negative physical consequences.
The causes of obesity can be described in physical terms such as “too much caloric intake combined with too little exercise.” The fact that it can be described this way tends to obscure that the obesity might have a moral cause. Also, many obese people have been made to feel guilty for their condition when it was not their fault. The fact that such false and heartless judgments have been made also tends to obscure those cases where gluttony genuinely was at the root. Our high-tech ability to track physical phenomena coupled with our fear of inducing false guilt conspire to blind us to a moral principle at work, at least in some lives.
Let’s now move from the microcosm of our bodies to the macrocosm of the world itself. Consider the flood in Noah’s day. Had our scientific equipment been available at that time, we could be reading detailed explanation of all the physical phenomena associated with the flood. But we might have missed the larger moral issue: the people of that day were exceedingly corrupt and violent. We can certainly see some corruption and violence today. Maybe there is a connection with some of the climatic catastrophes we are also seeing. The fact that we can explain things scientifically shouldn’t at all exclude the possibility that we might be able to explain them morally as well, but it often does.
Unfortunately, many moral explanations that are offered today insult thinking people. Such explanations are simplistic and invite rejection. We can’t be expected to believe, for example, that a hurricane in Miami means that all the people in the city are evil, or that only the people injured in the hurricane are evil. But a more morally sophisticated approach might allow for the possibility that the behavior of some people in the city had something to do with the hurricane. Or it might allow at least that some hurricanes are provoked by our behavior. Accepting moral understanding gradually and cautiously makes far more sense than demanding all-or-nothing explanations.
Thinking in moral terms provides no quick and easy answers, but neither does thinking entirely in physical terms. If we can exert the same patience in tracking moral cause and effect, we can achieve more moral understanding of how this creation operates. To get a better handle on viewing the creation – both earth and heaven – morally, let’s think through how each of us individually learns about consequences. For if we think through more of our own experiences, we’ll see justice and morality showing up more and more.
Chapter 7 – How We Learn About Consequences
God began our race (that is, the human race) by telling Adam and Eve, “Fill the earth and subdue it.” In other words, “Discover all that the universe holds – live an adventure!” Learning about consequences would be part of that discovery and adventure.
Entering a Game Already in Progress
You and I didn’t come into the world like Adam and Eve. They started life full-grown; we came in so small no one saw us at first. They had God Himself clearly spell out the rules of the game; we came in barely conscious, totally dependent on earthly parents to teach us whatever we needed to know. Adam and Eve began life in a pristine world; we came into a world filled with repercussions from previous human actions.
We can, however, identify with the general experience of Adam and Eve: authority figure, temptation to disobey, onset of trouble once disobedience occurs. The difference is that we’ve encountered this situation ten million times by the time we’re 21. And every year after that we encounter it ten million more. The first couple’s temptation and subsequent fall from grace is an experience we repeat more often than we care to remember.
Life begins simply enough. There’s mom and dad, all the authority we need. They mark the horizons of our existence. We don’t yet know that there will be consequences to all our behavior. All we know is that we’re hungry, or uncomfortable, or satisfied, or happy. The ideas of good and evil develop within us slowly. We learn that we’re doing good when our parents smile at us, and that their frown means we’ve done wrong. In the beginning, these are all the consequences of our behavior we know or care about.
Learning as We Go
As we grow up, we learn more about authority and why it exists. Anarchy is chaos; authority brings order and peace. This lesson holds not just for home, but for everywhere else, too. Therefore, when we go to school, it’s “Obey the teacher.” If we honor the teacher, we do well in school. We ourselves receive honor as a result. When we join sports teams, it’s “Listen to the coach.” Once again, if we honor the coach, we have a good experience and become better athletes. When we learn how to drive, it’s “Follow the instructions.” Disobey the instructions and you pay fines and, if you disobey often enough, you end up losing your license. Perceiving and heeding the authority that’s in every sphere of life brings us consequences that are good. To ignore and defy that authority brings us consequences that are troublesome.
What complicates these lessons is that the figures in authority often have as much problem obeying rules as the rest of us. Mom and dad aren’t perfect. The teacher has other concerns besides the class. The coach cares more about winning than about shaping young minds. Flawed authority figures complicate our learning about behavior and consequences. Some authority figures are so abusive that they tempt everyone under them to give up hope in a just universe. Many of us, however, are able to resist such temptation and attribute such abuse of authority, not to God, but to the nature of human freedom – a freedom that can prove a curse as well as a blessing.
Throughout our childhood, we are constantly learning about the consequences of our actions. We gradually make more of our own choices, realizing in the process that choices and decisions have consequences, too. We come to know that not all consequences are incurred immediately. As seeds take time to sprout, so actions produce fruit over time. “However you want to be treated, so treat others,” is an instruction that transcends cultures and religions. Intuitively, we all know – and consequences so often reinforce it – that what goes around, comes around. So we’d better be sending out all the good we can. Basically, that means acting like we wish everyone else would.
The graduation from childhood to adulthood is not a release from authority. Rather it’s a gradual transition from simple authority to complex authority. For a child, parents are an umbrella of protection. As long as you obey mom and dad, you don’t usually have to worry about anyone else. But come adulthood, it’s a different matter.
The government wants to make sure you’re paying all your taxes. And there’s a national government, the local government, and governments in between who have this concern. Your employer has a sphere of authority which includes you. Any clubs you belong to have authorities who run things. If you go to the grocery store, the manager is in charge; you can’t go to aisle number three unless it’s open. The police officer wants you to remember the traffic laws on the way home. These are but a few of the many faces of authority for the adult.
Childhood therefore is by no means the end of our learning about the consequences of our actions. Adulthood is the continuation of lifelong learning about good and evil. Considered by itself, any issue is black and white. The problem is that you can hardly consider any issue by itself. Everything affects something else – it’s all that rippling of consequences through the pond of creation.
We don’t always draw the right conclusions from the consequences we encounter. Sometimes we become embittered by experiences and learn the wrong moral lesson. A friend once insisted that I borrow his expensive camera for a special trip I was taking. I didn’t want the responsibility, but he kept insisting that nothing would go wrong. While on the trip, I dropped the camera. Of course, I paid a big repair bill before returning it to him. I drew the conclusion that borrowing anything always leads to disaster and should be avoided. The negative consequences of borrowing the camera led me to a wrong and unrealistic conclusion. Over the years, I had to modify my extreme position.
Drawing the right conclusions from our experiences in life takes quality thought. We often revise our conclusions over time. This is the nature of our existence. We can continue learning right up until the time we go to heaven. And we don’t have to rely solely on our own experiences either.
Learning from Others
In a world where consequences are flying at you fast and furious, it’s good to know that there are other sources of teaching besides your own upbringing and your own adult experiences. For one thing, you may have missed out on proper parental input. You must have had two parents to start with or else you couldn’t have gotten here in the first place. But maybe you lost one or even both of them somewhere along the way. Or maybe you had a parent who was worse than no parent at all. It is possible to mature without loving parents, but such cases are a tribute to the grace of God and the resilience of the human spirit. The Bible speaks often of God’s concern for “orphans.” If you have been “orphaned” by parental rejection – to any degree – know that one consequence of this rejection is God’s greater compassion for you. And you honor Him greatly by rising above the rejection.
One of the many sources of information about behavior and consequences is the Bible. This revered text of antiquity holds timeless truths that each generation can discover anew. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, it was written by the prophets and apostles of ancient Israel and is the word of God. While not the word of God, other books also contain wisdom, describing for us principles – causes and effects – that are constantly at work in life.
Statistics are yet another source of information that can help us in linking cause and effect. If we don’t intuitively know that using cocaine is unhealthy, statistics will enlighten us. Statistics simply reflect reality. Therefore, when statistics and the Bible, for example, point the same direction, we have more reason than ever to listen. The Bible says we should be responsible, but that we shouldn’t worry or be anxious. Statistics support the idea. People who maintain a less stressful thought life tend to live longer, bounce back from illness quicker, and generally enjoy healthier lives. The Bible alone is all we need, but the confirmation of statistics can enhance our appreciation of what the Bible is telling us.
Since our Creator has established both the physical laws of creation as well as the moral laws, it only makes sense that these laws can be correlated. However, the difficulty in correlating them discourages some people from even trying. They let the exceptions they find disallow the possibility that there’s any rule at all. For example, Jesus wasn’t a worrier and yet He died at only 33. Someone might draw the conclusion that righteous living doesn’t lead to a long life after all. The Bible, however, takes the more reasonable stance that other principles were at work in the life of Jesus that led to its relatively short duration. The Bible explains enough of the life of Jesus that we know why He died young. Even when we don’t have sufficient explanation, however, we can accept the morality built into God’s universe even when its workings seem deficient in our eyes.
Chapter 8 – Job’s Puzzle
If there are just and fair consequences to all our actions, why are there situations in life that just don’t add up? If we see a virtuous person enjoying good health and financial prosperity, fine. But what of the honest people who find themselves poor? And what of the dishonest people who sometimes become rich? What are we to say about situations which seem to defy the idea of a just universe?
These questions have been asked for a long time. The classic and extended biblical discussion of this issue is the book of Job, named for its main character. The story begins with Job losing all his worldly possessions. Not only that, all of his ten children perished in a catastrophe. Not long after, Job himself was afflicted with “sore boils” from head to foot. All this action takes place in the first two chapters. The remaining forty chapters of the book consist of dialogue between Job and his friends wherein they debate the meaning of the catastrophe. At the very end of the story, God intervenes and Job has his fortunes restored – including ten more children. The underlying question throughout the book is “Why do the righteous suffer?” The conclusion does not directly address the question. Rather, answers are found by thinking through the story and the dialogue.
The popular impression of the man Job in our age – which has been largely formed by second-hand references rather than by people reading the Bible for themselves – is a caricature. He is often viewed as some sort of hapless fellow, mired in unending misfortune. Reading the story in the Bible, however, produces a different portrait.
Job was a righteous man who enjoyed enormous prosperity. The Bible talks about the camels and sheep he owned. Those were the signs of economic prosperity in that part of the ancient world. Today, we’d speak in terms of condos, cars, and credit cards. The point is that he was financially well off. He also enjoyed social prestige, a happy family life, and good health. He lived over a hundred years and the misfortune he endured is estimated to have lasted only about six months. After his suffering, his blessings were restored to him double! Therefore, misfortune didn’t characterize his life. Rather, prosperity did. The book focuses on his brief but intense time of trouble precisely because it made so little sense in the context of the rest of his life.
The story focuses on evil consequences coming to a man who doesn’t deserve them. At first, Job didn’t complain about the adversity. When he lost everything, he merely pointed out that he had come into the world with nothing and would now leave it with nothing. That is, he expected to die soon. Even when the misfortune intensified, he still didn’t complain. He had accepted much prosperity; he felt he ought to accept some adversity without complaint. But when Job didn’t die after losing everything and becoming horribly ill, he began to question what was going on.
Losing everything and dying, however awful it might seem, at least made some sense to him. You enter the world with nothing and acquire, then divest everything and die. But losing everything and then living on made no sense at all. He had friends who came to sympathize with him, but they couldn’t see what he was driving at. Since God was just, they figured Job must have done something to bring this situation on himself. Job kept insisting that he hadn’t done anything to cause this. He wasn’t claiming to be sinless, just consistent. If his actions called for the misery that had come upon him, then all his previous blessings had been inappropriate and out-of-place. But if all the previous blessings were appropriate consequences to his behavior, then the current trauma was uncalled for. This was his argument, but his friends never quite got it.
Unbeknownst to Job or his friends, the misfortune heaped on Job was caused by something going on in the larger context – that is, in the spiritual realm, Satan had made certain challenges against Job’s integrity to God. Satan insisted that Job was faithful to God only because of the good fortune that it brought Job. Satan’s specific challenge to God was to assert that misfortune would cause Job to change his tune and start cursing God. God accepted the challenge because Job was His friend and, as we’ve learned, the very purpose of human beings is to teach angels what true goodness is. Readers are told about this larger context in the first two chapters, but Job and his friends seem oblivious to it.
Job’s friends tried to comfort him with their faith in the just nature of God. Their conception of that justice, however, couldn’t allow for Job’s innocence. All Job and his friends could see was the earthly dimension. If God was just, his friends reasoned, Job must be guilty. They thought that since God was just, everything must make sense…to them. Job steadfastly insisted that this calamity wasn’t making sense and that he wasn’t going to accept claims, however pious, that it did. He knew that his behavior had not changed and he was not about to lie and say that it had. Job’s friends finally gave up trying to convince him.
God then challenged Job with a series of questions, all of which pointed to the fact that the explanation Job was looking for was beyond his current ability to understand. That doesn’t mean Job would never understand it – only that he couldn’t at the time. Job rightly inferred from God’s rhetorical questions that he should stop demanding explanations that were beyond him and instead return to living as he had been living before.
