My wife's grandfather, whom she loved dearly, died last week after a bout of pneumonia. He was in the hospital for several days, and we knew he wouldn't recover. He was very old, his health had been failing for years, and it was clear that his time was coming. And then it came.
We took our kids to the hospital to see him before he passed. He was mostly unresponsive and couldn't speak at all, but he gave the twins a thumbs up and once reached out to touch the baby's face. We think that was his way of saying goodbye.
After our last visit, Luke finally asked if "Grampy is leaving to Heaven now." We hadn't yet told the twins that their Grampy was dying, but kids are remarkably perceptive. Luke had never seen a dying person before, he had never been told, specifically, that sickness can lead to death, yet he knew intuitively what he was witnessing. I've always believed that young children are more spiritually in-tune than adults, and these last few days have only confirmed it for me.
We explained to the twins that, yes, Grampy would be going soon because he's old and sick. Luke, ever the stickler for details, then wanted to know the particulars on how Grampy would get to Heaven. "Will he take an airplane? Will he fly like Superman? How will he get through the ceiling?" All very practical concerns.
We did our best with these questions, but I must admit I found it a little difficult to explain the concept of an immortal and invisible soul to a pre-schooler. I mean, it's hard to explain to anyone. But I was impressed and moved by how well they understood my explanations, especially when Julia, after reflecting silently for several minutes, asked the Big Question: "Why do we go to Heaven? What do we do there?"
I paused and thought about the best way to phrase this answer to a four-year-old, until I realized that the best way to phrase it to a four-year-old is the best way to phrase it to anyone: "We go to Heaven because Jesus died for us and we love Him. And that's what we do there: We love Jesus. And we're with Him forever."
"Oh! I like that! I want to go to Heaven!"
"That's great, Jules," I said. "But not yet."
As I've thought more about this exchange, I've realized that my kids, armed only with the simplest idea of Heaven, probably have a more accurate conception of what it is, and how you get there, than the vast majority of Christian adults in this country. Most of us, with our allegedly more "mature" understanding of these matters, believe one of two things:
-You get to Heaven if you do good things. Heaven is like some kind of trinket that you pick up at the prize counter at the arcade after you trade in your tokens.
-You get to Heaven if you believe in Jesus. God only requires that we intellectually assent to the mere fact of His existence, not that we really do anything about it, or let it impact our lives in any measurable way. Heaven is a reward for our passive acknowledgement of reality.
The problem with both of these ideas, equally in error, is that they allow us to relegate Christ to an insignificant auxiliary role, yet remain utterly confident in our salvation. We can make Christ an incidental part of our existence and stay nonetheless sure of our spiritual security. We never even consider the possibility that we may wind up in Hell, despite the fact that our faith is practically imperceptible in our day-to-day lives. We believe Heaven to be guaranteed, even though there is no evidence, apart from our words, that we even want to go there.
We do good things, we reassure ourselves. We believe. We'll be fine. But "believing" and being a generally nice guy don't matter on their own. What matters is to love Christ. If I don't love Christ but I still give to charity because it makes me feel good, I'm no closer to Heaven than I would be if I were a bank robber. And if I don't love Christ but I still believe that He exists and He is Lord, I am no closer to Heaven than I would be if I were an atheist. In fact, I'm probably much further away ("Even the demons believe").
St. Paul puts love above faith because a faith in God without a love for Him is empty and worthless. Heaven is not for those who merely believe in God or perform wonderful deeds in His name, but for those who truly wish to do nothing but love and serve Him for all eternity. In other words, Heaven is for those who actually want to go. And we only want to go to Heaven if we want a life that is completely consumed by Christ and nothing else. If we want a life that is only partly Christ, we don't want Heaven. We may as well admit it now while there's still time: We don't want Heaven.
If Christ is not even close to our primary joy in life, how can we go to a place where He is the only joy? If we are content to make Christ only a part of our lives here, how can we go to a place where there is no life but Him? I ask these questions of myself before I ask them of anyone else. I certainly know that my life doesn't revolve entirely around Christ at present, but the more important question I must face is this: do I want it to?
