Monday, March 14, 2011

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time


This is the third post in the series on heaven, hell, and the relentless love of God.

Sometimes I completely lose track of time.  Without quite realizing it, I’ve lost myself in something I love to do.

Talking to good friends.  Looking at the night sky or the early morning light. Listening to the tide roll in at the beach.

Frederick Buechner wrote somewhere that forgetting ourselves this way is a glimpse of eternity.  After all, Jesus teaches us that to lose our life for his sake is to gain it.

By their very nature such glimpses are fleeting.  We know that we’ve been caught up in eternity only in retrospect, once the experience is past. 

These brief glimpses into eternity can leave in their wake a persistent longing for something more than our everyday postures of self-preservation and self-absorption.  Maybe these glimpses highlight for us an ever-present longing for the holy too often crowded out by our daily life’s busyness.

Our soul is the eternal part of ourselves.  When the body dies, our soul will depart and await in our Lord’s nearer presence for the final resurrection.  Then we will be given a new body, a resurrection body.  (1 Corinthians 15:35-44)

As Buechner suggests, God seems to have designed the soul to long for and to catch glimpses of eternity.  Additionally, Jesus teaches that the soul accumulates habits: habits suited for eternity.

As I said, glimpses are fleeting.  Habits, by contrast, endure.

The habits we form suit us for eternal citizenship.  Depending upon the sorts of habits we form, we prepare ourselves for residency in either heaven or hell.


Before this all starts to sound like a flight of my own imagination, let’s turn to Jesus’ teaching itself.  If you have a Bible handy, turn to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.  (Luke 16:19-31)

There was a rich man (unnamed in the parable) who “dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.”  Lazarus was poor and “covered with sores.”  He lay in the rich man’s gate, but the rich man completely ignored him.

Both men died.  Lazarus went to heaven.  The rich man went to hell.

Take a look at the rich man’s habits.  As best as we can tell, he spent his days so obsessed with his appearance and what he would consume that he could step right over another man suffering in his doorway.  His soul was shaped by the pursuit of his own comfort.

Listen to what he says to God from the depths of hell.  He never once says, “Get me out of here!” Instead, he says, “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”

The rich man does not want to escape hell.  He prefers to increase his comfort level from agony to misery.   The thought that his pursuit of comfort has made him at home in hell seems never to have crossed his mind.

Most of us know what it’s like to involve ourselves in activities that slowly become habits: habits that end up diminishing the quality of our lives.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Alcoholics and drug addicts report almost universally that the early days of substance use felt terrific.  They weren’t afraid of people.  They could carry on lively conversation at parties.  Their cares seemed to disappear.

Only later did the destruction of relationships, financial ruin, wrecked health, and tarnished reputation start to set in.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Addictions provide an extreme example to make a point about many of our very mundane behaviors.  We get into spiritual habits before we know it, and some of them turn out to make us miserable.

Judging others feels great until we realize that we can’t be happy with anybody, including ourselves.  Shopping to feel better worked great until we started to realize how empty that full closet was making us feel.

Name your own poison.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.

In many respects each of us is like the Hebrews who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after escaping from Egypt.  It should have taken them only about three weeks to get to the Promised Land.

But geographical relocation was not the central point of that journey from the Red Sea to what would become Israel. 

The Hebrews needed time to become the people of God.  They needed time to develop a new way of thinking, feeling, and willing toward their God and toward each other.

The plan was that, over time, their souls would begin to form habits, habits that resulted in behaviors that embodied God’s law.  They were preparing themselves to be a people of promise so that they could be genuinely at home in the Promised Land.

To put it another way, the exodus was not only or even principally about geographical relocation.  It was about spiritual transformation.  For the most part, such transformation happens gradually.  We form habits.

The habits we form have an eternal trajectory.

However, the key teaching of the Christian faith is not an admonition to form proper habits.  In fact, let’s admit right now that we’ve already formed some hellish habits.  Unlearning on our own seems impossible.

Now imagine what it might have been like in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man if, when he found himself in hell, the rich man had responded differently.  In the parable, he just wanted a more comfortable hell.

Imagine that he simply said to Jesus, “I don’t want to be here.  Please get me out!”