In the end, God vindicated Job to his friends, saying he was more right than they were. Without a knowledge of the prior conversation and challenge in heaven, there was no way the calamity could make sense to anyone on earth. That’s why Job was right to reject the platitudes of his well-meaning friends. To have accepted such bromides would have been to deny his own integrity and submit to a characterization of his behavior about which he had no conviction.
When bad things happen, it’s good to stop and take stock of the situation. Often we may find that our own behavior has invited the trouble. Poor grades in school aren’t random acts of the universe. Maybe we should have studied harder. On the other hand, it’s possible that there isn’t enough data to morally explain what has happened. For example, some people contract sexually transmitted diseases because of their own promiscuous behavior; others contract them innocently through a blood transfusion. The first group can see the consequences of their behavior; the second group can search in vain for a sin, just as Job did. This second group must be sure not to make Job’s mistake.
Though Job had done nothing to bring on his calamity, and though he accepted the calamity with dignity and humility we can only admire, he did end up making a mistake he had to repent of before God would restore him. The mistake Job made was that he, while pondering his dilemma and growing more and more discouraged, had ceased to do the things that had made him such a wonderful person in the first place. He had put his life on hold while seeking an answer to a puzzling crisis. Instead of living, he was merely waiting for death, and becoming more and more puzzled about why it didn’t come. The longer the crisis went on, the more wasted his existence became.
I say “wasted” because Job’s puzzlement over his situation began to crowd out concern for those less fortunate than himself, a concern that had previously marked his life. Before, he had always prayed for his children. In the end, Job realized that even though his children had died, he could still pray for his friends. Even though his circumstances were less fortunate than theirs, he could ask God’s favor for them and still be an instrument of blessing in the earth. Once Job got back to living this way, God restored his fortune to him double!
Self-scrutiny is most helpful when it’s practiced regularly, but not to excess. Job got carried away with it, and his friends were unwittingly contributing to his downward spiral of depression. They kept encouraging him to further introspection in the hope of finding the “hidden” sin that had caused all the trouble. When self-examination reaches a point of diminishing returns, it’s time to set the questions aside and get back to living. This isn’t an abandonment of all self-scrutinizing however. People who go to the other extreme of never examining their own lives wreak havoc upon themselves and the rest of us, never stopping to consider that their own behavior has produced the peck of trouble they’re in. Except for his brief “paralysis of prolonged self-analysis,” Job is the perfect model of balanced self-scrutiny.
The book of Job urges us to maintain a faith in justice even when events seem to add up to injustice. The advantage of eternity is that God always has more time to make things right. If someone argues that He should have never let them go wrong in the first place, then that someone is arguing against his or her own existence: human beings are by design free to choose right or wrong. As we live and learn about consequences, we can continually enlarge the borders of our knowledge. But with each piece of knowledge gained comes the increasing realization that there is so much more we don’t yet know. We must therefore trust that beyond the borders of our knowledge rules the same justice that we find this side of them. Once we get to heaven, this will be confirmed to us with a fullness of knowledge.
Chapter 9 – A Personal Strategy for Life and Health
God gives us the components necessary for a strategy of living that leads to life and health. Yet this moral universe, in which God shares power with many players, often causes situations we could call “Job’s Puzzles.” They are seeming injustices. They puzzle us because there are more factors at work than we have information to track. Jesus’ dying on the cross was such a puzzle. It made no sense, and many of His contemporaries assumed He was guilty simply because “God would not have let an innocent man suffer like that.” The unknown factor in that case, which His apostles reveal in the Bible, was that humanity’s afterlife was at stake. Jesus wasn’t about to blow the plan by taking vengeance or skipping out of town.
Allowing that there will sometimes be such puzzles to us in life, we can still trust that morality is working in all situations. We can believe that doing good leads to life and health and that doing bad hastens death. The book of Job is so rich with wisdom that we sometimes overlook how it actually affirms this principle, even while focusing on an exception. Remember that Job’s calamity was an aberration. The rest of his life – and he lived 140 years – was marked by his good behavior and God’s blessings for that behavior. Job’s virtuous living was not a waste – it prolonged his life. He proved out the law of averages. That the righteous sometimes suffer is an “exception that proves the rule.”
Apply the Strategy
Let’s start with a dynamic of morality that we can all understand. The Bible promises a long life to those who obey their parents. We can see for ourselves how this works out. Parents tell their children not to play in the traffic, not to run with the wrong crowd, not to stay out too late at night. More positively, they encourage children to eat well, get plenty of rest, and dress properly. Children who honor their parents’ wishes tend to live longer than those who don’t. The idea is that long life is a consequence of virtuous living. Certainly the death rate among teenagers who abuse alcohol and drugs is higher than it is among teenagers who avoid these substances, all other things being equal.
Jumping off a tall building results in consequences that are immediate and devastating. Worry and fear result in consequences that are just as devastating but take much longer to manifest. If you worry once or twice, or a few days in a row, you might not suffer many ill effects. If you worry day after day, though, there’s no telling the toll it will take once you’re past middle age (and some folks don’t even make it that long).
We are continually amazed at the intricacy of interaction between the mind and the body. Every thought has its own effect on our metabolism. Sometimes the effects take so long to add up and reveal themselves that we find it hard to trace the causes, yet science has accumulated more than enough data to show that the kinds of virtue that the Bible promotes do contribute to good health.
Take the issue of sex, for example. The Bible promotes the idea of purity. A single person is to abstain from sex until marriage. If faithful to that spouse, this person continues to remain pure through marriage. That is, it’s not sex that’s impure – it’s sex outside of marriage that’s impure. To engage in premarital sex is to be unfaithful to one’s future spouse – that is, to be impure. Impurity invites negative consequences. You may not be able to determine what all those consequences will be. They may not show up right away either. Rest assured, however, that impurity is – just as any sin is – a seed of destruction. The harvest will not be pleasant.
Likewise, you cannot divorce a person without negative consequences. Divorce is unfaithfulness to one’s spouse. The breakdown in faithfulness is an impurity. It has consequences. Glue together a piece of brown construction paper and a piece of green construction paper. If you later pull them apart, you’ll have some brown fragments stuck to the green piece and green fragments stuck to the brown piece. The glue means that the two pieces can no longer come and go from one another without consequences. Sex is God’s glue, and wherever you apply it there are consequences from separating what it has joined.
God would prefer us to experience only the good consequences of sex: joy and children. If, however, we engage in it in some way other than what’s right, we have to live with the negative consequences…and those can be quite gruesome. Sexually transmitted diseases flourish where safe sex is not practiced. Safe sex is pure sex: that is, within marriage between a man and a woman. It is not, contrary to some voices, a matter of technique or devices. These voices may disagree vehemently with me, but the consequences will come just the same – the laws of nature show no respect for our rhetoric.
Sowing and Reaping
The process of sowing and reaping that we see in the physical realm of life mirrors what happens morally. What we sow, we reap. Therefore, our strategy should have us giving first attention to what we’re sowing. During each day we sow innumerable seeds. Every thought, every word, every action is a little of our life force going out into the creation. That’s why even small acts of kindness can make a big difference.
There was an older professor at the university I attended. I often passed him in the morning as he walked to his classroom. He swung an old satchel and whistled to himself all the way down the street. He always looked happy. And I smiled every time I saw him. I’m smiling now even as I think about him. His cheerful demeanor was a little seed of goodness sown to everyone who saw him. I’m sure that some days I had a scowl on my face for one reason or another, but the sound of his whistling wiped it right off. He was not only sowing good seed, he was stopping me from sowing bad seed. It was a little thing, I agree, but that’s exactly what all seeds are. The wonderful thing is, you can never tell all they might become when full grown.
There’s no telling how much seed an individual person sows in a single day. Given the importance God attaches to all we do, however, the total count must be staggering. Some of these innumerable seeds are of goodness. Many, alas, are not. Multiply these seeds by the number of other humans who also lived this single day. Then add the totals from one day to the next. All these seeds are growing, and they are harvested at different times. In the final analysis, we know that everything will work out wonderfully, that goodness will overcome evil and we’ll all be in heaven. There are, however, times here on earth before that, where the accumulation of evil that is sown comes back in a harvest that is, for the moment, devastating. These great harvests of evil are what the Bible calls hell.
Chapter 10 – Surviving Hell on Earth
The hell that the Bible teaches about is on this earth and in this life. It’s what we make of the earth with our sins. Hell is the accumulated consequences of our accumulated sins. It comes on nations and it comes on individuals. On last night’s news, I heard a doctor report from an African refugee camp. The camp was teeming with starving people. What little water there was had become contaminated. As a result, disease had taken root among the refugees. A doctor said, “It’s going to spread like wildfire.” He could just as easily have said, “It’s gonna be hell.”
It seems impossible that the world should know a day when war is not going on somewhere. We see the images, we hear the reports. Not just soldiers are killed and wounded, though that’s bad enough. Civilians, too, become casualties. Add to this the enormous property damage that accumulates as fields are destroyed, buildings are razed, and factories are demolished. The toll of war’s destruction is never fully tabulated. Truly it is said, “War is hell.”
A hypothetical man and woman marry with the fondest of hopes. Years later, the hopes have evaporated and left misery in their place. The man sees the woman as uncaring and unappreciative. The woman sees the man as insensitive and ungrateful. Far from enjoying each other, they detest most of their moments together. Each regards the other as having made their marriage “a living hell.”
The Bible’s Description of Hell
The examples above represent the Bible’s hell: famine, disease, war, misery of every kind. The world God created did not have such “thorns and thistles.” Our sins and the resulting judgment against them brought all this misery forth. As painful as all these negative circumstances are, they are a necessary part of the meaning of the world we live in. Creation exists that we might put evil under our feet. The only way to do that is to give people a choice about it. And let them live with the consequences.
Jesus spoke about hell using the word “Gehenna.” This was the name of the valley just outside Jerusalem where wicked people once sacrificed their children by fire. Some say trash from Jerusalem was later dumped and burned there. In any case, it was outside and away from the life of the city. Just as Jerusalem epitomized for Israelites all that was good and glorious and wonderful about ancient Israel, so Gehenna represented all that was bad and shameful and disgraceful. Jesus was likening the kingdom of heaven to Jerusalem in her glory, and life outside its rule as being like Gehenna. In other words, doing the right things in life would be like living in a glorious city, but doing evil would be like living in a trash dump just outside. That is, our behavior could make life like heaven on earth (Jerusalem) or like hell on earth (Gehenna).
The book of Revelation at the end of the Bible uses this same imagery. The book’s closing scene takes up the last two chapters. It paints a detailed picture of a glorious Jerusalem with walls and gates of precious stones sitting in the midst of a lake of fire. The word Gehenna per se is not found, but the connection to Jesus’ teaching is unmistakable. The picture reinforces the idea that what happens on earth is largely a consequence of human behavior. We make a heaven of it and we make a hell of it – and the two conditions coexist.
Flames and burning are the Bible’s most common images for our sins and the resulting consequences they bring. “Wrath” and “judgment” are the words most commonly used to describe the same phenomena. Some people who read the Bible apply these images to afterlife instead of this life and end up with a view of afterlife which has hell coexisting with heaven. But studying how the word Gehenna is used in the Bible reveals that it has everything to do with this life and nothing to do with the afterlife (except maybe get you to it sooner).
Not only do the Bible’s images of hell apply to this life, they provide a way of escape! The Bible is nothing if not a book of hope. Even when life is at its worst, God is not far away. Even when we do make a hell of earth, He is nearby to be a refuge from the pain and a hope for something better.
A Place of Refuge Never Far Away
Even in those places that evil has scorched, God is only a step away. Therefore, we can find a Jerusalem in the midst of a lake of fire. Noah’s family could float in an ark above the flood. Lot and his family could be pulled out of Sodom just before it was consumed. The Israelites could be passed over when the angel of death came to take all the first-born of Egypt. This is the constant picture that the Bible gives: that we can find pockets of mercy in the midst of fiery judgment.
Refugees like the ones I saw in Africa can find food, water, and medical care from the good Samaritans who come to help them. Even the name “refugee” implies a refuge is possible. Not everyone dies in wartime. Those who survive can rebuild a better society on the war’s ashes. Even couples on the verge of divorce have redeemed their marriages and transformed their hell into a paradise. It is both a privilege and responsibility of human beings to endure hell on earth – and to even transform it into heaven on earth where they can. Not only can we survive destruction, we can thrive in the midst of it!
The Bible’s pictures of judgment are constantly colored with hope by the prophets and the apostles. The prophet Isaiah warned about a “consuming fire” and a “continual burning” that was on the way. He said that the only way to avoid the pain of these flames was to live righteously. He gave specific examples of such behavior: “speak with sincerity,” “reject unjust gain,” “hold no bribe,” and so on. Practical, personal, everyday ethics.
