Wednesday, March 21, 2012

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Russell Wicke

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Old Testament Sword

It seems too many Christians think that God’s Old Testament Law is impossible to keep, and that is the reason (they presume) it has been made obsolete. The assumption is that keeping it perfectly would result in one’s salvation, and since no one can keep it perfectly, an alternative (Jesus) was needed instead.

I have argued earlier that God’s law is indeed possible to keep, and there are people on record (both Old and New Testaments) who have done it. Yet even the people who were blameless in the God’s Law still needed His salvation. So even though it is possible to perfectly keep the law (some have done it) it will not merit salvation. Roman’s 3:20a states that no human will be justified by the works of the God’s Law.

This begs the question: What then is the Law’s purpose? The answer is in the second part of the verse: so that we will have knowledge of our sin.

So I think the better the Law is kept, the more we become aware of how much we need to be saved from certain spiritual death. That is why those who keep it best are the most humble. The process of following God’s Law uncovers the heart’s corruption; it dispels Satan’s deception that being good is good enough. But observing the Law perfectly does not change a person’s sinful nature, and that is the “fault” (Heb. 8:7, ESV) in the Old Testament Law.

But when we come to see Jesus as see a man of pure heart, upright nobility and fierce love; when we come to see him as perfect King strong in arm, violent in conflict and gentle to faint hearted; when we come to see this man willingly stripped, tortured and executed so we can escape our fate; and when we hear that he resurrected from death – and believe it, this does change our nature. It creates in us a desire to know Him who would go to such length to be with us. It creates a reciprocal love in our heart, and a willingness to be different and new. It gives us the will to invite the Holy Spirit in so we can be changed and made new. It’s like the sulfur on the tip of a match that ignites a flame. While in the body our sinful nature will still remain, but it suffers a death sentence and we are given a new will to resist our carnal nature.

This is why it would be fatal to dismiss the Old Testament Law as obsolete. It is good for more than just teaching and learning. It acts as a sword that cuts into our conscience, making us painfully aware of our desperate condition and need of a savior. Without this conviction Jesus would be nothing more to us than a dying man. His resurrection would be dismissed as a fable.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Purgatory: A Likely Reality

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotty and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
(Hamlet, 1.5.15-20)

These words come from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is here referring to his experience in Purgatory. I believe in Purgatory, but most Protestants dismiss it, I think, for two reasons:

1) Their idea of purgatory is a straw man. That is, they see it as a special holding place where Christians will be sufficiently punished for residual sin in their lives – perhaps any sin they failed to confess before dying.

2) They claim there is no scriptural support for it.

If Purgatory must be defined as Reason 1 above, then I also dismiss it. That is Purgatory’s straw man. But what if the purpose of purgatory was not punishment, but necessary adjustments of the soul (that happen to hurt)? We Christians all agree the Blood of Jesus cleans us. So why do we need to suffer when the Blood has done its work? Well, what if the application of the Blood is what hurts? What if the sinner, in his filthy state naturally experiences pain when he gets closer to a spotless and perfect God? This harmonizes with very many Christians' experiences on earth – we are even warned in the Bible that following Jesus results in suffering. C. S. Lewis, one of Christianity’s most celebrated apologists, believed there was a purgatory. He wrote:

Our souls demand Purgatory, don't they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, "It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you. Enter into the joy"? Should we not reply, "With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I'd rather be cleaned first." "It may hurt, you know"--"Even so, sir." I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done to me in this life has involved it. But I don't think suffering is the purpose of purgation. (Letters to Malcom, p. 108-109)

Grieving over his deceased wife, he also wrote:

They tell me H. is happy now . . . What makes them so sure of this? . . . why are they so sure that all anguish ends with death? 'Because she is in God's hands.' But if so, she was in God's hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why? (A Grief Observed, p. 27)

I have not yet suffered in the way Lewis describes. But his logic for the purification process hurting is sound – and that would make purgatory a real thing. I’m convinced though, if it exists, it is not for punishment's sake – not for the purpose of giving us pain. Pain would only be a side effect of the greater purpose of purification.

As for the claim that there is no scriptural support for Purgatory, I disagree. Suffering is a major theme all throughout the NT. One could say there’s no scriptural backing that all these references to suffering for Christ are only in this life. People may say the word Purgatory is not found anywhere in the Bible. But neither is Trinity, and we Christians believe in that. As for the no-more-tears promise in Revelation 21, I would point out this is specifically referring to the new creation which is in the context of the last chapters of Revelation. This new creation contextually represents a time/place not yet achieved, even for the deceased.

