Matthew 9:36 – “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.”
James 1:27 – “…to visit orphans and widows in their distress…”
“When you’re up to your hips in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your original purpose was to drain the swamp.” Likewise, earth’s many difficulties can make it even harder to remember our purpose for being here in the first place. Part of that purpose is to drain the earth of its forgetfulness of heaven. For when we remember heaven, all the difficulties of earth lose their bite.
Heaven: the Reason We’re on Earth
In this series of essays, beginning with the post Everyone Is Going to Heaven, we’ve listened to the promise of heaven that God gave us through the prophets and apostles who spoke for the Lord and gave us the Bible (for more, see the post Why the Bible Can Be Trusted). We then examined the reasons for this promise. We learned that creation is a war between good and evil, and that God has plans for us to win it. After considering this cause, we dwelt upon the consequences that reverberate from our lives, and how, through God’s love, we can overcome even the worst of them. We thought through the importance of our motives, which precede and shape our actions, and how having a method for being conscious of God helps us put to good use all that we know of Him. This is the message of heaven. It’s the reason we’re here.
It was a problem in heaven that gave rise to our creation. It was God’s love to and through humanity that solved that problem and cleared the skies so that we could safely return home. As you have seen, if it weren’t for heaven, we wouldn’t be here in the first place and if it weren’t for heaven we’d have no place to go when this life is over. Thus heaven can’t be seen, but it’s the very reason for everything that can be seen.
Walking through life in the sight of heaven is the way God wants us to live. It’s a life that is above us, but He is willing to lift us to it. And He is willing to keep lifting us back up as we fall. Walking through the day’s activities with heaven on our minds is both possible and profitable. Of course, I’m not just talking about heaven as the place we go when we die, but also as the place that watches us while we live. Whoever said “being heavenly minded is being no earthly good” must have only understood heaven as a destination and not a dimension. Even as destination, however, heaven has a redeeming effect on our minds because the anticipation of summer vacation can be half the fun – especially when it’s forty below where you are.
But heaven is a dimension as well as a destination and that dimension is full of meaning for today. The mundane concerns of life aren’t to be a departure from spiritual activities. Remembering God while we do all these things transforms the mundane into the spiritual. Thus all the activities of our lives become spiritual activities. The culmination of allowing this light of heaven to shine on all we do is that life itself becomes a spiritual activity. This is precisely what life was meant to be. God has been nudging us toward this understanding from the very beginning.
The “waking” of all those who were “sleeping” in Sheol/Hades is a metaphor for life today. As the dead were raised from their slumber, so we the “living dead” are being raised from ours. Our slumber is a dullness to heaven, a drowsiness that keeps us from recognizing it and living in the light of it. Hardly anyone who believes in God disagrees that He is everywhere present and knows all things. Yet our minds have restricted the conscious awareness of Him to certain buildings and specific occasions (at least this is what most of those who organize religion would have us think). Thus most of the day we walk around unconscious of His watching us and caring about us. The “sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2) has risen, as the prophets foretold. It’s long past time for us to wake up to heaven!
Waking Up Includes Repentance
We can only maintain our walk in the light of heaven if we let heaven cleanse of us our sinful ways. That is, knowing that Jesus is watching everything we think, say, and do, we must only think, say, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. If we aren’t willing to make this fundamental change in our way of living, the light of heaven will not stay on for us. By that, I mean that it will recede into the darkness of our forgetfulness. We cannot cling to sin and maintain an awareness of a holy God.
For most of us, sin (that is, selfishness) is so pervasive in our lives that repentance cannot be accomplished all at once. We start with the sins of which we are acutely aware. If we successfully repent of those, God will reveal our more subtle sins to us. We do not realize the depth of sin’s stain on our lives until we enter into the process of removing it.
All sin is lawlessness of the heart – that is, conducting our thought life out from under authority. The first step in repentance is to acknowledge Jesus as Lord of our thoughts. If we would think only those things that He would think, then we begin our redemption. We will be tempted to forsake our repentance: “Why are you trying to be so righteous when no one else is?” We must persevere in our quest to please Him with everything we think, say, and do. Where then do we start? Here’s some help.
Husbands, Love Your Wives
Do not merely love your wife outwardly, love her with every thought you have about her. Give her a special place in your heart and do not put any other woman close to it. Do not entertain lustful thoughts. Seek every day to love your wife more than you did the day before. Nurture her and care for her as part of yourself, the better part.