Many of us think we desire Heaven because we imagine it as a place of self-centered pleasure. We believe that the happiness of Heaven is much like the happiness we find on Earth. So, if we enjoy eating good food, watching movies, playing sports, whatever, we fantasize that Heaven will be like some sort of resort where we can eat all the cheesecake we want and have access to an infinite Netflix library and maybe toss the pigskin around with Johnny Unitas on a football field in the clouds. And if this is the only kind of happiness we desire -- a selfish, indulgent kind of happiness -- then we clearly do not desire the happiness of Heaven.
My daughter has the right idea because she wants to go to Heaven for no other reason than to be with Jesus. A couple of days after our initial conversation, I asked her what she imagines she'll be doing in Heaven once she gets there. She told me simply that she'll be "hugging Jesus" -- again demonstrating an understanding of eternal life that is far more profound, far more beautiful, and far, far more accurate than what you normally hear from adults. Julia just wants to rest in the arms of Christ, but many of us have no such desire because we love the pleasures of the world too much. Our pining for Heaven stems only from our narcissistic conception of what Heaven is all about, not from an insatiable longing to, as my daughter would say, "hug Jesus."
John Henry Newman once suggested that our attitude towards church is a pretty good indication of how much we really desire Heaven, and how much we'd actually enjoy it if we went there. As he pointed out, we cannot expect to find happiness in Heaven if we detest going to church, praying, and reading the Bible. If we find religion to be a crashing bore, and are stimulated only by what is selfish and secular, how do we think we'll fare in a place where the only things we really love are obliterated, and the one thing we always avoid must now be the center of our existence forever?
If all the things that are purely about God in this life are, to us, dull and uninteresting, and all we do is bide our time until we can get back to the TV, then Heaven would be torture. There would be no leaving God to get back to the TV. It would be only God always. If we find little appeal in spending even a few minutes with God now, how can we expect that we'll find any appeal in spending infinity with Him?
This is the problem with people who say they don't pray, attend church, or read Scripture, but they go on walks instead, or spend time with their families, or go to the beach, and that's where they "find God." It's true that God can be found in all of those things, but you can also enjoy them without thinking about God at all. There are only a few activities in life that are purely, solely, and inevitably about God and God only, and those are the activities many Christians enjoy least of all. Most of us can't stand to worship the Lord unless it's in the context of some relaxing and entertaining recreational activity, yet we still claim to desire Heaven.
No, it's not Heaven we want. It's a vacation.
This is the reason Christ tells us to give up everything and follow Him -- because we have to get ourselves accustomed to living in a way that is hinged entirely on God. For people like me, to find joy in such an existence takes practice. To desire God above all else requires spiritual exercise and conditioning. If you think you're already in the right condition, here's a good test: Drop to your knees when you get home tonight and pray. Tell me how long you last before you need to pick up your phone to scroll Facebook. I imagine if you get to the 3 minute mark, you're way above average. Can those of us who only tolerate prayer in half-hearted 180 seconds spurts seriously claim that we want nothing more than to be in communion with the Lord for eternity? Of course not.
So the solution, I think, is to work at becoming the sorts of people who find joy in what is holy and sacred. It's not a matter of "earning" Heaven -- that price has been paid -- rather, it's a matter of conditioning ourselves for it. The souls in Hell are only in Hell because they're in no condition for Heaven. It's not just a bunch serial killers and rapists down there, after all. Those are just regular people who loved themselves more than God and preferred their own enjoyment to worshiping and serving Him.
That's why, when our time comes and we stand before the throne of judgment, I imagine that God will only need to ask one question: "What do you want?" And we, for the first time, will be forced to answer honestly. I fear that a great many of us will have no choice but to look back at Him and say, "Myself, Lord. Only myself." Yet I pray, and I have hope, that you and I will be able to answer, with gratitude and joy, "You, Lord. Only you." And no matter what answer we give, God's response will be the same: "So be it."
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