Yes, I believe there is such a thing as Purgatory – but it’s not the kind of purgatory that all Protestants envision.

I see it more as a process than a holding place – a process that can begin here on earth and perhaps cease some time after death outside our natural bodies. And, I think God would be holding our hand through it too, almost like a parent sooths an infant getting vaccinated. I also imagine it would be different for every person. Here’s why I think that.

I’ve noticed that Christians who have suffered in the most awful ways seem to have a firmer faith -- a deeper relationship with God and greater joy than those of us who have suffered very little. I think their suffering has much to do with their spiritual maturity and advancement. I think suffering sharpens and refines, (at least in the old order). And God, I believe, has an idea of where he wants each of us to be spiritually. I believe some people get closer to that mark while here on earth than others. They learn through their suffering here, what others don’t learn before death. So perhaps, the purification process (what Protestants call sanctification, not to be confused with justification) is complete on the other side of death. This makes sense, since everyone agrees that no person reaches perfection in this life. Those who suffered more on earth would naturally have less “polishing” to undergo than say, someone who lived a posh, comfortable life, never being forced through pain to experience harsh realities and ask hard questions.

This idea of suffering after death doesn’t bother me at all because I think of people like Dietrich Bonheoffer -- a Christian who suffered the fate of European Jews during the Holocaust because he risked his life to save them. Because he suffered greatly, his reward must be great. I compare him, and other renowned martyrs, to myself and notice the obvious differences. I have never been physically persecuted for my belief, never had to wonder where my next meal will come from and never been without air conditioned housing. I realize this and I think, “I am missing out on some real life lessons that could be of great spiritual benefit.” But then, I’m still unwilling to thrust myself into a situation that would cause suffering. I don’t want to suffer, but when I see how it shapes other people, I do want the results. If intense suffering is what made Bonheoffer and other Saints into the spiritual giants they became, there is no reason to dismiss we all might experience our share of suffering to get there – whether that be on this side of death, or the other.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tares and Wheat of the Heart

What does one do when, in the heart, vice and virtue share a common desire? – a desire that if fulfilled would result in someone else’s good, but may also secretly feed the ego and contribute to personal corruption? I suppose this sort of thing is common, yet unobserved, in many people. Over the years I have gradually become aware of it within myself, and I’m convinced this peculiar inner reality must be an old companion. I wonder if most people are like me; that is, assuming their own intentions are mostly good, and the desire to do something helpful springs chiefly from goodwill. But the human heart cannot be summed up by a cliché. There is no sleeve large enough to hold it. Instead, I am learning “The heart’s real intentions are like deep water” (Prov. 20:5). It takes an honest person to “draw out” the heart’s true motives, and my own careful introspection betrays a troubling inner reality: layers of contaminant line the bottom of my well. It settles there like sediment – long forgotten until I get bumped.

Recent events in my life have triggered this self-examination, namely a developing friendship. Through the gradual course of fellowship and conversation, my friend has learned that I am a Christian; I have learned he is a de facto pluralist. He is a skeptic, doubting that any of us can really know truth. Yet, I truly enjoy his company. The difficult situation in this case is that my ugly vice of pride along with my virtue of philia love both happen to have the same hope in mind for my new friend: that he would come to see Jesus as the Truth.

Here is how I see the vice. Much of the world’s agony can be attributed to man’s arrogance. There is a base pride people share that covertly wants other people to be like us, think like us, speak like us and looks like us. In its most potent form it consummates itself in the worst atrocities: prejudice, racism, even genocide. With most people I suppose it is kept in check by a desire to be civil and accepted. But even in the civil this vice apexes in the worst kind of attitude, an attitude that says: if you will not think like me then I reject you. This vice takes pleasure in pointing out someone else’s mistakes, or influencing a person to be more like us. There is an arrogance that thinks: if I correct him he is subordinated to me. It gives the accuser a false sense of power and security. Regretfully, I admit there is an ugly part of me like that because I feel these things at work in my own heart. I may be able to control my behavior, but I am bound to my human nature. There is a part of me that has used civility as a means to a wicked end, a part of me that wants my friend to be like me and think like me all for the wrong reasons. It is a part of me I loath – even though I know I share it with the rest of humanity.