Wives, Love Your Husbands
Show respect to your husband for it is an aspect of love that nourishes him. Do not demean him, belittle him, or joke about him. Never share his secrets with anyone. Be content with him and build him up by your support.
Couples, Do Not Divorce
Marriage is for one man with one woman for one lifetime. Death of a spouse is license to remarry, but not divorce. Nevertheless, if you have remarried after divorce do not divorce again. Whomever you are married to now is your spouse until death do you part. The tearing asunder of marriage is the tearing asunder of what God has joined together.
Parents, Love Your Children
Many parents have come to care more about their reputation as parents than they do about their children. It matters not whether anyone else thinks you’re a good parent; it doesn’t even matter if your child thinks you’re a good parent. It only matters if God thinks you are a good parent. Make sacrifices for your children that only God can see, and God will reward you openly in only ways that He can.
Children, Honor Your Parents
God gave you your parents as His representatives until you grow enough to relate to Him as your Father. Therefore, until you are conscious of Him as your Father, honor your parents. Once you are conscious of God as your Father, you will always honor your parents for that is His will. Your parents may not always be right, but they will always be your parents.
Teenagers, Honor Your Parents
You encounter more temptations as a teenager than you did as a younger child. Resist them. Continue to honor your parents with your obedience. The only time you should ever disobey them is if they tell you to disobey God – which is rare. Save sex for marriage, for that is the only place in which it is holy. Honor your parents instead of the crowd, for your parents usually want you to do the right thing and the crowd usually wants you to do the wrong thing. Peer pressure does not haunt only teenagers, it haunts all adults as well. Resist it now and you will be better able to resist it as an adult.
Employees, Serve Your Employers
Give a full day’s work for a full day’s pay. Do not shortchange your employer because it is easy to do so. Do not steal time, money, supplies, services, or anything else from your employer. Treat your employer as if you were working for God Himself. Give the very best of yourself every day. Do not steal from your family’s time to serve your employer, but give your employer all that is rightfully your employer’s.
Employers, Do Not Lord It Over Your Employees
Just because you are the boss does not mean you are better or more important than any employee. Treat every one as if he or she was Jesus of Nazareth Himself working for you. Be respectful of their needs and treat each one with dignity.
We Must All Repent
Jesus of Nazareth was the only human who never needed to repent and yet He submitted Himself to the path of repentance (because He was identifying with us). Since all of us need to repent, we must repent – that is, live a life of repentance and humility before God. We do not repent so that we can get into heaven; we repent because we are going to heaven and don’t want to have to hang our heads in shame when we get there.
The world today (that is, the source of peer pressure on adults and teenagers) is going the wrong direction. It always has been. It has been running away from God, running away from heaven. In this life you can either win the approval of the world or win the approval of heaven. Which will you seek – passing pleasure or eternal joy?
Do not think that if you live a life of repentance that you will be sorrowful. There is indeed a sorrow we feel for our sins, but God continually converts that sorrow to joy as we amend our ways and walk with Him. Truly this is the kingdom of God that He has given us for life on this earth: righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
This kingdom is worthy of our pursuit. It is the pearl of great price. It can be sought and found in this life. Going to heaven when you die – that is assured. Whether you will attain the kingdom in this life on this earth – well, that depends on what you do with the knowledge of God that you have.
End of the Book
Relating to Others in the Presence of God
The kind of living I’ve been describing is what the apostle Paul called “walking in the spirit.” It’s living daily life in the awareness of the spiritual dimension. It’s heaven-on-earth-in-your-heart. It’s not a way of behaving. It’s a way of thinking that affects your behaving. It’s an attitude that seeks to recognize and honor the always present Creator.
What Others Think About God’s Omnipresence and Nature
If the whole world consisted of just you and God, you could probably get a grip on this kind of thought life a lot quicker. The reality is, however, that we are social creatures and live in a shared world. And it’s obvious from the behavior we see that many people don’t think a loving, virtuous, all-powerful God is all around them at all times. Shoplifters shoplift when they think no one is looking. Hoodlums ransack when they think no one’s around. Once again we see that behavior is altered based on who else is present. And it’s clear from these behaviors that, at least for those moments, God was considered as absent as anyone else.