The apostle John similarly explained how to get from the flames of the lake of fire into the safety of the spiritual city. He said that those who “wash their robes” have the right to enter. A more modern idiom would be to “clean up their acts.” You can’t clean up your act unless you’ve been dirty. It must be possible for those of us less than perfect to find these pockets of mercy!
In the old age, the place of refuge was a physical place: Noah’s ark, Jerusalem’s temple, any place other than Sodom. In the kingdom of God, all these things are matters of the heart. God knows your situation. He can deal with you wherever you are. When His Jerusalem was a physical place, people were limited by time and distance. But now, you can find Jesus anywhere on earth. Yes, we must endure the consequences of our sins. But we can also ask for God’s mercy. And there is a consequence to that request, too: we find it. If not here, then certainly in heaven.
A Higher Purpose: Snatching Others from the Fire
There is a higher purpose to attain to than escaping the flames sparked by humanity’s evil. None of us are going to get out of here alive anyway. The higher purpose is to help others escape the flames. On the same newscast in which I saw the doctor’s report of the plight of the refugees, I also saw pictures of workers distributing food and water and caring for the sick.
The workers didn’t question whether the people they were helping had brought this famine on themselves by the way their culture had been behaving. The sins of corrupt political leaders was likely the immediate cause. Nevertheless, the practical thing to do was to help those who were suffering in this hell. There would be time later to determine the cause and try to prevent a recurrence. In the meantime, the workers were meeting the more pressing needs of the refugees. In this, the workers found purpose and meaning.
As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, love is the greatest value of all. Knowledge has its limitations, but love knows no limitations. So what if we understand every single cause that had led to the famine? Would that end the aching of any refugee belly? Sure, knowledge can prevent recurrences. But without love, that knowledge will never be put to that use. Love passes around food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. It meets pressing needs. Love is goodness overcoming evil. Knowledge can puff up but love only builds up. While some people wring their hands or curse God at the sight of starving children, these workers show us why we were put here – to help the helpless.
We cannot always know whether the trouble that has come upon a person is the consequence of that person’s own behavior (Job’s friends lost sight of this). We can most certainly know it is the consequence of someone’s behavior. God alone, however, is the judge. Our best role in this life is to hand out cups of water to our fellow refugees. It’s rewarding, it’s fulfilling, and it needs no explanation.
You don’t have to travel to find “refugees” either. Everyone is starving for something. If it’s yours to give, and if it’s right to give it, then pour out acts of kindness wherever you see needs. This is an attitude for living that has only good consequences for the giver as well as the receiver. It’s an attitude that leads to a strategy for facing consequences…whether we’ve personally been part of the cause or not.
Chapter 11 – A Personal Strategy for Facing Consequences
I am facing today the consequences of all I have done in my life up through yesterday. I’m also facing the consequences rippling through the world brought on by other people’s behavior up through yesterday. Today, we all have the opportunity to live some more, causing new consequences both short and long term. It’s one thing to know that all behavior has consequences; it’s quite another to be able to track it. I don’t even try to track it all. I just keep trying to sow the most good I can, one day at a time.
There’s no telling what might come on me today. This could be a day of drama, or it could seem boring. We can trust, however, that God will give us the strength to handle whatever comes. And that even if it’s a day of devastating destruction, we can still find life in it by seeking to love at every opportunity.
Perplexed, but Not Despairing
I remember when our oldest daughter was stricken with diabetes. We thought she had the flu but she was actually in the initial stages of the disease. We finally rushed her to the hospital where she went into a coma. Our lowest point was seeing our eleven-year-old daughter flat on her back and unconscious in a huge scanning machine. Did we have the strength to make it through that day? No, but extra strength came. It came from friends, family…and from God Himself into the deep recesses of our hearts. She later came out of the coma and has been doing fine with insulin and care in the many years since.
Why was she stricken? I don’t know. I certainly don’t believe it was a random act of the universe. I believe it was a consequence of something – maybe a consequence of multiple things. Just what, I don’t know. Was it my behavior? Someone else’s? I don’t ponder its causes often because few answers come. While I’m open to understanding, I don’t dwell on the mystery. Instead, I focus on how courageously she has lived with this disease and how she has kept it from being a burden to anyone but herself. The whole experience has humbled me, though I still wish for her sake that it hadn’t happened. And who knows? Maybe I’ll gain more understanding of the root causes before I get to heaven.
The apostle Paul wrote about being “perplexed, but not despairing.” If we examine our conscience and find nothing that would explain the calamity, we are perplexed. If we are not careful, that perplexity can lead into despair. This is the mistake of what I earlier called “Job’s puzzle,” and the Bible is telling us to avoid it. We can live without all the answers, but we can’t live without hope. That means we have to learn to face the troubles of each day – whether it’s a life-threatening disease or someone cutting us off in traffic – with a conviction that God will face those troubles with us…even if we brought it on ourselves.
Facing Consequences with God
Most of what will happen today is beyond my ability to control. Meanwhile, the Bible promotes the idea of self-control. And the terrible difficulty we have controlling our own behavior reveals how foolish it is for us to try to control anyone else’s. Even God can’t control human behavior; He made that decision when He decided to create humans in the first place. Thus He does not control human behavior; rather, He responds to it. He seeks to influence it. But that is a far cry from trying to control it. If God doesn’t try to control things, how much more we should resist the temptation.
We can know that our behavior has consequences but we can’t manage those consequences. Whatever they are, they are. We, and everyone else affected, will have to live with them. That means facing up to the day, even when it all goes wrong. There is no use crying over spilled milk. However, there is value in cleaning it up. There is value in trying not to spill anymore. There’s no value, however, in trying to act like the floor’s not sticky or that something else is causing that terrible smell.
One of the most wonderful things about God is that He faces the consequences of life with us. Even if we have brought disaster upon ourselves, He lives with us and feels our every pain. I am fully persuaded that God not only feels our every pain, but that He feels each one more sharply than we do. He knows every part of our hearts, where the worst of pains are felt. His sensitivity keeps Him feeling pain that we can no longer tolerate. When my daughter was close to death, He kept hurting for me while I went numb.
The suffering of God is staggering to contemplate. Have you ever been on a picnic where the weather is beautiful and the scenery is idyllic? You savor every bit of the food that’s prepared. Afterward, you lean back and breathe in the fresh air and wonder what could possibly be wrong with the world. Plenty. A few miles from you some guy is beating his wife, some kids just bought drugs, some bank is being robbed, and some lonely person wishes they were dead. God has to keep up with all this bad stuff in addition to your picnic. But does He bother you with it? No. He lets you soak in the goodness and fills your heart to overflowing. He bears an awful lot of suffering without a word of complaint.
That God suffers doesn’t mean He’s victimized. He overcomes through it all. For when He designed this creation to be a creation of consequence, He determined from the beginning that He would live with every bump in the road, never turning away from humanity for even a moment. Do you think you’ve suffered some things unfairly? I tell you that no one has ever suffered through more consequences of other people’s bad behavior than God – and He’s doing great! You can, too.
Just take God’s approach. Live each day as if everything you think, say, and do will have consequences. Don’t approach the day as if your day is meaningless. Also, determine that you can’t control what anyone else will do. Just determine that you will endure – and rise above – all that comes your way. When all the consequences have played out, you’ll be in heaven with God. And there’s no greater consequence of living than that.
Thinking Too Much About Consequences
It’s possible to give too much thought to the consequences of our actions. A wife who refrains from discussing a certain subject with her husband because it may upset him may be refraining from a discussion that would ultimately help him. As a general rule, it’s a good idea for spouses to avoid upsetting each other. An atmosphere of peace is wholesome for relationships. Peace, however, isn’t the only virtue in life. If we have to give up other virtues – such as honesty or love – to obtain it, then we’ve paid an unwarranted price for the peace.
Jesus had some things to say that upset many people. His condemnation of hypocrisy, for instance, greatly troubled the religious leaders of His day. Some of them took the criticism personally and began a campaign against Him. Jesus could have relieved the pressure against Himself by toning down His message and speaking in a way more politically correct for His time. Surely, this possibility was running through His disciples’ minds as the controversy surrounding His ministry grew more intense.
The night before He died was an opportunity to take the easy way out and make peace with His critics. But Jesus loved His critics too much to make peace with them. Their myopic vision of God was leading people to destruction and despair. Even as He struggled to carry His cross to Calvary, He warned the women who wept for Him, “Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for Me; instead weep for yourselves and your children.” He foresaw the coming destruction at the hands of the Romans and continued to look out for the interests of others even as He Himself was dying at their hands. He kept to His course, enduring negative consequences to Himself, that He might spare others the negative consequences of their own bad decisions.
Indeed, many Jews did heed Jesus’ warnings and escaped the destruction that came on Jerusalem in 70 A.D. They found the peace that He had forfeited for Himself on their behalf. Put another way, they reaped a harvest of peace from the seed He had planted on their behalf. Had Jesus kept the peace that was being offered Him – a reprieve from the cross if He would soften His message and, say, deny He was Israel’s Messiah – these believers would not have heard the instructions that enabled them to survive destruction and find life.
Jesus shows us, therefore, that simply avoiding troublesome consequences is not the very best way of living. His way was to toss the pebbles just right…and trust that all the ripples in the pond would take care of themselves. In other words, He kept paying attention to His motives. Even when He knew that doing good would bring back short-term negative consequences on Him, He kept on doing good anyway. Let us, therefore, knowing that the promise of heaven frees us, do the same.
Chapter 12 – The Promise of Heaven Frees Us
Knowing that there are specific consequences to everything we say, think, and do provides plenty of reason to do good. It’s possible, however, for the promise of heaven alone to motivate us to want to be good. That God has promised you heaven means that He loves you. You couldn’t ask for a more concrete expression of love from your Maker than eternity in heaven. Plus, the promise of heaven means He believes in you. He’s trusted you with freedom here on earth and regardless of what you choose, He has chosen to spend the rest of His life with you in heaven. The more we perceive this love He has toward us and this trust He places in us, the more we can be inspired to live as He does: virtuously. In fact, nothing could be more motivating than having this heavenly dad pulling for us! Let’s think through the implications of His commitment to us.
Heaven Doesn’t Have To Be Earned
God has placed a safety net under your life here. No matter how bad you mess up, no matter how much you displease Him, you have a home to come to when life here is over. That’s an unconditional love we’re not normally accustomed to receiving. We are more accustomed to people pulling for us when we’re measuring up to their expectations, and withdrawing their support when they’re displeased with our performance. God, however, has promised His support no matter what our performance. He will not always spare us the consequences of our sins, but nothing can keep us from heaven – His home and ours. With this safety net you can give the high wire of life a real try. The confidence of knowing a fall won’t be disastrous allows you to focus less on falling and more on walking.
Remaining in doubt about whether or not you’re loved makes for a hard life. When you feel unloved you are constantly striving, and never sure if you’re achieving the love you crave. When you do feel loved, however, it brings a security to your life that allows you to be kind and selfless with others. You are secure because of the love that you know God has for you. You do not have to earn heaven – God has chosen freely to give it to you. Since you don’t have to earn it, you can stop the endless striving.
Heaven doesn’t have to be earned by anyone else either. When life here is over, all will be forgiven. There will be an accounting when we go to heaven, but it won’t require anyone to be kicked out. God can be offended, but He won’t stay mad forever. We need to remember this in all our dealings with others. If God doesn’t hold grudges, what right do we have to be unforgiving?
I know that people can do some pretty miserable things to each other. It’s possible that you yourself have been treated in some wrongful, or even unthinkably wrongful, way. But consider this: if you start shutting the door of heaven on people who’ve been mean, where are you going to stop? Have you ever been mean? I’m ashamed to say that I have. Who’s to say which meanness is forgivable and which isn’t? It’s hard to be a good judge when you’re personally involved. Since, however, God is willing to let rascals like you and me into heaven, we’d better start looking at everyone else with different eyes: eyes that see all people on their way to heaven.
There are rewards in heaven, but heaven itself isn’t a reward. It’s a present. Presents aren’t earned; they’re freely given. We don’t give children presents on their birthdays because of their goodness, but because of their very existence. God gives heaven for exactly the same reason: we need a place to live after we leave here. Once we realize we’re all house guests of the same Host, it causes us to have a better attitude toward each other – or at least it should.
Death Doesn’t Have To Be Feared
There is no longer any reason to be afraid of dying. Not that we want to rush things. We’ll go when it’s time. But like the end of summer camp, it’s not the end of the world. If we think this life is all there is, then the most important thing to us is extending it. Once we know, however, that there’s plenty more life where this first one came from, then we can focus on more important things – like love, integrity, and honor.
