Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Trapped Eternally in Heaven

When I was a teenager I chose Heaven over Hell--but just barely.  As a new believer I had conflicting ideas about eternal life. The people who led me to the Lord told me I could go to Heaven by trusting Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins. I honestly hadn’t given the issue much thought; since there were only two choices Heaven seemed like the better alternative. Heaven didn’t sound very exciting, but Hell sounded worse.

Someone told me in Heaven we would spend all eternity worshiping God. This presented a problem because most of my time in church was boring. Could it be true? Would heaven consist of an unending songfest directed toward the Almighty? One of the verses Amazing Grace gave me cause for concern:
    “When we’ve be there 10,000 years
           bright shining as the sun
     we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
           than when we’ve first begun.”
With some measure of guilt I tried to imagine myself enjoying this 10,000 years, only to find that we had just begun. It was not appealing.

Here's a question: What if you got to live forever but you didn’t like the life you got to live?

Popular images of heaven include the idea that we will inhabit celestial mansions, waft upon fluffy light clouds and worship eternally. These images are certainly better than eternal torment and suffering, but do they really represent the stuff we would choose to do forever, especially given the activities and tastes we choose right now? Even as a Christian, if I spend my entire life indulging my personal tastes, why would I want to focus on Someone Else for eternity? I would be trapped in heaven eternally.

Unless “heaven” and “eternal life” are not the same things.

Jesus himself provided a reliable definition of eternal life: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) Nothing about clouds, harps, or heaven. Eternal life is knowing the Father and knowing Jesus. The Father has given Jesus the authority to grant eternal life, and Jesus’ definition is simply that we would come to know the Father and the Son.

So when does eternal life begin? If we can adjust our view to what Jesus revealed, the answer, of course, is now. When we first turn toward God, we are entering into eternal life. When we turn away from our selfish choices and orientation toward Jesus, we are entering into eternal life. When we grow in our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are growing into eternal life.

When does a child know its mother? At birth? From within the womb? As a teenager? The answer is “all of the above.” Earlier in the same gospel Jesus tells us that we cannot see or enter the Kingdom of God unless we are “born from above.” (John 3: 3 – 8) His choice of birth imagery is instructive: a child begins to perceive light and dark before birth. A child intuitively knows its mother’s voice and heartbeat before birth. Yet after the trauma of labor and delivery a child is characterized by what it does not know: the entire process of growth and maturity could be considered “getting to know” its parents.

This process of growth and knowledge continues even beyond childhood. Most adults realize that with each passing decade they come to “know” their parents more and more. I knew my father more fully after I became a father. Our life in God is made possible by Jesus Christ. That life has its beginning when we are born from above. John’s gospel reminds us from the very beginning we are “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.” (John 1: 13) As we are born of Him, his intention is that we would spend every moment of eternal life growing in the grace and knowledge of Him.

So what about heaven? As we begin to experience eternal life through our walk with Jesus, he begins to work heaven into us even now. I may not know the details of what heaven looks like, but I have come to understand that heaven feels exactly like the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the fruit of coming to know the Father and the Son, through living in the Spirit each day (see Galatians 5: 16 – 25)

I’m no longer troubled by the thought of heaven. Whatever it looks like and whatever he has for us to do, I can rest my relationship with him. As I cooperate with the Holy Spirit he is making fit for heaven.  I suspect I’ll enjoy it when I get there because I’m learning to enjoy it now.

8 comments:

  1. Stephanie CrabtreeMarch 29, 2010 at 9:58 PM

    Thanks for sharing this Ray! I used to have the same thoughts about heaven/eternal life and then He started showing me that it's about living abundantly through him- then I read John 17:3 and almost fell over! It was exactly what He had been teaching me, but write there in His own words! I love the thought that life now is where we are learning to enjoy REAL life through Him- we don't have to wait til this body is gone!

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  2. I used to be afraid of heaven too, afraid of being bored, afraid of the concept of eternity (living FOREVER?!?) in general. One verse that helped me was hearing Jesus say, "Today you will be with me in paradise." Paradise sounds nice.

    You post spoke directly to me, exactly to where I am in my walk right now. Thank you.

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  3. Stephanie: it's my pleasure, and you are so right about John 17:3. We could spend a long time meditating on it.

    Wist: Paradise is indeed a good word. They were both on the cross, facing death in a few hours, so I'm sure Jesus was referring to the after-life, but what if the Scripture is also hinting that we can experience Paradise (to some degree) now?

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  4. You're so right. I think we can, through loving and living in the presence of our Lord. The kingdom is here and now, and the kingdom is after we pass from this life. I for one am super-excited that I get to see both kingdoms. I get to spend the rest of my earthly life seeing the seeds of Jesus' kingdom growing all around me, and spending time with him and learning more about him. That is like paradise. Then in the next life I get the Paradise that I only glimpsed here in this life--more living, more loving, more being with him.

    I have such respect for you, Ray!

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  5. You've asked a critical question, and one I struggled with for a long time. Like you, the thought of being an eternal saint whose only function is singing the praise of another does not sound appealing. The options of "praise me forever or be tortured forever" do not seem like the options a loving father gives his children. As you say, a beautiful part our earthly life is getting to know our parents, but it is so we can grow to replace our parents when it is our time. And part of that cycle of love is when our children spend their lives getting to know us. The most beautiful parts of our lives are these cycles. But your image of heaven still lacks this; it is purely linear, ever closer to one point (God), but never reaching it and never seeking anything new. No challenge and no accomplishment. Even a poor, mortal father as myself would never wish such a thing on my children. How can we believe this is the plan of an all-loving God?

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  6. First of all, thanks for visiting the Students of Jesus blog, pantheophany. You raise so many points it would be difficult to address them all, but I'd like to offer two comments. First, God evokes worship because he really is "holy," which means "completely different from all of creation." He does not so much demand worship as urges it because it really is the best thing for us. Worship is for our good. My point in leading with the bit about being bored in Heaven was to illustrate how fallen I am, not how "bad" heaven is. Sadly, the North American church has obscured the Biblical picture of heaven. Heaven is connected to his presence--which should lead us to ask, "Do I love His presence?"

    Lastly, Your comparison to parenting is instructive, as the scripture uses a parent metaphor consistently. But I'm not sure I'm on board with the point about "growing to replace our parents." Is that really the goal of parenting--or growing up?

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  7. You've asked a critical question, and one I struggled with for a long time. Like you, the thought of being an eternal saint whose only function is singing the praise of another does not sound appealing. The options of "praise me forever or be tortured forever" do not seem like the options a loving father gives his children. As you say, a beautiful part our earthly life is getting to know our parents, but it is so we can grow to replace our parents when it is our time. And part of that cycle of love is when our children spend their lives getting to know us. The most beautiful parts of our lives are these cycles. But your image of heaven still lacks this; it is purely linear, ever closer to one point (God), but never reaching it and never seeking anything new. No challenge and no accomplishment. Even a poor, mortal father as myself would never wish such a thing on my children. How can we believe this is the plan of an all-loving God?

    ReplyDelete
  8. Stephanie CrabtreeJuly 5, 2011 at 9:15 PM

    Thanks for sharing this Ray! I used to have the same thoughts about heaven/eternal life and then He started showing me that it's about living abundantly through him- then I read John 17:3 and almost fell over! It was exactly what He had been teaching me, but write there in His own words! I love the thought that life now is where we are learning to enjoy REAL life through Him- we don't have to wait til this body is gone!

    ReplyDelete