But there is also a virtuous motive behind my hope for my friend. It doesn’t involve wanting him to be like me per se (it in fact celebrates his differences), but instead hopes for what is best for him. My reasoning starts with life’s fundamentals. First, I have observed that something has gone terribly wrong in this world. History and present-day circumstances give evidence that somehow what was meant to be straight has become severely crooked. There are global tragedies: slavery, human trafficking, murder, rape, and theft, just to name a few. Injustice abounds. Our vocabulary needs words like brutality, hypocrisy, greed, hatred, and cowardice because all those things exist. (These realities are unanimously recognized by all civilizations as bad.) Worst of all, I am confident that the thing that causes the bad, the thing gone wrong in the world, the thing that makes straight lines crooked, the thing that twists desires and corrupts beauty – that thing enters the world through me. My own worldview claims this corruption is in all people (Rom. 3:10-18), and I believe it because I experience it in my own heart. It’s discouraging to see the world as twisted and corrupt; but to see oneself as twisted and corrupt is outrageous. Even though I want to do what is right and beautiful, my corrupt nature works against that desire (Rom. 7:18).

So it comes to this: If I am to grieve over my own depravity, must not philia love lead me to grieve over corruption in others? especially those I care about? In fact, the virtuous part of me identifies with others so well that I come to see their sin and error as my own. When we accept all human corruption as a shared problem, we embrace a humility that prevents us from distinguishing someone else’s sin from our own. We will witness a crime and think mournfully, I’m capable of that. Therefore, if true love is in me, I will grieve when I see someone else’s offense just as I would grieve had I committed it myself. It’s not self-righteousness, but a love that wants to guard the innocence of a fellow human, just as I want to guard my own innocence. Therefore, when another man is guilty, I should see myself as guilty, (because without splitting hairs, I am).

This universal brokenness is evidence we desperately need help from outside this world. And, of all the holy men ever to walk on earth, Jesus is unique: he is the only one who claimed to come from the outside – the only one claiming to have a cure for what is wrong. And if he can help someone as messed up as me, I’m convinced he can help others. This is one reason why the virtuous side of me longs for my new friend to find sanctuary in Jesus. The familiar statement: “It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t hurt anybody else” is illogical. If I truly believe humanity to be on a self-destructive path, and Jesus holds the only lifeline, it would be selfish for me to be indifferent about how others think and act, even if it only hurts themselves.

So if my new friend were ever to truly know the joy of being embraced as an heir by a King, his happiness would be my happiness. My love and friendship are his without qualification. Yet nothing would delight me more than to see my friend experience a relationship with a Deity whose right hand holds “pleasures forevermore” (Psa. 16:11). I know these things are his to accept or reject. I admit it: my heart is “deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:20) but one day it will be made straight. And that is my hope for my friend.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Christian’s Place in Politics

It was Abraham Lincoln who claimed the Civil War was God’s judgment on America for its sins, namely the brutal enslavement of some 9 million Africans. No other American war was so bloody. Historians report more than 620,000 deaths in this one war – a death count so high that only the number of fatalities from all the other American wars combined rivals it. Even though only 1.5 percent of the population were actually slaveholders, all America was guilty. Lincoln’s hypothesis is consistent with God’s justice. For example, the entire nation of Israel was punished for Achan’s sin in Joshua 7. Likewise, God often held the entire nation of Israel accountable for the sins of its leadership. Ezekiel and Jeremiah are examples of righteous men who were exiled along with other Judeans for Judah’s national guilt. Yet these two men were not guilty of the apostasy that led to Judah’s exile. Although righteous men of the Old Testament didn’t favor the idea of exile, their allegiance to God gave them a zeal for justice over Israel’s prosperity (Hab. 1:3-4).

Where the Church Errs

It seems, however, among the American church many Christians are more concerned with their country’s prosperity than with the justice and glory of God. Much of the church has identified itself with the Republican Party because that happens to be the party with more conservative ideals. One problem with this is the church has made itself unapproachable to people who hold contrary political views. Another is that the church (by default) endorses unjust policies of Republicans. (It would be equal and opposite folly for the church to identify with Democrats.) For this reason, I’m convinced Christians should avoid being identified with a political party. Some Christians might argue Republicans are the lesser of two evils by claiming Democratic ideals contrast traditional conservative values. The Obama administration is an example, they would say. Here is an administration that supports abortion and gays marriage. It is also pushing a controversial health-care policy that might threaten the stability of the economy and potentially deny or delay certain kinds of care to elderly people. The Republicans believe these policies will damage America’s prosperity and leave our grandchildren to deal with the consequences -- the church jumps on board in opposition. Many Christians believe Obama's liberal policies will result in a less prosperous and morally inferior United States. They may or may not be right be right, but they have invested concern in the wrong place. I believe America’s prosperity has become an idol for many in the church and recommend a different approach to politics and national loyalty.