We should never lose a healthy fear of premature departure from the earth. We don’t want to leave here having failed to make sufficient positive impact. How many years will we have here? It’s hard for us to say. For Methuselah it was 969; for Jesus it was 33. Paul survived a stoning, but Stephen didn’t. There are lots of factors that determine our appropriate time. All other things being equal, though, do good and you’ll live longer. Just remember that the goal of living longer isn’t to live longer, but to do more good.
And while we’re shedding our fear of death, let’s shed it where others are concerned, too. Your loved ones who’ve died will be waiting for a reunion. You’ve only been parted from them for a time. This doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate to grieve when someone you care about has died, but know what you’re grieving about. You’re not grieving because they’ve ceased to exist and you’ll never see them again. You’re grieving because you won’t see them for a while. You’re grieving because the earth, including you, will miss the good they did. Or maybe you’re grieving because they lived terribly and brought death on themselves. There are all sorts of reasons you might grieve, but there is also a reason to hope through it all: heaven.
You Don’t Have To Be Good
I may as well be as blunt as I can about it. You can be as bad as you want and still go to heaven. You can murder someone and still go to heaven. Moses did. You can commit adultery and still go to heaven. King David did. You can persecute people and still go to heaven. The apostle Paul did. Someone will say that these fellows all repented and thus God showed them His favor. Not quite. They recognized God’s favor and that’s why they repented. That’s actually a very big difference.
People don’t love God to get Him to love them in return. They love God because they recognize how much He already loves them. They know they are returning His love. If we love God first, then we are greater and more loving than He is. If we have to repent in order to get God to love us, then He is not much more loving than hard-hearted humans we know. God is the source of all love; He is love. Whatever love we have toward Him is but a harvest of what He’s already planted in us.
You see, God has this wild notion that people will respond to love and acceptance. He believes that such tender-heartedness will eventually melt the hardest of hearts. Recall that this notion of His is the founding principle of the whole creation: goodness will overcome evil, given enough time. Therefore He’s saying to all of us: “I will do good to you even if you do evil to Me.” It’s a powerful idea. And it’s been winning hearts since the beginning of time – but most especially since the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
You Don’t Have To Live At All
Since you’re going to heaven, you could commit suicide and get there that much more quickly. But I hope that such a thought repulses you as much as it does me. It is no less wrong to take your own life than it is to take anyone else’s. Murder is murder even if you are your own victim. Nevertheless, I can sympathize with people who are so depressed that they see no value at all in living any longer on earth. There can be very difficult times in life and the pain that some people experience in the course of living is almost unimaginable.
Suicide, however, is never a good decision. It proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that no life is an island. How? Suicide is only supposed to affect the one involved, but surely you’ve noticed that the rest of us feel rejected by it. Conversely, we feel encouraged when someone lives on in spite of terrible difficulties. Every time I see someone who struggles through adversity, I am encouraged to bear up under the hardships that I face. We all sympathize with the emotional torture that may lead you to contemplate ending your own life. But don’t go! We need you here! There is goodness in this life that only you can see the need for and apply the remedy. There are acts of kindness that only you can contribute. No one else can take your place; no one else can make exactly the difference that you can.
Even the great Bible heroes like Job, Elijah, and Jonah knew the despair of suicidal thoughts. Fortunately for the rest of us, they never gave in to them. They knew the One who stood on the other side of death. They didn’t want to face Him with blood on their hands. Though your life here may be hellish right now, don’t you want your homecoming in heaven to be an entirely joyous one? Why mar it with an act that hurts the rest of us? Since you are going to heaven, a suicide will hurt those left behind far more than it will hurt you. Stay here and prove that the human spirit was designed to withstand the fire. You’ll not only overcome your current problems, you’ll be eternally glad you didn’t give up.
Consider the tragedy of Judas Iscariot. He was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, and the one who ultimately betrayed Him. For thirty pieces of silver Judas informed the authorities of Jesus’ whereabouts in the garden of Gethsemane the night before He died. Once Judas realized the wrong he had done, he was filled with remorse and threw the money back at those who’d paid him. Completely hopeless, he committed suicide. How might Judas’ life on earth have turned out differently? Consider his fellow apostle Peter.
The same night that Judas was betraying Jesus, Peter was denying Him. On three separate occasions Peter was asked if he was an associate of Jesus. On each occasion, Peter denied that he even knew Him. There can’t be that much difference in one count of betrayal and three counts of denial. While they differ in degree, both failings were awful. Both men were thoroughly ashamed and humiliated. Yet Peter stuck it out, and look what came from his life after the night of his moral collapse! He told the world the good news of salvation. He wrote two letters of the New Testament. And he encourages millions of people who can hear his story and identify with his weaknesses. You can go to heaven the way of Judas or the way of Peter. The choice is yours.
Our Response to Freedom
Having been freed from the fear of death, the fear of hell, and the fear of rejection from God, how will you choose to live? All of heaven is waiting to see. As you recognize this, you can not only be freed from these fears – you can be inspired to higher motives of living.
Chapter 13 – The Promise of Heaven Inspires Us
It takes guts to live. God has woven the inner part of you as well as the outer part of you. If you’re wondering if you’ve got the stuff to make it, quit wondering. Your insides were wired by the same One who wired the insides of Job. When that man stood in the face of heart-sinking calamity and refused to abandon the principles of his Creator, he was showing what you have the ability to do. When Jesus felt the pain of rejection from those he’d loved most and responded to their actions with, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” He was showing what you have the strength to say in similar circumstances.
The Courage to Face Heaven
All sorts of situations in life call for courage, but the greatest courage that living requires is the courage to face heaven in the process. Heaven is the home of the awesome Creator. Heaven is the home of the awesome Forgiver. He is the sun which gives light and life to growing things. The underside of rock is a place where yucky things grow. Don’t shrink back from Him. Have the courage to live in His light. Let that light penetrate all of your thinking.
Words and deeds are but a result of the thoughts we think. The mind is the womb where the outward aspects of our lives are conceived. Healthy thinking produces healthy behavior; inspired thinking produces inspired behavior. Reforming outward actions is useless if there isn’t a corresponding change in motive. God doesn’t just notice the things we do, He notices why we do them. A good deed for the wrong reason is not altogether a good deed, is it? Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that lust was simply adultery committed in the thought life; hatred was nothing less than murder committed in the mind. Our thoughts are of the utmost importance to God.
The reality of heaven sheds light on our inner motives. Heaven is home to the purest heart in the universe. From there our Father, our Judge, our Maker looks at our motives and compares them to His own. Having your motives laid alongside God’s for measurement takes moxie. But He made us in His image and delights when we measure ourselves against Him instead of someone else. What father wouldn’t be delighted when his child comes up and asks, “Am I getting tall like you?” The courage to face heaven is born of the sense that even when you don’t measure up, there’s something healthy in the stretching.
Discovering Your Purpose
People often describe their purpose in life in terms of being a respected doctor, a bank president, a professional athlete – in short, a significant career. As a result, less stellar occupations like ditch digging, taxi driving, and motherhood – to name just a few – don’t often spark the interest of purpose-seekers. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with defining purpose in terms of an earthly occupation. But there is a better way to define purpose, a way that transcends earthly careers. When purpose is defined this way, all earthly occupations are elevated to the lofty status they deserve.
The better way to define purpose is this: your purpose in life is to do what God would do if He were in your shoes. If God were in certain shoes He might indeed become a doctor, or CEO, or pro athlete – or ditch digger, or taxi driver, or stay-at-home mom. If someone had strong arms and access to a shovel, and if people needed a ditch, and if God was in that someone’s shoes, then God would be a ditch digger. Therefore, if I am that someone, I would discover my highest purpose in being a ditch digger. Earth might not recognize that I’d achieved this high purpose. but heaven surely would.
Everything on earth is temporary; only heaven is eternal. Whatever I do on earth is going to be of a temporary nature. Being a doctor is useful work here on earth, but there won’t be a patient to show up if we hang out a shingle in heaven. Therefore, being a doctor can be a high calling, but only because it helps people. The fact that it might pay well or gain us respect from others should be secondary, and perhaps even irrelevant.
Another reason for defining our purpose in terms of what God would do in our place is the upheaval in society and workplace that so marks our age. You can spend half your life making gadgets that are one day made obsolete by widgets. All of a sudden you’ve got twenty years of experience in something nobody wants to buy or make anymore. God would have no problem walking away from such a job because He wouldn’t want to spend His time on something that was no longer helping people. And He would have no problem looking for another job because he knows people are always needing something. Therefore, if you lose your job, remember that He’s at work in you…with this kind of thinking motivating Him. Walk away from the old and look for the new, confident that you’ll find it. With God inspiring your vision, you’ll be sure to recognize what people are needing and what you can provide.
Every human occupation is intended to help other humans. I can’t keep up with how many people help me. Somebody wired the electricity into this room. Somebody else designed the computer I’m using. Somebody else built it, somebody else sold it, and somebody else shipped it. All these somebody’s probably had help, too. Thousands of somebody’s put together the car I drive. And if somebody’s hadn’t paved the roads and put up traffic lights I’d have nowhere to drive. We all benefit from each other. The times I am tempted to think that one occupation fills a higher purpose than another are when I need, for example, an auto mechanic…or a plumber…or a doctor…or…
Even if your purpose in life is found in a particular occupation, that could only be temporary. When the light of heaven shines on another area of human need which you are uniquely gifted to supply, then a change is required for you to keep fulfilling your purpose. And, in the process, the higher purpose is continually discovered. That is, you don’t usually know all your purpose in the beginning. You find out as you go through life making choices. The more right choices you make, the more you discover your purpose. Even wrong choices can help you discover your purpose, if you let the light of heaven keep you honest. Through all of life, your purpose is to do good, overcoming evil. The occupation through which you do it is merely a detail.
Knowing the Reasons
God’s desire is that we live thoughtfully, as He does. He wants us to think through what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, as He does. Thoughtful living means knowing the reasons that we do things. To do things for no particular reason makes our lives meaningless to us. But to spend time determining the reasons behind our daily living is to discover the storehouse of meaning that life offers. “Come now and let us reason together,” says the God of the Bible. If we accept His invitation, we may be surprised at what we find.
Chapter 14 – A Reason To Live
Do you know why you do the things you do? If you have plans for today, do you know why you made them? Quick answers to these questions are usually superficial. Human motivations are complex. If we really want to understand why we do things, we have to spend time thinking about it. This can be painful, but it’s often very revealing…and rewarding. God would like for us to have a moral reason for all that we do. He does, and He wants us to enjoy the kind of purposeful life that He enjoys.
Making the moral choices that lead to discovering our purpose is an activity that takes place in that part of our being we call conscience. Conscience is the place where we weigh good and evil, the place we make choices about right and wrong. It’s one part of our being that we’ll definitely take to heaven and not leave behind. Conscience divides our activities into rights and responsibilities. Rights are what we’re allowed to do; responsibilities are what we’re supposed to do. These rights and responsibilities grow and change with age and with decisions we make. For example, marriage dramatically increases both the rights and responsibilities of the parties to each other. When we do something we don’t have the right to do, our conscience bothers us. The moral pain calls our attention to this sin of commission. When we fail to do something we have a responsibility to do, our conscience likewise pains us over this sin of omission. This moral compass we call conscience isn’t an infallible guide to rights and responsibilities, but in navigating the seas of life nothing else can take its place.
The amount of time we spend in our conscience has something to do with how we live our lives. If we heed our conscience, we find it comfortable to go there. We can find comfort in reflecting on our actions. If, however, we disregard what our conscience tells us, we avoid the place just like a criminal avoids the police. For this reason, some people have a conscience that if we were to see it, would appear like an abandoned shack. That is, no one lives there anymore.
Other people use their conscience only to assess the activities of other people. They become like the landlord of a tenement slum. You’ve seen these kinds of people. They know what everyone else is doing wrong. They know just how people should change to make the world a better place. The problem is, they themselves are a pain to live with because they spend so little time in their own conscience. They’re so busy passing judgment on others they have no time left over to reform themselves.
The Proper Use of Conscience
The first and best use of our conscience is to house and judge the thoughts and activities of our own individual lives. As such, it’s a place to seek moral pleasure and avoid moral pain. Compare it with physical pleasure and pain. We learn physical pleasures much earlier in life. We enjoy a good meal. We delight in a good night’s sleep. We can become enraptured with the colors and intricacy of a flower. The world is full of physical pleasures that are neither fattening nor sinful. We also learn quickly about pain. In fact, we come into the world crying. And there can be many reasons to cry right up until the time we leave.
Moral pleasure and pain come from nerve endings that can’t be seen. They come from spiritual, not physical, senses. Moral pleasure is what you feel inside when you give the shirt off your back to someone in need. It’s what you feel when you know you could get away with something dishonest, but refuse to do it just the same. The greater good that you do, the greater the pleasure that comes from doing it. This pleasure has nothing to do with other people’s awareness of your good deeds – it’s an internal thing. It’s between you and God.