So, how do you live in a world where God is everywhere present, but not everyone takes the idea as seriously as you do? You live your inward life no differently than if you were the only person in the world. Walking in the spirit is by nature a personal mental habit. If others around you also engage in it, you’re not relieved from practicing it; you still have to think for yourself. If others around you don’t embrace the idea, you can still engage in it without their approval or support.
God’s idea is to influence our behavior from within – not enforce it from without. The whole nature and thrust of the way of life Jesus left us is based in personal, individual motivation. Whenever people have sought to enforce it from without, behavior only gets worse. The Sermon on the Mount deals with issues like hatred, anger, lust, and so on. These things can’t be regulated from anywhere but within. This doesn’t mean that we don’t try to form and share common moral values as a society. It’s very important that we do. But getting into religious quarrels distracts us from moral questions. What then, someone will ask, about organized religion?
The only organized religion ever required by the Bible was that of ancient Israel, and the requirements laid down by Moses for the physical descendants of Abraham. This religion, which included a temple for animal sacrifice, was no longer needed once the kingdom of heaven came.
As we shed our winter coats when summer comes, so God’s brand of organized religion was shed when the kingdom of heaven came (for more on when and how this happened, see the post Jesus Christ Has Already Come Again). The church written about in the New Testament was like springtime: helping people make a gradual transition from the winter of a physical temple to the summer of a God who could be approached anywhere, with no sacrificial gift but one’s self. (For more, see the post The Kingdom of God Is Here and Now.) As for this bridge, the church of the New Testament was not an organization – it was a movement. Out of that movement have come organizations, but there will never be another church like that one (for more, see the post Seeking the Kingdom of God Instead of Church or Church Is Not the Answer.)
I recognize that church today is not the only expression of organized religion, but I trust you are making the translation to synagogue, mosque, or whatever other form of organized religion with which you are most familiar.
The solution to our problems is not in organized religion but rather in the person of God – Jesus Himself. If we live for Him, and remain conscious of Him, we will have power over sin in our lives. Organized religion, by contrast, has no power over sin. When I was a pastor, I had men tell me that they had compulsions for pornography. However, the very fact that they didn’t flip through the magazines while they were sitting in church proves that they were completely able to control their behavior. If they truly had no control over their compulsions, they would have looked at the magazines in my presence. Or in their wives’ presence. Or in their mother’s presence. True compulsion wouldn’t care who was around. When we hide our evil behavior we prove we can control it. Let me say that again for emphasis’ sake: When we hide our evil behaviors we prove that we can control them.
Acknowledging the eyes of heaven would have kept those men controlling their behavior…if they truly loved those eyes. Organized religion cannot give you the kind of attention that God does. If organized religion is the way you worship and serve God, you will never have complete power over sin. If, however, you live for Jesus Christ and continually acknowledge His omniscience and omnipresence you can break free from your sins.
The people involved in organized religion face the same temptations, make the same mistakes, live with the same weaknesses…and end up in the same heaven as everyone else. The behavior of the people involved in organized religion is not noticeably better than the people of society at large. Divorce, child abuse, and almost every other sin you see in society at large manifests itself among churchgoers, too. The reason for this is that faith in organized religion is misplaced. Our faith must be in God for it to have power.
Beyond Religion…Organized and Otherwise
If you honestly believe that God is omnipresent and omniscient (and who doesn’t believe that?!), you don’t need to go anywhere, or join any group, in order to find Him…or to be more spiritual. If you think God is more present in some places than others or if you think He’s more present during some occasions than others, you may be only stunting your own spiritual growth. The spirituality that the Bible promotes for those who live in the day of Christ (which includes us) requires no special places or occasions. It requires no compliance from others. You can practice it all by yourself. In fact, you have to practice it by yourself. It’s personal and inner-driven. This is faith.
At various places in this book, I’ve pointed out that heaven isn’t just a place, it’s a dimension. It’s a dimension beyond what we can see, but it’s no farther away than our noses. It’s found in the unseen aspect of our lives. Look around you right now. All that you can see is sustained and animated by all you can’t see. Flesh clothes spirit. Each of us is a microcosm of the universe, for our bodies clothe our inner – and unseen – beings.