God Voted for Obama

Consider this: God appoints a nation’s leaders. Despite our popular vote, God ultimately claims control. In the words of Saint Paul, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (English Standard Version, Rom. 13:1). This is not an isolated idea in the Bible; Saint Peter also wrote, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:13-14). In plain words, this means God has appointed President Obama and Congress to represent America, and he expects Christians to honor them. It’s not as if God planned to put John McCain in office and the American people usurped his will with a vote. God “voted” for Obama, and that's what landed him in the Oval Office. With that we are to be subject to his policies.

Mercy in Ruin

I’m not claiming all authorities reflect God’s righteousness. There were 19 kings God appointed over Israel's Northern Kingdom and all of them were evil. (God often uses evil to bring about good for his glory.) Incidentally, the Northern Kingdom collapsed under the Assyrian army in 722 B.C., and Judah, who also harbored evil kings, was crushed under Babylon in 586 B.C. God had a calculated purpose for the exile of Israel. The whole world benefited. This is one reason why I’m convinced God is less concerned with a nation’s welfare than he his with the spiritual health of its people. All nations are temporal, but individual souls are eternal. The Bible claims that riches can frustrate spiritual progress. When it becomes a person’s ultimate goal to build wealth (a typical Republican idea), that person might find himself in direct opposition to God’s will.

Fear God. Honor the Emperor.

To be sure, there are biblical examples where resisting leadership is an obligation. These, however, are limited to situations where a leader commands an individual to commit a specific act of evil. This hardly applies to the masses in America. None of us will find ourselves being commanded by Obama to abort our children. Regarding America’s leaders, God’s expectations for the people are simple: obey the laws and be respectful. None of our laws command evil. Peter concludes the matter this way: “Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 17b). This doesn’t mean we are expected to endorse every policy, but obedience in quiet humility goes a long way.

Taxes Funding Abortion?

Some Christians will object, saying for example, if their tax dollars fund abortions it is tantamount to aiding and abetting. But whose money is it? The widely accepted idea is that taxes belong to the people and the government is only a steward. Jesus offered a different perspective when he said of taxes, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21a). In other words, currency printed by government belongs to government. In context, this could mean all of one’s income belongs to their country. The money is not their own. Therefore, the Christian position should be that taxes never belonged to us anyway. Government officials will give an account to God on how they spend tax dollars, not the tax payers. The point is this: a submissive approach to government (regardless of the party in power) is expected of Christians. That attitude is what makes Christians beyond reproach.

Give to God the Things that are God's

Conversely, when a Christian devotes his life energy to a political cause, the implicit goal is usually to further the prosperity of the nation. (And that is best-case scenario; often people do it for personal gain.) A life commitment to a political party is dangerously close to idolatry. Jesus qualified his statement on paying taxes to Caesar by saying, “[give] to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21b). What then are the things we render to God? Well, Jesus’ justification for paying taxes was this: Caesar’s likeness is imprinted on the currency. Therefore, things that belong to God are things that have his likeness imprinted on them; namely, oneself. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God” (53). It is God who deserves our faithful service and undivided allegiance, not a political party. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans should be given what belongs to God.

Disaster as a Doorway

So if, like in 1865, America’s destruction is necessary to bring about God’s justice and glory, then may every city be razed to the ground. I do not want to be misunderstood; America is my native land and I love my country and people. I want us to prosper. But my patriotism takes a decided back seat to God’s will – and he knows best. Perhaps hardship and widespread hunger is exactly what Americans need to be awakened from a greedy slumber. Perhaps he will use a leader as his rod. Perhaps that discipline would be a doorway to a better future for our children. Perhaps.

National calamity may or may not be God’s agenda for America; I hope it is not. But since we cannot know for sure what God is doing, our opposition to a political party should be limited to a vote. When leadership is appointed, the best thing a Christian can do is pray for just governing. But if that governing is unjust and results in disaster, so be it. That might be the very thing America needs.