Moral pain is likewise a personal and internal experience. We experience moral pain when we do things that are wrong. As the pain intensifies, we either obey the dictates of our conscience and abandon whatever activity was causing the moral pain…or else we repress the pain, make our hearts a little harder, and thus mute the voice of conscience in the future. Do this enough and your conscience becomes dead. Sadly, there are some people in the world who have rendered their consciences useless.
Moral pleasure, on the other hand, is enjoyable. In fact, it’s more than enjoyable – it’s strengthening. It gives us the inner strength to live life well, even when physical circumstances are going against us. The Bible says that Jesus “for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” The joy was the moral pleasure that He received from knowing He was sticking to His purpose in life in spite of vehement and violent opposition. He was keeping His promises when there were all sorts of reasons why He should conveniently forget them. He took no delight in the way He died; He despised the shame of the cross. Rather, He took delight in the moral rightness of His course – a course that would lead humanity out of earthly shame and into heavenly honor.
Your promises are very important, too. Maybe the whole world doesn’t ride on them (as it did with Jesus’), but some of the world does. Will you keep your promises to your wife or husband? Will you keep your promises to raise your children? Will you keep your promises to everyone else? I don’t mean to make you feel inferior; we’ve all broken promises. If, however, we can take our promises more seriously, we can find tremendous moral pleasure in keeping them. And the moral pleasure will strengthen us to keep them even when we’re sorely tempted to let them go.
Much of the moral pain in the world today is due to broken promises. I’m not talking about the little ones like “I’ll take you to the store” as much as the big ones like “I’ll spend my life with you.” Even though we don’t explicitly make promises to our children at birth as we do our spouses at marriage, still there is an implied promise in bringing them into the world. By conceiving them, we imply that we will take care of them until they can take care of themselves. The multiplied broken homes today are signs of multiplied broken promises. The moral pain and despair that seethes beneath the surface of society can be transformed into pleasure and hope if we will only begin to remember that our word was meant to be our bond.
Don’t give up on making promises just because you’ve broken them in the past. Perhaps you should make them a little more slowly, but don’t quit making them altogether. For one thing, others need your involvement to enrich their own lives. For another, you deprive yourself of the moral pleasure than can come from making a promise and keeping it. Start small. Make a promise this morning that you can keep this afternoon. Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll work up to God’s level: making a promise like heaven that requires keeping day after day…for years without end! (Can you imagine the moral pleasure that comes from that level repeated faithfulness!)
The Transition to Maturity
One of the great transitions in life comes when we can learn to make moral pleasure more important than physical pleasure, and moral pain more important than physical pain. To make this transition means achieving a spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity isn’t a function of how old you are. It’s a function of your decision to regard virtue as more important than physical gratification. The crown of thorns and the cross itself were physically painful to Jesus. However, He subjected His physical feelings to His moral ones and showed us a maturity to which we can now aspire.
Young people in love but unready to marry, are at a crisis that will move them toward spiritual maturity or push them farther from it. If physical gratification is postponed until marriage, or if marriage is entered because physical gratification can’t be postponed, then a measure of spiritual maturity has been achieved. This maturity will benefit every other area of their lives. The maturing doesn’t hang on whether they marry or not. It hangs on whether they behave in a way that is consistent with what they decide about marriage.
Knowledge of consequences would indicate to the two young people the proper choices, but that might result only in their doing what’s right for fear of getting into trouble. Deciding out of motives cleansed by conscience, however, would bring the additional benefit of moral pleasure. This is the transition from living based on fear to living based on love. Fear of negative consequences is self-oriented; it seeks to protect me from trouble. Love is others-oriented; it seeks to protect them from trouble even though it costs me in the process.
Doing things from a motive of love not only helps us make good decisions every day, it leads us closer and closer to discovering and fulfilling our purpose in life. I used to think that I needed to discover my purpose in life so that I could fulfill it. I have come to see that it’s in fulfilling my purpose that I discover it. As I live day by day, trying to do what is right in God’s sight, I am drawn closer and closer to the purpose God has for me. That purpose is love, and the specific expression of it my circumstances allow me to be. My purpose is something I continually discover as I continually fulfill it. My purpose is love…and reasoning with my conscience is how I find it…one day at a time.
Meeting with God
The conscience is more than a place for deciding what’s right and wrong. It’s a place for meeting with God. Now don’t get spooked on me. I know that “hearing from God” is a touchy subject. People have done some mighty strange things in the name of “God told me such-and-such.” But since we don’t throw away our good money when we hear that someone’s passing counterfeit, I don’t think you should throw away your right to hear God just because someone else misuses theirs. Besides, God usually talks to us in ways so subtle and personal that it’s hard to pass on to others anyway.
If you’ve ever “heard” the “still small voice” which is something beyond conscience then you know the experience that sensitive humans felt at the Second Coming. All over the world, whether they were Christians or not, people who tried to live right and keep a good conscience began to sense Another’s presence when Jesus came again. While He was “coming” in heaven He was “coming” to human hearts. Not a genie that you could keep in a bottle, but gentle and majestic whisperings that took moral pleasure to new heights.
It is God Himself who is the ultimate reason to live. It is knowing Him that is life itself. And for this reason, Jesus called knowing God “eternal life.” The most wonderful thing about knowing that we’re going to heaven is that we can know better the One who made us…while we’re still here. And therein we find a reason not just to live…but to love. Only through Him do we know what love really is. Only through personal awareness of Him can we attain the moral life described in this book. On our own, we are powerless to live a life of good works.
Chapter 15 – A Reason to Love
Knowing God’s nature is the key to understanding the things He says. Most of the mistakes people have made in interpreting the whisperings of God in their hearts have resulted from not understanding God’s nature. Have you ever been misquoted, or had your words taken out of context? Then you know how God feels. Fortunately, it hasn’t made Him clam up. We do, however, need to have a proper context for interpreting His words.
A good starting place for understanding God’s words is to remember that everything He tells us to do, He does. To put it another way, Jesus practices what He preaches. If He tells us to do good, we can know that He does good. If He tells us to forgive, we can know that He forgives. Therefore, we can better understand God’s words when we look at His behavior. In looking at His behavior we have something to imitate. In the imitating, we come to understand better what the words mean…and why there is always a reason to love.
Who Do You Want To Be Like?
When you were growing up, who did you want to be like? One lazy summer day I saw a movie about John Paul Jones and wanted nothing more out of life than to be a naval officer…until the next weekly matinée when someone else was the hero. Most of those years I wanted to be like Mickey Mantle and hit home runs for a living. When I became a teenager, my interests turned to music and I wanted to write songs like Burt Bacharach.
Having heroes is how we grow up. In looking up to them, we lift our sights and reach for higher things in life. It’s harder for children to find heroes today. And many of the heroes they do choose, fall off the pedestal. That’s one more reason why we parents need to be all the more mindful of our behavior – our kids are looking up to us.
You don’t have to be a child to want or need heroes. Adults also have cravings for models to follow. In fact, viewed spiritually, adulthood is a second childhood. Our first childhood had earthly parents, who, even if they were wonderful, were still flawed. Our second childhood – that is, our spiritual way of looking at adulthood – has God for a parent, in whom no imperfections can be found. (By the way, if having problem children marks you as a poor parent then what are we to say about God who has had more of them than anyone?)
To have Jesus as our hero provides the ultimate raising of our sights. His character shines so brightly, however, that it’s often more productive to break down its facets for glimpsing one at a time. In view of this need, the Bible is a hall of fame, providing stories of various humans who each exhibited one or more – but not all – of God’s character traits. For example, in Moses, we see God’s longsuffering and stamina. In David, we see God’s courage and emotion. In Solomon, we see God’s wisdom. In Jeremiah, we see God’s concern. In Isaiah, we see God’s hope. Each hero reveals a facet of the greatest hero of all. Taken together, they provide a composite picture of Him.
I have my own modern-day heroes. I could tell you who they are but you probably wouldn’t know any of them. They’re not famous. Except to me. I know a woman who nurses her invalid husband, takes care of children to earn income, and all the while keeps her house and yard looking better than mine. She never complains or acts like she’s got a rough time of things. She acts happy to be doing all she’s doing. I wish I was more like her. She’s my hero. I could tell you of a hundred other people, facing problems courageously, who also inspire me, but you probably know a hundred such people of your own.
Isn’t it humbling just to consider some of the wonderful people who live in this world? We can find much moral pleasure just in reflecting on the many kind things that some people do. I was once trying to get my car inspected. Time was running out to meet the state deadline and I left it at a service station with the understanding that the work would be done that day. When I returned, it had not been done and the person behind the desk said they would not be able to get to it at all, even though this would mean I’d be subject to a fine for not having the completed the inspection that day. I was under a number of other pressures at that particular time in my life. It all reached a boiling point when I heard those words and I said simply the word, “No!” It wasn’t a yell, but it was loud enough that every employee and customer in the room stopped when they heard it. No one moved; no one spoke. It was one of those eternal minutes. Then, breaking the awkward silence, a mechanic in the back spoke up and said, “I’ll do the inspection.” He took the keys from my hand and did the work right then.
Am I embarrassed to tell this story? Of course. I’m ashamed of how I let anxiety build up in me to the point where all I could do was angrily protest with a monosyllable. But that mechanic helped me out. He not only did something for me that I couldn’t do for myself, he overlooked my childish behavior and kept me from looking more foolish than I already did. He made me want to grow up…and be more like him. And I might as well tell you he was at least ten years younger than me. Heroes come in all ages and sizes.
Each hero we have is a rung in a ladder that leads to God. Every time we see a godly character trait in a fellow human, we have a specific goal to strive for. In achieving the goal, we make the trait our own and come another step closer to God’s overall character. And in climbing this ladder, we come to find something else. We find that true maturity is understanding what God means by “love.” We could never have understood love without taking those steps. For love takes on a whole new meaning once you’ve gone from observing it…to doing it.
Everyone knows that we’re supposed to love one another. The Bible says so. Even people who don’t believe the Bible teach this principle to their children. We even call our family and friends “loved ones.” That word love, however, can be stretched to some mighty different meanings. Consider how we also say, “I love ice cream.” Or it could be French fries, football games, or fifty million other things. When we say we love these things, we mean that we love what they do for us. They meet our wants or needs and, for that reason, we speak highly of them and are committed to them.
Take ice cream, for example. If you love ice cream, it’s because it makes the taste buds happy and satisfies the appetite. If the bowl of ice cream turns out to be sour, though, you want no part of it. Swallowing the stuff is out of the question. You feel no need to bear with the bitterness of that bowl of nauseating curds. The ice cream exists for our interests only. We are under no obligation to serve its interests. A person who eats a bowl of sour ice cream for the sake of the ice cream would be considered strange indeed. The normal love of ice cream excludes all bad dishes of it. This is a kind of love that is completely selfish.
The love that God is wanting us to practice with each other is completely selfless. The word love, therefore, can refer to a motivation that is totally self-oriented or one that is totally selfless. That’s a pretty wide variation for one word! Both understandings of the word are legitimate and used all the time, though, so we’re just going to have to distinguish the meanings in our own minds.
What do we mean when we say that we “love” our families, friends, and others? If we love them the way God does, it means we consider their interests more important than our own. If we love them in the ice cream sort of way, it means we consider our own interests foremost. What is probably true for most of us is that our love lies somewhere between these two extremes. Growing up spiritually means moving in the direction of God’s definition of love; that is, purifying our hearts of selfish desires which masquerade as selfless love.
The love God wants us to practice keeps the other person’s best interests front and center. It doesn’t mean making ourselves a doormat, but it might mean making ourselves a threshold. That auto mechanic didn’t demean himself by forgiving my outburst and performing the inspection. I sensed no fear in him, as if he was afraid I was about to make an even bigger scene. He made a calm decision to go the extra mile. Because of his act, I stepped across a threshold of realization, and I hope I never go back to letting my emotions so control me.
Making the Choices
God’s idea is that we make the myriads of choices we face each day with the other person’s best interest in mind. This applies both to big decisions and to little ones. It takes more time to make choices this way, but the moral pleasure that results is incredibly satisfying. It is the ultimate reason to keep living.
There may be a difference between putting another person’s best interests first and doing what that person wants. If Jesus had always done what everyone wanted, He wouldn’t be the Savior of the world. Though He healed multitudes, you could hardly call Him a people-pleaser. Every parent knows that putting the child’s best interest first sometimes means displeasing the child. Dressing properly, going to school, and personal hygiene are all habits that are grudgingly cultivated by children. Putting other people’s interests ahead of your own can sometimes make you very unpopular (“I hate Mommy and Daddy because they won’t let me do what I want!”). Even though you’re not called to parent other adults, you’ll find that they, too, don’t always appreciate when you’re doing something with their best interest in mind. No one experienced this unpopularity more vividly and dramatically than Jesus when He was rejected to the point of crucifixion.