We Are Already Spiritual
All of us are spiritual – we can’t help it. If you’re conscious, you’re spiritual…because thoughts are spiritual things. We don’t often recognize how pervasive spiritual things are. Most people, when asked to list the spiritual aspects of their lives, would list prayer, and if they were involved in organized religion they’d list those activities. In other words, they’d list activities which are taken on in addition to the normal activities everyday living requires. The Bible, however, considers spirituality an aspect of work, an aspect of family life, an aspect of prayer. Spirituality, from the Bible’s point of view, is the unseen side of things. Like the radio transmission waves that fill the air around us, so the spiritual dimension is something that exists all around us. You can’t get away from it.
Since God is everywhere, you don’t have to go somewhere to find Him. He’s here with me; He’s there with you. If you take this idea seriously, it can transform every moment of your life. Most people just pay the idea lip service and never act on it.
God is at your workplace. It doesn’t matter if people cuss, if there are lewd pictures on the wall, or if the mere mention of Jesus’ name in a respectful way makes everyone nauseated – He’s still there. We have a hard time taking the “He’s everywhere” notion seriously because the scenes we see in life often seem incompatible with what we know of Him. Yet one of the things we should learn from the crucifixion of Jesus is that God can be present in the most gruesome and ungodly of circumstances.
We have this unspoken assumption that God is so powerful that He wouldn’t put up with some of the scenes we face. That’s why we picture Him more present in a majestic landscape or beautiful building than we do in our living room when everyone’s arguing about what television show to watch. The crucifixion scene also shows us that what God doesn’t enjoy, He endures. He doesn’t like rejection any more than we do. But He’s able to put up with a lot more of it because He loves people so much. Therefore, we should recognize that He is indeed present everywhere – even in life’s worst moments.
Being Sensitive to Others
Each of us is sensitive to the presence of others. We alter our behavior based on whom we are around. Granted, some of us are more sensitive than others, but all of us are sensitive to some degree. Most of us, for example, change our clothes in private. If a stranger walked in on us we’d alter our behavior instantly – we wouldn’t even need time to think. Most of us also alter our behavior in more subtle ways.
Let’s say you are married and that you and your spouse are having lunch at a restaurant with another couple. Your spouse says something that upsets you. Instead of speaking right up about it, you will probably think first to see if it’s something that should be spoken of later in private. In other words, you don’t want to embarrass the other couple. Out of respect for them, you keep your cool. You restrain what you say for their sake.
The point is the restraint and who you’re restraining yourself for – not what you’re restraining. Let’s say, instead of being upset with your spouse, that you become unusually pleased. Maybe you have a thought that makes you remember a particular reason why you hold your spouse so dear. You are overwhelmed with affection. You will probably restrain that, too, for the sake of the other couple. The urge to kiss, the urge to say something very intimate and private – these are thoughts you will suppress for the sake of the other people present. It’s simply a matter of being sensitive to what makes others comfortable or uncomfortable.
Not only does the presence of others cause us to restrain certain behavior, it also causes us to release certain behavior. If a local singer has been told that a big city talent scout is in the audience, there is likely to be a little more effort put into the performance. If a little girl knows that her grandparents are seated in the front row at the dance recital, she’s probably going to put more energy into her routine than if her grandparents had stayed home. The singer and the little girl are energized by the interest shown them. And if they see their prized witnesses beam, the energy just intensifies.
It’s possible for us to practice this same sensitivity toward God. We have all the facts that we need. We know He’s present. We know He sees all of us – from the clothes and skin right down to the deepest thoughts and motives. He’s a person – a wonderful person whose approval we’d like to have. While we don’t yet know everything about Him, we know enough to gauge some of His general likes and dislikes. This knowledge will guide us to restrain certain behaviors and release others. We know that He won’t immediately reject us if we happen to do something He dislikes. Best of all, we know that we have the power to do what He does like – that is, we have the power to make Him beam! That’s a power than energizes us even more.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Being aware that God is everywhere, and caring about His opinion of you, will transform your behavior like nothing else. It will give your life a new dimension. Spirituality ceases to be an activity you engage in, and becomes a way you engage in all your activities. This is the transforming power of heaven.
If you can be sensitive to other people’s presence, you can be sensitive to God’s presence. It’s just a matter of recognizing the differences between God and other people. That God can’t be seen is the first difference, for you usually can see the other people in your presence. That God can see everything about you is the second difference, for people are limited in what they can see of you physically and spiritually. That God is the paragon of all virtue is the third difference, for the rest of us can only strive for that ideal. Keep these three differences in mind and then simply show the sensitivity to God that you show to other people.