Monday, March 29, 2010

On Personal Illusions and a Chisel

Five days had passed since my daughter was born, and her guts still hung out of her body like tangled rope from a spool. All of Chloe’s intestines were suspended above her in a plastic silo the size of a tube sock. Her four-pound frame lay naked under a heat lamp – aware, hungry, scared. Her infant face had the peculiar look of an older child and not a baby, because (I presume) it lacked the pudginess common to babies. Perhaps also, her trauma contributed to her mature-looking countenance. Her face was marked with what looked like years of hardship. It was stoic.

When my wife was fourteen weeks pregnant, the doctors told us what was wrong with Chloe. Our daughter had a condition called gastroschisis: a birth defect where the fetus’s skin fails to completely form over the bowel. One out of every 5,000 babies is born with gastroschisis, and Chloe won that lottery. “The good news,” said the surgeon “is that it is correctable. This surgery has a high success rate and most children born with gastroschisis recover and grow up like normal.” That was reassuring.

My wife and I spent the next few months learning all about this condition. We read about the surgical procedures, looked up success statistics, and viewed images and diagrams. We watched personal testimonies on YouTube from other families who experienced gastroschisis and we studied papers the doctors gave us. Since nearly all of the information suggested a low fatality rate and complications, we felt we were prepared for the challenge.

But nothing prepared us for what I was now struggling with: a personal, intimate witness of my own child’s suffering. For hours and days, I watched her bony hips writhe in discomfort and her hands expand and contract with tension. Her voice was faint, but the miserable squeaks she produced always raked my heart to ribbons. We were unable to console, comfort or even explain to her what was happening. Her suffering was great, and consequently, so was ours. All the favorable statistics, testimonies and pictures meant little to me as I watched my daughter struggle through her first five weeks of life. I thought I knew what gastroschisis was before she was born, but none of the facts or data could have taught me the experience I was enduring. For days I watched her twitch and recoil from human touch, gag over a tube that emptied bile from her stomach, and live off intravenous feedings. All this while her intestines were gradually pushed back in like toothpaste from a tube.

I was ungraceful in how I dealt with this. I became argumentative with my wife and my moods were always changing and extreme. One moment I was crimson with anger, the next I was despondent and depressed. It was the most I’d ever suffered.

I remember when I was a teenager having an acute fear of dying. At the age of 19, I became a Christian and quite suddenly, I no longer feared death. But whenever I became anxious about a circumstance or problem, fellow Christians would try to console me with a trite reminder. They would say, “We have nothing to worry about. We know how it all ends.” For a few years I grumbled a half-hearted response to this and felt guilty about my anxiety. As I became more honest with myself, I admitted openly there was little comfort in that promise – especially when there seemed to be a stretch of misery to endure until then. In defiance I let no one comfort me when I felt this way. “There are” I said, “no easy answers to suffering, and I resent all attempts to explain it.” Incidentally the issues I was dealing with then seem quite shallow to me now.

In my mid twenties I began to see a different angle of suffering, thanks to C. S. Lewis. In one of his books Lewis recorded his struggle over the death of his wife. He explained that his anger at God for his wife’s death was a painful realization that his prior convictions were merely a house of cards. In his reasoning he wrote, “I had been warned – I had warned myself – not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings […] I’ve got nothing I hadn’t bargained for” (36). He admitted that his wife’s death didn’t change any of the universe’s current problems; worse things happened daily. Therefore, that foreknowledge begged the question: Why is my reaction to this tragedy a contrast to the rest of the world’s tragedies? His conclusion was that his convictions were like an imaginary rope he never had to trust with his life. The thing that would bring him to his senses was a situation that would force him to test out his supposed rope. He said, under the trial, he realized his rope didn’t bear his full weight.

This was my first step in realizing suffering just might have a beneficial purpose. Lewis wrote, “Nothing less will shake a man – or at any rate a man like me – out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses” (38). In other words, one can’t correct faulty thinking without first realizing it is has faults. After pondering these thoughts I still avoided suffering whenever possible (I still do). But perhaps there is something to be learned, particularly about oneself, in suffering. Even before Chloe was born I had the facts on gastroschisis. But those facts couldn’t reveal my own disagreeable temperaments. It doesn’t make suffering easier to know it may draw out my own vices, but I think the honest person will value progress and enlightenment more than comfort and illusion. Nothing, in fact, brings to light better what is truly in one’s heart than a trial. It seems people don’t even know themselves until they are tried and found wanting – and suddenly their own illusions about who they are must be faced.