Heaven is the context in which all our choices can be made. It’s not only the destination to which we’re all headed, it’s a dimension in which we can now live. Making choices in the light of heaven, and putting other people’s interests above our own, transforms human life into an expression of love. Like Jesus, you may not always be understood, but time is on your side, for heaven will eventually reveal all the thinking behind your earthly deeds. And in the meantime, you can find much more meaning in life, knowing within yourself that you are doing it for love. Just remember to do it all out of love for the unseen God who sees everything. It cannot escape His notice.
Becoming Like God
It’s in the making of choices that we can become like God. It’s in the complexion of our soul, not in the color of our skin, that we can resemble God. When we face a choice between self-interest and concern for others, and choose as He would choose, we become as He is. The more we become as He is, the more we can understand how He thinks. The more we understand how He thinks, the better we can understand the things He says – whether they’re written in the Bible, heard deep in our hearts, or coming out of the mouth of babes.
Chapter 16 – Developing Your Conscience
Conscience is our moral muscle. The more we use it, the more it grows. The development of conscience often comes with age, but it’s possible for an 18 year-old to have a more developed conscience than a 40 year-old. It is also possible to strain the conscience, as with a muscle. That is, we overuse it. This frequently happens when someone decides to “turn over a new leaf.” Maximum effort is invested in doing everything right. Sooner or later, the world comes crashing down on that person because no one can do everything right from one moment on. When the crash comes, such a person often then discards conscience altogether, saying to themselves, in essence, “It doesn’t work for me to try to do the right thing.”
Many people only use their consciences for big decisions. When the conscience is developed with little decisions, however, it can be much more effective for big ones. Other people only use conscience for little decisions, leaving the big decisions to be governed by self-interest. But a conscience being used this way never realizes its potential. The conscience is a spiritual GPS, designed to help us navigate life. That means deciding about all the twists and turns – big and little.
Some people have a stunted conscience. That is, they let other people do the moral thinking for them. If a certain person – be it a spiritual leader, spouse, or sports hero – says that something is okay, then it’s okay. No further questions need be asked. While it is good to have heroes, we can’t let them do our thinking for us. The good heroes would never consent to our abdication of our own responsibility. It halts all our spiritual growth to let someone else’s conscience govern our lives – unless that someone is Jesus our Lord. Even then, we let Him shape our conscience with His, so that we are still following our own conscience.
Conscience Works Best in Private
Conscience is a hidden faculty and it does its best work in privacy. Jesus said that when doing good deeds, we shouldn’t let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. That is, there’s a certain detachment that needs to go with living a life of love. I haven’t mastered it, but I’ve come close enough to see how self-defeating it is to meditate on my own goodness – much less hope someone else will!
The first big temptation that comes to those trying to imitate God’s way of life is that other people begin to notice your kindness…and praise you for it. You can’t fault them. God’s pleased that they noticed your change, and that they’re thankful. But before you know it, you’re doing the good thing for the earthly applause it brings instead of the heavenly ovation that’s much harder to hear.
One evening my wife called to me from the other room, “There is no glory in wiping applesauce off my baby’s chair.” It became a proverb for the two of us. It speaks of the lack of earthly glory that is associated with so much important earthly activity. If you’re going to stay motivated to keep a child’s chair clean, it’s best to have some sense of the heavenly audience that puts the proper emphasis on such things. The more hidden the conscience’s work is from earthly view, the freer it is to let the light of heaven shine on it. And when that happens, the moral pleasure can be its most intense.
People’s approval won’t make your motives any purer, and their disapproval doesn’t taint your motives. God recognizes your hidden reasons for doing things without checking with anyone else first. It’s those reasons that make all the difference to Him. Even actions which are viewed by a large number of people can still be invested with heavenly meaning. Jesus’ ministry was by no means a private affair. However, the workings of His motives were not on display. They were very much a private affair. There are times when our motives should be up front and fully declared. But happy is the person who keeps them at their purest, even when no one but heaven can see them.
The Limitations of Conscience
Prior to his conversion, the apostle Paul was one of the religious leaders who thought Jesus and His followers were wrong. He even imprisoned men and women who embraced the teaching of Jesus. After he saw a great light from heaven, he had a drastic change of heart. He immediately embraced the teaching and began promoting it himself. He went from being persecutor to being persecuted. Years later, when on trial for his faith, he said that he had lived his life with a good conscience. Therefore, it was his conscience that had guided him to persecute followers of Jesus and it was his conscience that guided him to become one of them. What sort of conscience was this? A human one; that is, one in the process of development – and subject to error.
Thus, being confident that you’re right doesn’t make you right. And being unsure you’re right doesn’t make you wrong. If you’ve ever done any parenting you know how hard it is to be sure you’re right. A certain amount of confidence is necessary to be a good parent, but a parent who is always sure of his or her own rightness of opinion is a burden to children.
The fact that even an active conscience, like Paul’s, can be in need of a big adjustment is proof that conscience is not an infallible guide. Our individual sense of right and wrong is not the final authority in the governing of the universe. God Himself is. Because of this, there is always room for us to be humble – no matter how sure we are that we are right.
You can never afford to disregard your conscience, for you never know what the consequences might be. But even if you follow your conscience, you must be prepared for the possibility that God, or others, may see things in a greater light. But even then, God will deal most gently with someone who’s doing the very best they know to do.
If we wait until we have perfect knowledge of what we should do, and full assurance of all the results our actions will bring about, then we’ll never act. If all you have is the slightest sense of the right thing to do, then act. That sense will grow every time you use it. And when that sense needs adjustment, God will intervene. We can figure, for example, that God opened Paul’s eyes precisely because the guy was trying so hard to follow his conscience. Your enlightenment may not come as dramatically as his, but you can trust that God won’t leave you laboring forever under false conceptions if you are seeking Him with an honest heart.
To spend a great deal of time in conscience is to increase our chances of running into God. For conscience is the house where He meets us. You won’t always recognize Him, and sometimes He’s gone as soon as He comes. He’s in a thought, a feeling, a hunch, a leaning. He comes like a gentle breeze…and goes the same way. You can’t put the wind in a bottle, and you can’t dictate how and when God will speak to you. He speaks in the conscience, but He’s distinct from it.
The best way to be sure your conscience is regularly nurtured by God is listen to the word of God every day. Whether that’s through Bible reading, or listening to someone teach it, or some other way, we need to hear the word of God because, in the end, that is the way our conscience is properly formed and that our conscience properly matures. Otherwise, you’re just doing what’s right in your own eyes…and that usually ends up doing more harm than good.
In your exposure to the word of God, be sure to be exposed most of all to Jesus – who is Himself the fullness of God’s word. Jesus of Nazareth is how God chose to best reveal Himself to the human race. The New Testament records His words and deed; and in the Old Testament are hidden all the prophesies and foreshadowings of those words and deeds. If your conscience is ever to fully to mature, it must be shaped by Jesus Christ – the one true God.
The Maturation of Conscience Leads to Love
As you can see, the limitation of conscience isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing because that limitation is what leaves room for God. If our consciences were perfectly able to tell us everything we’d ever need to know about right and wrong, then we could live without an awareness of, or dependence upon, God. Since conscience can only go so far, however, we’re constantly reminded to look for the One who can show up there. And in finding Him, we can’t help learning more about love…because that’s the essence of who He is.
Chapter 17 – Learning More About Love
Learning more about love means learning more about ourselves…and finding out that we haven’t been as loving as we thought. It means getting past the superficial reasons we give ourselves and others for all the things we do, and finding what’s really driving us. I’m not talking about prolonged and self-defeating introspection. Rather, I’m talking about simple questions and honest answers. For example, am I doing something because I love or because it will get me love? The answers come more quickly than we expect…if we’re willing to honestly listen for them.
Motives have to be reexamined regularly, too. We can start out doing something for a good reason but end up doing it for a bad one. When my wife and I had our first child, I really began to apply myself at work. I was motivated by the desire to succeed financially in order to be able to provide for this family I’d helped start. Soon I was succeeding…and beginning to spend more time at work and less at home. My business career soared at the expense of my family life. If I had paid more attention to my motives I could have caught this situation much earlier. My selfless motive for success had subtly become a selfish one. As it was, the consequences eventually revealed my error. Fortunately, we mended the family fences long before the divorce that would have inevitably come.
In Paul’s timeless treatise on love, 1 Corinthians 13, he says, “And if I give everything I own to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but do not have love, it doesn’t profit me a thing.” In other words, doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons profits us nothing. Or to put it yet another way, motive is everything! It’s the reasons behind our living that make it holy, good, and loving. If the root of motive goes bad, then the fruit of deed is tainted – no matter how good the fruit looks on the outside. God looks on the heart – every day. So should we.
The Testing of Love
When we seek to make love our singular motive we will be tested. At times, we’ll feel like we’ve been given every reason in the world to act out of a motive other than love. Sometimes living this way seems to bring out the worst in others – at least in the short term. Jesus found this to be true. But the long term results of love’s endurance through such trials will work to the good of everyone concerned. Jesus found this to be true also. For this reason, we must keep seeking to learn more about love.
If you’ve ever felt the sting of a wasp, you know how painful it can be. But for the wasp, the experience is fatal. When you take evil and don’t return it, something evil dies. When evil is returned for evil, a natural cycle continues. Breaking that cycle is the purpose of humanity. It is the purpose of love. When Jesus refused to return rejection for the rejection He was being shown, Sheol died…like the wasp. And heaven was opened to us all.
Heaven lets you see the meaning that love gives to your life. God sees meaning in the choices you make, and the motives that impel you to make them. Keeping yourself aware of heaven keeps you aware of that meaning. Remember the love that created heaven and be inspired by it. The heaven we see waiting for us wasn’t there when Jesus was being crowned with thorns. He kept in mind our best interests while we were treating Him so shabbily…and produced the heaven to which we now go. The implication is that you and I can also produce good when we are treated shabbily.
When you refuse to return the evil that’s coming your way, you never know what bad thing might die and what good thing might live. It’s a wonderful sort of discovery, this life God has created. When a rose’s thorns are crushed, there’s perfume. And heaven inhales the fragrance. The more we’re aware of that dimension called heaven, the more chance we’ll get a whiff ourselves. The lingering moral fragrance combined with the absence of the thorns shows how much more powerful goodness is than evil.
Once we die, the thing that will matter most to us about our lives will be the love we have shown. If you give a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty, the water is gone and the thirst is gone. But into eternity will last the bond of love that was created when you gave that cup. The satisfaction you felt in giving and the satisfaction the other felt in receiving will go on and on. As will the gratitude you feel toward the Creator who made it all possible. In the end, love is all that will matter.
The Ultimate Life
The ultimate life is a life animated by love. Such a life must be lived from the inside. Most of it won’t be seen by other people, even those close to you. It’s a life where deeds and consequences are important, but motives are even more important. It’s a life that can be shared with others, but most of all with God. He’s the only one who can see all your thoughts and thus share all your motives. It’s a life where you don’t put heaven off until you die, you let it enter your life now. Maybe that’s one reason Jesus called this way of life “the kingdom of heaven.” It’s a way of life where heaven rules our thinking. It’s heaven enlightening and empowering the earth.
Heaven is a place that speaks of a Person. The kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of God. Life is boiling down to something profoundly simple: being aware of God. What is the ultimate motivation to do good? A moment by moment desire to please your Maker. It’s a very personal matter. Good relationships are cemented by shared intimacy. When it comes to God, this means sharing our innermost secrets. Our constant acknowledgment of His omniscience and love enables us to continually show Him the motives behind our actions. (More precisely, it’s letting God continually show us the motives of our actions.) A self-righteous person wants everyone else to know how right his motives are. A genuinely righteous person, however, only wants One Person to know how right his motives are. God takes your life seriously and personally. When you take His interest personally, you live the ultimate life. Eternal life.
How much difference can such a life make in the earth? Look at the life of Jesus. The ripples from that “pebble tossed in the pond” have yet to stop. Can your life make that much difference? It can to someone. Jesus didn’t travel worldwide. In fact, He never went more than 200 miles from home. He knew that the way to reach the world was to reach the person next to Him. You can do the same. Just seek to be motivated by a personal love for a personal God. If for some strange reason it doesn’t seem to make a difference to the people around you, know that it will make a world of difference to God.
Chapter 18 – Relating to God
Knowing that God has promised everyone heaven, knowing that there are important reasons for our being here on earth, knowing that there are consequences to all our behavior, and knowing that God regards our motives as paramount, all combine to give us a reason for waking up in the morning. We’re going to heaven and this very day brings us one step closer!