In practicing this method of relating to God, you haven’t adopted some strange new theological concept. You’ve simply made practical an idea that is widely acknowledged to be true: that there is one God, invisibly present everywhere and knowing all things. You might think that disciplining ourselves to remember this God shouldn’t be necessary, but it’s part of the freedom we’ve been granted on this earth. That is, we have the freedom to think the way we want. If we want to think more about God, we have to do it. He will not make us.
In case you haven’t noticed, the natural course of the world is just to forget God. In fact, God is the easiest person in the world to ignore. Most of us respond negatively when we’re ignored. We walk away or we complain or we ignore in return. God just keeps on loving, keeps on staying, keeps on planning to take us to heaven. It’s wonderful that He’s so committed to us, but the downside is that it makes Him so easy to forget. That’s why we have to rework our method of daily thinking to include Him.
The method I’m presenting to you therefore isn’t so much a new method, but an adjustment to the method you already live by. It’s an alteration of your consciousness to incorporate God. Almost without thinking, we adjust our consciousness of others as they come in and out of our presence or as we go in and out of theirs. God is omnipresent and that requires a more permanent adjustment. This adjustment is hard to make; that’s why I say it takes practice. It’s so difficult that you will fail at remembering God far more than you succeed at it – especially in the early stages. But every moment that you do remember Him will be a moment that transforms you. And the more of these moments you accumulate, the more transformed will be your day.
What gives this method particular transforming power is the nature you ascribe to this ubiquitous God. In other words, what do you think He’s like? For without some sense of what the other person is like, we don’t fully know just how to be sensitive. If you know a person hates jokes, for example, you won’t regale them with stories from the latest humor book you’ve found. If you know your friend hates beans, you’re not going to prepare a bean salad for lunch. Therefore, the likes and dislikes of the person are crucial to your being sensitive to that person.
The best way to think of God’s character is to think of Jesus. Consider what would make Him smile or frown. Let Jesus be the face of God to you, for that’s just what He was intended to be. (For further help, see the post Practicing the Presence of Christ.)
Relating to God
Knowing that God has promised everyone heaven, knowing that there are important reasons for our being here on earth, knowing that there are consequences to all our behavior, and knowing that God regards our motives as paramount, all combine to give us a reason for waking up in the morning. We’re going to heaven and this very day brings us one step closer!
We don’t, however, have to wait until we get to heaven to enjoy a relationship with Him. On the contrary, knowing that we’re all going to heaven makes relating to God now all the more attractive. Anyone who’s that gracious is worth getting to know better…right away. And knowing that heaven is assured, means we don’t have to worry about saying or doing something that will cause Him to back out of the relationship. Since He’s promised us heaven, He’s obviously in this thing for the long haul!
A relationship with God, therefore, doesn’t suffer as much potential for breakdown as human relationships we’ve encountered. Ungraciousness and abandonment are all too common. Right off the bat, then, we know that a relationship with God is going to be different. Those differences sometimes so disorient people that they despair of a goodrelationship with God. If we patiently accept the building blocks of knowledge God has given us, however, we can come to an understanding that transforms life itself into a personal relationship with God.
Perceiving a Personal God
God divided each of our lives into connected little segments called days. Many people recognize that life is best lived in one of these segments at a time. Much more than that and we humans get overwhelmed. Even with the message of heaven, life is still best lived one day at a time. So, how will we live this day before us knowing that we’re going to heaven? Differently.
This difference is not one that others always see in us, for it’s a difference inconsciousness. The method of living that the message of heaven inspires is a change in our daily thinking. This begins with the way we perceive our everyday surroundings.
We know that our physical surroundings are governed by laws. If I let go of my pencil, it will fall to the floor. The law of gravity makes sure of that. I don’t go around meditating on the law of gravity. It’s simply a part of my understanding about how life works. Therefore, if I’m carrying something breakable and precious I try to be very careful. Only on such special occasions does the law of gravity loom large in our minds. The operation of such laws are so constant that we can come to regard our surroundings as something of a machine. This makes creation seem impersonal to us.
The Bible is constantly sounding out the message, however, that behind the physical creation is a personal God. The Bible says that we humans were made in His image. The Bible also attributes to God the kinds of thoughts and feelings that we have. It further encourages us to imitate Him, something impossible to do if God is an impersonal force. The ultimate statement that God is personal comes when Jesus of Nazareth is understood to have been God in the flesh. His life, suffering, and death were intensely personal.
