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.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Russell,
You are a fantastic writer. It is a gift.