We don’t, however, have to wait until we get to heaven to enjoy a relationship with Him. On the contrary, knowing that we’re all going to heaven makes relating to God now all the more attractive. Anyone who’s that gracious is worth getting to know better…right away. And knowing that heaven is assured, means we don’t have to worry about saying or doing something that will cause Him to back out of the relationship. Since He’s promised us heaven, He’s obviously in this thing for the long haul!
A relationship with God, therefore, doesn’t suffer as much potential for breakdown as human relationships we’ve encountered. Ungraciousness and abandonment are all too common. Right off the bat, then, we know that a relationship with God is going to be different. Those differences sometimes so disorient people that they despair of a good relationship with God. If we patiently accept the building blocks of knowledge God has given us, however, we can come to an understanding that transforms life itself into a personal relationship with God.
Perceiving a Personal God
God divided each of our lives into connected little segments called days. Many people recognize that life is best lived in one of these segments at a time. Much more than that and we humans get overwhelmed. Even with the message of heaven, life is still best lived one day at a time. So, how will we live this day before us knowing that we’re going to heaven? Differently.
This difference is not one that others always see in us, for it’s a difference in consciousness. The method of living that the message of heaven inspires is a change in our daily thinking. This begins with the way we perceive our everyday surroundings.
We know that our physical surroundings are governed by laws. If I let go of my pencil, it will fall to the floor. The law of gravity makes sure of that. I don’t go around meditating on the law of gravity. It’s simply a part of my understanding about how life works. Therefore, if I’m carrying something breakable and precious I try to be very careful. Only on such occasions does the law of gravity loom large in our minds. The operation of such laws are so constant that we can come to regard our surroundings as something of a machine. This makes creation seem impersonal to us.
The Bible is constantly sounding out the message, however, that behind the physical creation is a personal God. The Bible says that we humans were made in His image. The Bible also attributes to God the kinds of thoughts and feelings that we have. It further encourages us to imitate Him, something impossible to do if God is an impersonal force. The ultimate statement that God is personal comes when Jesus of Nazareth is understood to have been God in the flesh. His life, suffering, and death were intensely personal.
We must now rethink the scene surrounding us and recognize that a personal God lies behind all those laws. This shouldn’t be too difficult. If you had a parent who was faithful and dependable, you have someone to compare with God. A loving parent can be very warm and personal but also operate in ways that have all the consistency of laws. This may show up in a regularity of schedule, a strictness of discipline, a predictability of temperament, or something else. Therefore, constant physical laws and a personal God controlling them don’t necessarily conflict.
It does become a little more difficult to imagine a personal God running the universe when we see a little child fall off a bridge and drown. A loving father would jump off the bridge and rescue the child. When God, who is able to do far more than dive in, doesn’t prevent the child’s death, we begin to question whether God is personal, or whether He even exists. But if we remember what we’ve learned about the purpose of the creation and that the child is going to heaven at the moment of death, we can mesh in our minds an unyielding physical law with a merciful personal God. This doesn’t explain all the mystery of that scene, but it’s a good foundation with which to start. God is, in effect, rushing in to “pick up” the child.
Therefore, we live the day not before impersonal forces of creation, but before a personal God. It takes effort to build this into our thinking. Our normal state of mind has God as impersonal. This is not a conscious perception. If someone asks us if we believe God is personal, the idea then looms large in our minds and we affirm it. But that’s a different matter from carrying that idea around in our moment-by-moment consciousness – a point I’ll be emphasizing again and again.
Perceiving a Relating God
Not only do we want to redeem our daily consciousness from the assumption that God is impersonal, we also want to redeem it from the idea that God is distant. To do this, we simply have to give more attention to a couple of facts about Him that are already widely known. Little children say, “God is everywhere.” Theologians call that omnipresence. Little children also say, “He knows everything.” Theologians call that omniscience.
Let’s get a grip on this “omni” stuff. If God is everywhere and knows everything then He’s obviously not wanting to be separated from us. If He didn’t want to associate with us, why would He plant Himself in such a way that He could never avoid us? If He thought He was too good for us, He’d go where we weren’t. And if He didn’t want to hear all our problems, He’d fix it so He didn’t know everything about us. This “omni” stuff speaks volumes about God’s desire to consciously relate to each of us – if we think it through.
Think about this, too: How is it that we know He’s everywhere and knows everything? Sure, many people proclaim these facts about Him. But who told them? And why is it that on these points their voices resonate within us and find little argument with our deepest instincts? The only reasonable answer is that God has been spreading the word about Himself, not just through human voices, but through His own voice, deep in all human hearts. We couldn’t know of His omnipresence and omniscience if He didn’t want us to know about them. The fact that He has spread the word about Himself indicates that His omnipresence is not for the sake of secretly bugging all our conversations. If you just want to quietly spy on someone, you don’t tell them what you’re doing or where you are. Broadcasting your presence is an invitation for contact!
Now catch this: If you’ve already heard the word about God not just from human voices but from your own heart, then you already have a relationship with Him. You’ve already “heard” Him talk to you. The very fact that your heart sounds an agreement with the idea of one true God is evidence of His having touched you. Therefore, you don’t need to be introduced to God. You already know Him. It’s just a matter of getting to know Him better than you already do.
Relating to God isn’t our idea, it’s His. He is the pursuer and we are the pursued. It’s so much easier to build a relationship when you have no doubts about the other person’s interest. God has taken the initiative; all we have to do is reciprocate. And because of His initiative, the relationship has already been launched. Therefore, relating to God is primarily a matter of our being more responsive to Him.
In this regard, I think often of Helen Keller. When 19 months old, she was stricken by a disease that left her blind and deaf. When she was seven years old her parents employed for her a teacher, Anne Sullivan. The story of Helen’s relationship with Anne was reenacted in a play called The Miracle Worker. From a later television adaptation I recall seeing Helen in a temper tantrum, struggling against Anne’s gentle but firm grip. Anne patiently wrestled with Helen, never breaking the child’s spirit. After many such sessions, Anne was able to tap a code for the alphabet in the child’s hand, leading to direct communication. Once able to communicate with Anne, Helen overcame her temper tantrums and went on to live one of the most inspiring human lives ever recorded on earth.
God works that patiently with each of us. We are blind and deaf to the spiritual realm. We struggle against it, pulling and pushing, not quite knowing who or what resists us. That gentle but firm resistance comes from God who is trying to lead us to a greater understanding and more regular and edifying communication with Him. His patience toward us and belief in us is like that of Anne toward Helen. God is the great spiritual “miracle worker.” And He’s been working with us from the time we were born.
Improving an Existing Relationship
Since we don’t have to introduce ourselves to God, we simply need to do those things that will strengthen our existing relationship. Indeed, life itself is a personal relationship with a God we’ve had trouble perceiving. Even though we still have trouble “seeing” and “hearing” Him, He is going to wrestle with us until we know Him face to face in heaven. Maybe the first thing we should do is relax a little. As Anne tapped a code into Helen’s palm, so God is patiently telling us to be more responsive to Him. To pick up what He’s saying doesn’t require more struggling, it requires less. Less struggling puts us in a position better hear Him…and be more responsive to Him.
Chapter 19 – Seeking Spirituality
At various places in this book, I’ve pointed out that heaven isn’t just a place, it’s a dimension. It’s a dimension beyond what we can see, but it’s no farther away than our noses. It’s found in the unseen aspect of our lives. Look around you right now. All that you can see is sustained and animated by all you can’t see. Flesh clothes spirit. Each of us is a microcosm of the universe, for our bodies clothe our inner – and unseen – beings.
We Are Already Spiritual
All of us are spiritual – we can’t help it. If you’re conscious, you’re spiritual…because thoughts are spiritual things. We don’t often recognize how pervasive spiritual things are. Most people, when asked to list the spiritual aspects of their lives, would list prayer, and if they were involved in organized religion they’d list those activities. In other words, they’d list activities which are taken on in addition to the normal activities everyday living requires. The Bible, however, considers spirituality an aspect of work, an aspect of family life, an aspect of prayer. Spirituality, from the Bible’s point of view, is the unseen side of things. Like the radio transmission waves that fill the air around us, so the spiritual dimension is something that exists all around us. You can’t get away from it.
Since God is everywhere, you don’t have to go somewhere to find Him. He’s here with me; He’s there with you. If you take this idea seriously, it can transform every moment of your life. Most people just pay the idea lip service and never act on it. They’re what the Bible calls “fleshly.” They don’t live according to unseen realities; rather, they are devoted to what’s physical. As a result, they become spiritually impoverished, even though, as we’ve said, spirituality is an essential aspect of their humanity. God forbid that we should be like this.
God is at your workplace. It doesn’t matter if people cuss, if there are lewd pictures on the wall, or if the mere mention of Jesus’ name in a respectful way makes everyone nauseated – He’s still there. We have a hard time taking the “He’s everywhere” notion seriously because the scenes we see in life often seem incompatible with what we know of Him. Yet one of the things we should learn from the crucifixion of Jesus is that God can be present in the most gruesome and ungodly of circumstances.
We have this unspoken assumption that God is so powerful that He wouldn’t put up with some of the scenes we face. That’s why we picture Him more present in a majestic landscape or beautiful building than we do in our living room when everyone’s arguing about what television show to watch. The crucifixion scene also shows us that what God doesn’t enjoy, He endures. He doesn’t like rejection any more than we do. But He’s able to put up with a lot more of it because He loves people so much. Therefore, we should recognize that He is indeed present everywhere – even in the worst scenes of this life has to offer.
Being Sensitive to Others
Each of us is sensitive to the presence of other people. We alter our behavior based on whom we are around. Granted, some of us are more sensitive than others, but all of us are sensitive to some degree. Most of us, for example, change our clothes in private. If a stranger walked in on us we’d alter our behavior instantly – we wouldn’t even need time to think. Most of us also alter our behavior in more subtle ways.
Let’s say you are married and that you and your spouse are having lunch at a restaurant with another couple. Your spouse says something that upsets you. Instead of speaking right up about it, you will probably think first to see if it’s something that should be spoken of later in private. In other words, you don’t want to embarrass the other couple. Out of respect for them, you keep your cool. You restrain what you say for their sake.
The point is the restraint and who you’re restraining yourself for – not what you’re restraining. Let’s say, instead of being upset with your spouse, that you become unusually pleased. Maybe you have a thought that makes you remember a particular reason why you hold your spouse so dear. You are overwhelmed with affection. You will probably restrain that, too, for the sake of the other couple. The urge to kiss, the urge to say something very intimate and private – these are thoughts you will suppress for the sake of the other people present. It’s simply a matter of being sensitive to what makes others comfortable or uncomfortable.
Not only does the presence of others cause us to restrain certain behavior, it also causes us to release certain behavior. If a local singer has been told that a big city talent scout is in the audience, there is likely to be a little more effort put into the performance. If a little girl knows that her grandparents are seated in the front row at the dance recital, she’s probably going to put more energy into her routine than if her grandparents had stayed home. The singer and the little girl are energized by the interest shown them. And if they see their prized witnesses beam, the energy just intensifies.
It’s possible for us to practice this same sensitivity toward God. We have all the facts that we need. We know He’s present. We know He sees all of us – from the clothes and skin right down to the deepest thoughts and motives. He’s a person – a wonderful person whose approval we’d like to have. While we don’t yet know everything about Him, we know enough to gauge some of His general likes and dislikes. This knowledge will guide us to restrain certain behaviors and engage in others. We know that He won’t immediately reject us if we happen to do something He dislikes. Best of all, we know that we have the power to do what He does like – that is, we have the power to make Him beam! That’s a power than energizes us even more.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Being aware that God is everywhere, and caring about His opinion of you, will transform your behavior like nothing else. It will give your life a new dimension. Spirituality ceases to be an activity you engage in, and becomes a way you engage in all your activities. This is the transforming power of heaven.
If you can be sensitive to other people’s presence, you can be sensitive to God’s presence. It’s just a matter of recognizing the differences between God and other people. That God can’t be seen is the first difference, for you usually can see the other people in your presence. That God can see everything about you is the second difference, for people are limited in what they can see of you physically and spiritually. That God is the paragon of all virtue is the third difference, for the rest of us can only strive for that ideal. Keep these three differences in mind and then simply show the sensitivity to God that you show to other people.
In practicing this method of relating to God, you haven’t adopted some strange new theological concept. You’ve simply made practical an idea that is widely-acknowledged to be true: that there is one God, invisibly present everywhere and knowing all things. You might think that disciplining ourselves to remember this God shouldn’t be necessary, but it’s part of the freedom we’ve been granted on this earth. That is, we have the freedom to think the way we want. If we want to think more about God, we have to do it. He will not coerce our attention.
In case you haven’t noticed, the natural course of the world is just to forget God. In fact, God is the easiest person in the world to ignore. Most of us respond negatively when we’re ignored. We walk away or we complain or we ignore in return. God just keeps on loving, keeps on staying, keeps on planning to take us to heaven. It’s wonderful that He’s so committed to us, but the downside is that it makes Him so easy to forget. That’s why we have to rework our method of daily thinking to include Him.