We must now rethink the scene surrounding us and recognize that a personal God lies behind all those laws. This shouldn’t be too difficult. If you had a parent who was faithful and dependable, you have someone to compare with God. A loving parent can be very warm and personal but also operate in ways that have all the consistency of laws. This may show up in a regularity of schedule, a strictness of discipline, a predictability of temperament, or something else. Therefore, constant physical laws and a personal God controlling them don’t necessarily conflict.
It does become a little more difficult to imagine a personal God running the universe when we see a little child fall off a bridge and drown. A loving father would jump off the bridge and rescue the child. When God, who is able to do far more than dive in, doesn’t prevent the child’s death, we begin to question whether God is personal, or whether He even exists. But if we remember what we’ve learned about the purpose of the creation and that the child is going to heaven at the moment of death, we can mesh in our minds an unyielding physical law with a merciful personal God. This doesn’t explain all the mystery of that scene, but it’s a good foundation with which to start.
Therefore, we live the day not before impersonal forces of creation, but before a personal God. It takes effort to build this into our thinking. Our normal state of mind has God as impersonal. This is not a conscious perception. If someone asks us if we believe God is personal, the idea then looms large in our minds and we affirm it. But that’s a different matter from carrying that idea around in our moment-by-moment consciousness – a point I’ll be emphasizing again and again.
Perceiving a Relating God
Not only do we want to redeem our daily consciousness from the assumption that God is impersonal, we also want to redeem it from the idea that God is distant. To do this, we simply have to give more attention to a couple of facts about Him that are already widely known. Little children say, “God is everywhere.” Theologians call that omnipresence. Little children also say, “He knows everything.” Theologians call that omniscience.
Let’s get a grip on this “omni” stuff. If God is everywhere and knows everything then He’s obviously not wanting to be separated from us. If He didn’t want to associate with us, why would He plant Himself in such a way that He could never avoid us? If He thought He was too good for us, He’d go where we weren’t. And if He didn’t want to hear all our problems, He’d fix it so He didn’t know everything. This “omni” stuff speaks volumes about God’s desire to consciously relate to each of us – if we think it through.
Think about this, too: How is it that we know He’s everywhere and knows everything? Sure, many people proclaim these facts about Him. But who told them? And why is it that on these points their voices resonate within us and find little argument with our deepest instincts? The only reasonable answer is that God has been spreading the word about Himself, not just through human voices, but through His own voice, deep in all human hearts. We couldn’t know of His omnipresence and omniscience if He didn’t want us to know about them. The fact that He has spread the word about Himself indicates that His omnipresence is not for the sake of secretly bugging all our conversations. If you just want to quietly spy on someone, you don’t tell them where you are. Broadcasting your presence is an invitation for contact!
Now catch this: If you’ve already heard the word about God not just from human voices but from your own heart, then you already have a relationship with Him. You’ve already “heard” Him talk to you. The very fact that your heart sounds an agreement with the idea of one true God is evidence of His having touched you. Therefore, you don’t need to be introduced to God. You already know Him. It’s just a matter of getting to know Himbetter than you already do.
Relating to God isn’t our idea, it’s His. He is the pursuer and we are the pursued. It’s so much easier to build a relationship when you have no doubts about the other person’s interest. God has taken the initiative; all we have to do is reciprocate. And because of His initiative, the relationship has already been launched. Therefore, relating to God is simply a matter of our being more responsive to Him.
In this regard, I think often of Helen Keller. When 19 months old, she was stricken by a disease that left her blind and deaf. When she was seven years old her parents employed for her a teacher, Anne Sullivan. The story of Helen’s relationship with Anne was reenacted in a play called The Miracle Worker. From a later television adaptation I recall seeing Helen in a temper tantrum, struggling against Anne’s gentle but firm grip. Anne patiently wrestled with Helen, never breaking the child’s spirit. After many such sessions, Anne was able to tap a code for the alphabet in the child’s hand, leading to direct communication. Once able to communicate with Anne, Helen overcame her temper tantrums and went on to live one of the most inspiring human lives ever recorded on earth.
