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Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Problem with Believing "in Heaven"

I think the question, "How do I get to heaven?" is a problem.

It is ironic that I say this as my main quest in life for dozens of years was to answer that question. I worked hard to understand the proper relationship of Jesus as savior and me as faith filled (or is it faithful) recipient. I pondered what faith means (a cognitive assertion, acceptance of certain belief statements, trusting, obeying, submitting, etc). I asked Jesus into my heart (many times over the years, it never seemed completely "to take") and I went to confession and communion regularly. I tried to be good, I tried to trust, I tried to live in peace and joy, I tried to live in serious obedience, I tried to live in covenant, I tried to have a personal relationship, I tried to live in the church, I tried to be open to the Spirit, I tried to die to self. I tried to figure out what "carrying my cross" meant concretely in my real life and I tried to pick it up each day and follow Jesus. I tried to go simple and just "let go, let God" and I tried to be faithful in prayer and study of Scripture and the Spiritual Masters.

In most of this I am terribly ordinary and normal. Most of us are not 100% clear on exactly what (beyond the obvious, "trust God' or "believe in Jesus") it is we need to be doing and how we need to be living. (And those who claim to be do not inspire confidence in the rest of us.) I think I am finally comfortable that I understand what "faith in Jesus" means. Now, however, I think there is another problem, "heaven." 

When I was eight years old I was clear about heaven: Giant fields of green grass where we played baseball all day long. (Ironically, my mom seemed to think such a heaven would be hell; the first seed of the concept that heaven and hell might not be geographically separated but rather a response to the environment). Over the years, other ideas took the place of playing baseball but it always shared one common feature; heaven was  place where I was going to get to do what I wanted and enjoyed.

In seminary I figured heaven would be more like a worship service (based on Isaiah and Revelation, there is not a lot about heaven in the Bible after all). One of my classmates said he thought it would be boring to sit around all day praising God. This was probably because he did not find worship terribly exciting all the time, certainly not exciting enough to do it for hours and hours on end. Prone to distraction and less motivated by emotions as I age, I kind of get his concern. I am not so good at worship myself.

Anyhow, the idea that heaven is "about my likes and wants" is a problem. The fundamental cause of Adam's fall was his decision to focus on what he wants, and disobey God. Most people I know have painted a picture of heaven where that focus on self continues. In fact, God does not function much in most of the pictures people paint of heaven. I hear lots of talk about seeing "momma/daddy" or "husband/wife" or "child" or some other lost loved one. In such a vision heaven is something God supplies to us and for us; but always He is peripheral.

The Kingdom of which Jesus speaks looks more like a place where we are in conformity with God. It seems like it will require rewiring of my basic desires if I am going to be at home there. I love God, but not near enough. (I still tend to love me more.... Not a good thing, I might add, but it is the honest truth.) I am terribly self centered in all manner of ways and I rarely meet anyone who is prone to care more about others than themselves; including, and sometimes especially, Christians. So often people who love Jesus talk about loving Jesus but if you listen close the motivation seems to be heaven (i.e. a reward). What is in it for me?????

I think this condition is not fully in our control. I do not think any discipline or effort will wash is or exercise it away. In fact, the focus on self required to not focus on self is the paradoxical twist of the whole thing. It is just hard to not end up re-centering on self. And "heaven" (meaning reward and a place where I will  be happy) just feeds into that self centering tendency.

So believing in "heaven" may not be helpful. Believing in the Kingdom, however, is. In the Kingdom God is on the throne. In the Kingdom Jesus rules. In the Kingdom He is KING, I am slave, servant, unworthy and subservient (and so glad for the change to attend to His will). In the Kingdom I am a citizen in compliance with His rules, laws, ordinances and general good advice! I am in a place living with others (different others with their own tastes and tendencies) and learning to love and get along, because I am here for the KING (not me). If friends and family are there with me, so much the better, but it is in no way diminished if they are not, because I am looking to the throne, not the crowd. And I trust that He will provide the new family and friends which I need.

How can I get saved from me (and sin and death at work in my selfishness) and become a citizen of a different kind of world? How can I learn to have a kingdom  heart and be a kingdom servant? Those questions do not seem to invoke the same feelings that  "going to heaven" does. And I think that may be closer to what Jesus proclaimed to start anyway. At least that is what the Bible says.

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