The method I’m presenting to you therefore isn’t so much a new method, but an adjustment to the method you already live by. It’s an alteration of your consciousness to incorporate God. Almost without thinking, we adjust our consciousness of others as they come in and out of our presence or as we go in and out of theirs. God is omnipresent and that requires a more permanent adjustment. This adjustment is hard to make; that’s why I say it takes practice. It’s so difficult that you will fail at remembering God far more than you succeed at it – especially in the early stages. But every moment that you do remember Him will be a moment that transforms you. And the more of these moments you accumulate, the more transformed will be your day.
What gives this method particular transforming power is the nature you ascribe to this ubiquitous God. In other words, what do you think He’s like? For without some sense of what the other person is like, we don’t fully know just how to be sensitive. If you know a person hates jokes, for example, you won’t regale them with stories from the latest humor book you’ve found. If you know your friend hates beans, you’re not going to prepare a bean salad for lunch. Therefore, the likes and dislikes of the person are crucial to your being sensitive to that person.
The best way to think of God’s character is to think of Jesus. Consider what would make Him smile or frown. Let Jesus be the face of God to you, for that’s just what He was intended to be.
Chapter 20 – Relating to Others in the Presence of God
The kind of living I’ve been describing is what the apostle Paul called “walking in the spirit.” It’s living daily life in the awareness of the spiritual dimension. It’s heaven-on-earth-in-your-heart. It’s not a way of behaving. It’s a way of thinking that affects your behaving. It’s an attitude that seeks to recognize and honor the always present Creator.
What Others Think About God’s Omnipresence and Nature
If the whole world consisted of just you and God, you could probably get a grip on this kind of thought life a lot quicker. The reality is, however, that we are social creatures and live in a shared world. And it’s obvious from the behavior we see that many people don’t think a loving, virtuous, all-powerful God is all around them at all times. Shoplifters shoplift when they think no one is looking. Hoodlums ransack when they think no one’s around. Once again, we see that behavior is altered based on who else is present. And it’s clear from these behaviors that, at least for those moments, God was considered as absent as anyone else. To be more accurate about it, God wasn’t considered by them at all. In fact, He was far from their minds.
So, how do you live in a world where God is everywhere present, but not everyone takes the idea as seriously as you do? You live your inward life no differently than if you were the only person in the world. Walking in the spirit is by nature a personal mental habit. If others around you also engage in it, you’re not relieved from practicing it; you still have to think for yourself. If others around you don’t embrace the idea, you can still engage in it without their approval or support.
God’s idea is to influence our behavior from within – not enforce it from without. The whole nature and thrust of the way of life Jesus left us is based in personal, individual motivation. Whenever people have sought to enforce it from without, behavior only gets worse. The Sermon on the Mount deals with issues like hatred, anger, lust, and so on. These things can’t be regulated from anywhere but within. This doesn’t mean that we don’t try to form and share common moral values as a society. It’s very important that we do. But getting into religious quarrels distracts us from moral questions. What then, someone will ask, about organized religion?
The only organized religion ever required by the Bible was that of ancient Israel, and the requirements laid down by Moses for the physical descendants of Abraham. This religion, which included a temple for animal sacrifice, was no longer needed once the kingdom of heaven came.
As we shed our winter coats when summer comes, so God’s brand of organized religion was shed when the kingdom of heaven. The church written about in the New Testament was like springtime: helping people make a gradual transition from the winter of a physical temple to the summer of a God who could be approached anywhere, with no sacrificial gift but one’s self. As for this bridge, the church of the New Testament was not an organization – it was a movement. Out of that movement have come organizations, but there will never be another church like that one.
I recognize that church today is not the only expression of organized religion, but I trust you are making the translation to synagogue, mosque, or whatever other form of organized religion with which you are most familiar.
The solution to our problems is not in organized religion but rather in the person of God – Jesus Himself. If we live for Him, and remain conscious of Him, we will have power over sin in our lives. Organized religion, by contrast, has no power over sin. When I was a pastor, I had men tell me that they had compulsions for pornography. However, the very fact that they didn’t flip through the magazines while they were sitting in church proves that they were completely able to control their behavior. If they truly had no control over their compulsions, they would have looked at the magazines in my presence. Or in their wives’ presence. Or in their mother’s presence. True compulsion wouldn’t care who was around. When we hide our evil behavior we prove we can control it. Let me say that again for emphasis’ sake: When we hide our evil behaviors we prove that we can control them.
Acknowledging the eyes of heaven would have kept those men controlling their behavior…if they truly loved those eyes. Organized religion cannot give you the kind of attention that God does. If organized religion is the way you worship and serve God, you will never have complete power over sin. If, however, you live for Jesus Christ and continually acknowledge His omniscience and omnipresence you can break free from your sins.
The people involved in organized religion face the same temptations, make the same mistakes, live with the same weaknesses…and end up in the same heaven as everyone else. The behavior of the people involved in organized religion is not noticeably better than the people of society at large. Divorce, child abuse, and almost every other sin you see in society at large manifests itself among churchgoers, too. The reason for this is that faith in organized religion is misplaced. Our faith must be in God for it to have power.
Beyond Religion…Organized and Otherwise
If you honestly believe that God is omnipresent and omniscient (and who doesn’t believe that?!), you don’t need to go anywhere, or join any group, in order to find Him…or to be more spiritual. If you think God is more present in some places than others or if you think He’s more present during some occasions than others, you are only stunting your own spiritual growth. The spirituality that the Bible promotes for those who live in the day of Christ (which includes us) requires no special places or occasions. It requires no compliance from others. You can practice it all by yourself. In fact, you have to practice it by yourself. It’s personal and inner-driven. This is faith.
Chapter 21 – Conclusion: Repent!
“When you’re up to your hips in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your original purpose was to drain the swamp.” Likewise, earth’s many difficulties can make it even harder to remember our purpose for being here in the first place. Part of that purpose is to drain the earth of its forgetfulness of heaven. For when we remember heaven, all the difficulties of earth lose their bite.
Heaven: the Reason We’re on Earth
In this book, we have reflected on the implications of God’s promise of heaven. We began by realizing that creation is a war between good and evil, and that God has plans for us to win it. We considered our actions and the consequences that reverberate from our lives, and how, through God’s love, we can overcome even the worst of those consequences. We thought through the importance of our motives, which precede and shape our actions, and how having a method for being conscious of God helps us put to good use all that we know of Him. This is the message of heaven. It’s the reason we’re here.
It was a problem in heaven that gave rise to our creation. It was God’s love to and through humanity that solved that problem and cleared the skies so that we could safely return home. As you have seen, if it weren’t for heaven, we wouldn’t be here in the first place and if it weren’t for heaven we’d have no place to go when this life is over. Thus heaven can’t be seen, but it’s the very reason for everything that can be seen.
Walking through life in the sight of heaven is the way God wants us to live. It’s a life that is above us, but He is willing to lift us to it. And He is willing to keep lifting us back up as we fall. Walking through the day’s activities with heaven on our minds is both possible and profitable. Of course, I’m not just talking about heaven as the place we go when we die, but also as the place that watches us while we live. Whoever said “being heavenly minded is being no earthly good” must have only understood heaven as a destination and not a dimension. Even as destination, however, heaven has a redeeming effect on our minds because the anticipation of summer vacation can be half the fun – especially when it’s forty below where you are.
Heaven, nonetheless, is a dimension as well as a destination, and that dimension is full of meaning for today. The mundane concerns of life aren’t to be a departure from spiritual activities. Remembering God while we do all these things transforms the mundane into the spiritual. Thus all the activities of our lives become spiritual activities. The culmination of allowing this light of heaven to shine on all we do is that life itself becomes a spiritual activity. This is precisely what life was meant to be. God has been nudging us toward this understanding from the very beginning.
The “waking” of all those who were “sleeping” in Sheol/Hades is a metaphor for life today. As the dead were raised from their slumber, so we the “living dead” are being raised from ours. Our slumber is a dullness to heaven, a drowsiness that keeps us from recognizing it and living in the light of it. Hardly anyone who believes in God disagrees that He is everywhere present and knows all things. Yet our minds have restricted the conscious awareness of Him to certain buildings and specific occasions (at least this is what most of those who organize religion would have us think). Thus most of the day we walk around unconscious of His watching us and caring about us. The “sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2) has risen, as the prophets foretold. It’s long past time for us to wake up to heaven!
Waking Up Includes Repentance
We can only maintain our walk in the light of heaven if we let heaven cleanse of us our sinful ways. That is, knowing that Jesus is watching everything we think, say, and do, we must only think, say, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. If we aren’t willing to make this fundamental change in our way of living, the light of heaven will not stay on for us. By that, I mean that it will recede into the darkness of our forgetfulness. We cannot cling to sin and maintain an awareness of a holy God.
For most of us, sin (that is, selfishness) is so pervasive in our lives that repentance cannot be accomplished all at once. We start with the sins of which we are acutely aware. If we successfully repent of those, God will reveal our more subtle sins to us. We do not realize the depth of sin’s stain on our lives until we enter into the process of removing it.
All sin is lawlessness of the heart – that is, conducting our thought life out from under authority. The first step in repentance is to acknowledge Jesus as Lord of our thoughts. If we would think only those things that He would think, then we begin our redemption. We will be tempted to forsake our repentance: “Why are you trying to be so righteous when no one else is?” We must persevere in our quest to please Him with everything we think, say, and do. Where then do we start? Here’s some help.
Do not merely love your wife outwardly, love her with every thought you have about her. Give her a special place in your heart and do not put any other woman close to it. Do not entertain lustful thoughts. Seek every day to love your wife more than you did the day before. Nurture her and care for her as part of yourself, the better part.
Show respect to your husband for it is an aspect of love that nourishes him. Do not demean him, belittle him, or joke about him. Never share his secrets with anyone. Be content with him and build him up by your support.
Marriage is for one man with one woman for one lifetime. Death of a spouse is license to remarry, but not divorce. Nevertheless, if you have remarried after divorce do not divorce again. Whomever you are married to now is your spouse until death do you part. The tearing asunder of marriage is the tearing asunder of what God has joined together.
Many parents have come to care more about their reputation as parents than they do about their children. It matters not whether anyone else thinks you’re a good parent; it doesn’t even matter if your child thinks you’re a good parent. It only matters if God thinks you are a good parent. Make sacrifices for your children that only God can see, and God will reward you openly in only ways that He can.
God gave you your parents as His representatives until you grow enough to relate to Him as your Father. Therefore, until you are fully conscious of Him as your Father, honor your parents. Once you are conscious of God as your Father, you will always honor your parents for that is His will. Your parents may not always be right, but they will always be your parents.
You encounter more temptations as a teenager than you did as a younger child. Resist them. Continue to honor your parents with your obedience. The only time you should ever disobey them is if they tell you to disobey God – which is rare. Save sex for marriage, for that is the only place in which it is holy. Honor your parents instead of the crowd, for your parents usually want you to do the right thing and the crowd usually wants you to do the wrong thing. Peer pressure does not haunt only teenagers, it haunts all adults as well. Resist it now and you will be better able to resist it as an adult.
Give a full day’s work for a full day’s pay. Do not shortchange your employer because it is easy to do so. Do not steal time, money, supplies, services, or anything else from your employer. Treat your employer as if you were working for God Himself. Give the very best of yourself every day. Do not steal from your family’s time to serve your employer, but give your employer all that is rightfully your employer’s.
Just because you are the boss does not mean you are better or more important than any employee. Treat every one as if he or she was Jesus of Nazareth Himself working for you. Be respectful of their needs and treat each one with dignity.
We Must All Repent
Jesus of Nazareth was the only human who never needed to repent and yet He submitted Himself to the path of repentance (because He was identifying with us). Since all of us need to repent, we must repent – that is, live a life of repentance and humility before God. We do not repent so that we can get into heaven; we repent because we are going to heaven and don’t want to have to hang our heads in shame when we get there.
The world today (that is, the source of peer pressure on adults and teenagers) is going the wrong direction. It always has been. It has been running away from God, running away from heaven. In this life you can either win the approval of the world or win the approval of heaven. Which will you seek – passing pleasure or eternal joy?
Do not think that if you live a life of repentance that you will be sorrowful. There is indeed a sorrow we feel for our sins, but God continually converts that sorrow to joy as we amend our ways and walk with Him. Truly this is the kingdom of God that He has given us for life on this earth: righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
This kingdom is worthy of our pursuit. It is the pearl of great price. It can be sought and found in this life. Going to heaven when you die – that is assured. Whether you will attain the kingdom in this life on this earth – well, that depends on what you do with the knowledge of God that you have.
About the Author