Is personal progress then the meaning of suffering? I don’t presume to suggest such an easy answer to such a difficult enigma. But I don’t think it unreasonable to believe suffering might sometimes be a tool God uses on His people like a chisel. Most of us would admit there are some parts of our character that needs to go. Physical amputations and surgeries hurt – there’s no reason to doubt a spiritual parallel to amputation would feel any better.

Cited: C. S. Lewis. A Grief Observed.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Suffering in the Kingdom

Rejoicing and celebration are often thoughts that go along with the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven. There are devout Christians, however, who through their experiences have found God’s Kingdom to be the antithesis of jubilation. For example, C. S. Lewis argued, “If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God … If it is consistent with hurting us, then He may hurt us after death as unendurably as before it” (27-28).

In order to make sense of this, the biblical idea of human nature must be taken into consideration. And that is all people, every man, woman and child, are inclined toward evil and in resistance of God (Eph. 2:3). So then, the natural state of man is to resist God. If left alone, we would naturally want nothing to do with Him. In our rebellious state, God can offer us nothing we desire. Heaven would be of no value to us because the natural order of business there involves something other than the self as the center. Since true joy is found outside the self, the nature of a person needs an overhaul before it can desire Heaven. And, just as no plant can uproot itself, no person can change the self in this way. This overhaul requires God’s intervention.

But, just as most theologians would argue, this intervention does not happen at death; it happens while we occupy this husk, this body of dust. And just like any surgery on the body (that is, something outside cutting in), there is a fair amount of pain and grief involved in the soul with the spiritual equivalent of surgery. This correction is painful. It is required becaue our hearts are out of order.

This suffering for having a heart out of order, though unpleasant, is actually desirable for the regenerated Christian. Though Christians still experience sinful inclinations, their chief (new) desire is supernatural; that is, to be in relationship with their King. It isn’t heaven that a Christian yearns for. It is a person, a relationship, namely Jesus. A good example comes from the Antebellum Puritan Anne Bradstreet. She wrote, “I have thought if the Lord would but lift up the light of His countenance upon me, although he ground me to powder, it would be but light to me, it would be heaven.” So I submit it is better to have oneself derailed and suffering, than to continue in ignorant bliss down a track that ultimately leads a person from his true Love.

Christian thinkers often argue it is the presence of the Creator that makes heaven a desired place, and not the riches there. That is, were Jesus absent, a soul would feel the misery of hell. This is what Bradstreet explicitly claimed when she wrote, “could I have been in heaven without the love of God, it would have been a hell to me, for in truth it is the absence and presence of God that makes heaven or hell.” This seems accurate when considering the chief aim of the regenerated Christian is not a location, but Jesus himself. Everyone experiences this in their relationships. It is often relationships that make material objects and places enjoyable and meaningful. It is one’s relationships with other people that make certain geographic places vibrant and heavenly, and not those places in and of themselves. When I think back on a place in this world with nostalgia, it is usually a place where I shared a special time with another person, my mother, my friends, and my wife. To go back to that place, by myself, would not bring back the joy. The place represents the joy of the relationships.

This mindset, then, when followed to its logical end will conclude that heaven is not the chief desire of the Christian. Heaven is certainly not limited to the New Creation state, foreseen in the Bible, that lacks pain, sorrow and tears, (Revelation 21). If heaven is truly defined for the Christian as the presence of God, then one surely can have attained heaven in this life, amidst trials, suffering and death. That is because Jesus claims to be with his people on earth, and more literally, the Holy Spirit is in them. Jesus implicitly claimed wherever he is, there is the kingdom of heaven, (Matt. 10:7). And, as long as a Christian is in his present condition, (that is, with imperfection, sinful impulses and wanton desires,) being in the kingdom will result in suffering. That is because imperfections result in conflicts with God and He will work on a person until all imperfections are chiseled out. Or, as Lewis put it, a person must be “knocked silly before he comes to his senses” (38). And even then, no person reaches perfection before death; every person is a work in progress.

Therefore, to be a child of God means to suffer, because the sinful condition has corrupted the soul. And, since a state of corruption is disagreeable to one who yearns for righteousness, the painful discipline of God becomes an asset. It makes a person better, even in this life. In another book, Lewis argued the same point from personal experience: “most real good that has been done me in this life has involved [suffering].”

And, since Jesus is the one directly involved in the sinner’s purification, being in the Kingdom of Heaven (albeit, in a pre-New Creation state) involves abundant suffering – it, in fact, demands it.

Note: C. S. Lewis quotations came from Letters to Malcom and A Grief Observed.