That’s when I remember the traditional form of the Apostles’ Creed: He descended into hell.

Jesus reaches out to us where we are to make us into who he dreams we can be.

In the following posts we’ll consider the habits Jesus forms in us when we follow him: habits suited for heavenly citizenship.  And we’ll consider the question of those who do not believe in Jesus.

5 comments:

  1. A nice piece and very interesting. Makes me feel like I'm not alone as I'm chased by my addictions. Interesting in that what I always took from that story was that, even in Hell, the rich man still considered himself superior to Lazarus - that Lazarus we merely worthy to serve him. I guess this supports your point, however. That self-perception was so entrenched in the rich man, that it had become a hellish habit. Nice work. Thank you.

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  2. Thank you, Susan. And I agree with your take on the rich man. It seems to me to be consistent with what I was saying about him, too.

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  3. Trying again...
    This is good stuff, and timely for me. Last fall I read another book along the same lines called If Grace Is True (Why God Will Save Every Person) by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland. They make some persuasive arguments that God will redeem everyone because of the immensity of his love for us -- even those we generally accept to be damned, like Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, etc. The way that they write about God's love for us is particularly moving, but they also challenge some of our basic assumptions about God and redemption.
    One is our conception of God and his relationship to us. Humans habitually try to put God in a box, and to make Him into a size we can wrap our minds around, rather than to try to appreciate His immensity and his love as they are. His ways are truly not like our ways, which they captured in one passage on our freedom to reject His grace: "I insisted we were free to reject God's grace. It never occurred to me that God might be free to reject our rejection." Wow.
    Another is our assumption that our chance for redemption ends when we pass from this life through death. But does it? I am not aware of anything in Scripture that precludes the opportunity for redemption through God's love and grace AFTER this life. If you believe in grace and God's immense love for humanity, why not? They even go so far as to suggest that in the end (whatever that is) even Satan could be redeemed. Now that really challenges us to consider how big His love might truly be. Indeed to deny this possibility is to suggest there are limits to God's love, and I for one do not believe that there are.
    So this is all challenging stuff, which is the reason for the backlash to Bell's book. As you say, some people are just more comfortable in their Hell right now...

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  4. Thanks for this thoughtful response, Rob. I'll have to take a look at If Grace is True.

    As I recall, my first reading of C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce was in a senior religion class we took together at St. Pius X. Although my memory may be failing me on that count, that book remains a favorite of mine.

    I can't quite reconcile the freedom we must have to love and God's rejection of our rejection. But a thought in close keeping with that one is one Lewis shares somewhere (maybe it's in Mere Christianity). He says that God's patience with us and faithfulness toward us is wildly beyond our comprehension. He keeps pursuing us because his love for us never runs out. However, God knows when our rejection of him is genuinely final on our part.

    I'm sympathetic with this view. It does mean that God's love for us makes him unspeakably vulnerable. We see his suffering love perfectly on the Cross.

    As some argue, this may only be a logical necessity that is never actualized. In other words, Hell may be a home that is never occupied.

    Some will fault me here for overestimating the power of our freedom. Others will say that I underestimate the final attractiveness of God's love for us. And still others would argue that I undersell the sovereignty of God.

    Could be. Still thinking and studying Scripture. Thanks for helping me continue to think things through.

    By the way, as for Bell's book: he's an engaging writer. He writes as a pastor more than a theologian, so he's not as precise as a scholar would be in how he puts things. Not all bad, that. Even if you end up not agreeing with him (and I don't on all counts), it's a good conversation to be involved in.

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  5. I'm going to have to pick up Bell’s book and see what the hubbub is about. Gulley and Mulholland are also pastors (Quaker), the book jacket says Mulholland is also a theologian. But as you say, they write more as pastors.
    Lately I have started thinking that Jesus' admonition to stop judging applies as much to ideas as it does to people. So I continue to wrestle with ideas like these, and resist the temptation to come to a conclusion, especially a hasty one.
    I especially like something Henri Nouwen wrote about our approach to such things:
    "But are there any answers? There are, but we will never find them unless we are willing to live the questions first and trust that, as Rilke says, we will, without even noticing it, grow into the answer." Good advice.

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