God works that patiently with each of us. We are blind and deaf to the spiritual realm. We struggle against it, pulling and pushing, not quite knowing who or what resists us. That gentle but firm resistance comes from God who is trying to lead us to a greater understanding and more regular and edifying communication. His patience toward us and belief in us is like that of Anne toward Helen. God is the great spiritual “miracle worker.” And He’s been working with us from the time we were born.
Improving an Existing Relationship
Since we don’t have to introduce ourselves to God, we simply need to do those things that will strengthen our existing relationship. Indeed, life itself is a personal relationship with a God we’ve had trouble perceiving. Even though we still have trouble “seeing” and “hearing” Him, He is going to wrestle with us until we know Him face to face in heaven. Maybe the first thing we should do is relax a little. As Anne tapped a code into Helen’s palm, so God is patiently telling us to be more responsive to Him. To pick up what He’s saying doesn’t require more struggling, it requires less. Less struggling puts us in a position better hear Him…and be more responsive to Him.
Learning More About Love
Learning more about love means learning more about ourselves…and finding out that we haven’t been as loving as we thought. It means getting past the superficial reasons we give ourselves and others for all the things we do, and finding what’s really driving us. I’m not talking about prolonged and self-defeating introspection. Rather, I’m talking about simple questions and honest answers. For example, am I doing something because I love or because it will get me love? The answers come more quickly than we expect…if we’re willing to honestly listen for them.
Motives have to be reexamined regularly, too. We can start out doing something for a good reason but end up doing it for a bad one. When my wife and I had our first child, I really began to apply myself at work. I was motivated by the desire to succeed financially in order to be able to provide for this family I’d helped start. Soon I was succeeding…and beginning to spend more time at work and less at home. My business career soared at the expense of my family life. If I had paid more attention to my motives I could have caught this situation much earlier. My selfless motive for success had subtly become a selfish one. As it was, the consequences eventually revealed my error. Fortunately, we mended the family fences long before the divorce that would have inevitably come.
In Paul’s timeless treatise on love, 1 Corinthians 13, he says, “And if I give everything I own to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but do not have love, it doesn’t profit me a thing.” In other words, doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons profits us nothing. Or to put it yet another way, motive is everything! It’s the reasons behind our living that make it holy, good, and loving. If the root of motive goes bad, then the fruit of deed is tainted – no matter how good the fruit looks on the outside. God looks on the heart – every day. So should we.
The Testing of Love
When we seek to make love our singular motive we will be tested. At times, we’ll feel like we’ve been given every reason in the world to act out of a motive other than love. Sometimes living this way seems to bring out the worst in others – at least in the short term. Jesus found this to be true. But the long term results of love’s endurance through such trials will work to the good of everyone concerned. Jesus found this to be true also. For this reason, we must keep seeking to learn more about love.
If you’ve ever felt the sting of a wasp, you know how painful it can be. But for the wasp, the experience is fatal. When you take evil and don’t return it, something evil dies. When evil is returned for evil, a natural cycle continues. Breaking that cycle is the purpose of humanity. It is the purpose of love. When Jesus refused to return rejection for the rejection He was being shown, Sheol died. And heaven was opened to us all. (For the full story of how Sheol/Hades ceased to be the destination of the dead, see first the post Everyone Is Going to Heaven and then the online book The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven.)
Heaven lets you see the meaning that love gives to your life. God sees meaning in the choices you make, and the motives that impel you to make them. Keeping yourself aware of heaven keeps you aware of that meaning. Remember the love that created heaven and be inspired by it. The heaven we see waiting for us wasn’t there when Jesus was being crowned with thorns. He kept in mind our best interests while we were treating Him so shabbily…and produced the heaven to which we now go. The implication is that you and I can also produce good when we are treated shabbily.
When you refuse to return the evil that’s coming your way, you never know what bad thing might die and what good thing might live. It’s a wonderful sort of discovery, this life God has created. When a rose’s thorns are crushed, there’s perfume. And heaven inhales the fragrance. The more we’re aware of that dimension called heaven, the more chance we’ll get a whiff ourselves. The lingering moral fragrance combined with the absence of the thorns shows how much more powerful goodness is than evil.
Once we die, the thing that will matter most to us about our lives will be the love we have shown. If you give a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty, the water is gone and the thirst is gone. But into eternity will last the bond of love that was created when you gave that cup. The satisfaction you felt in giving and the satisfaction the other felt in receiving will go on and on. As will the gratitude you feel toward the Creator who made it all possible. In the end, love is all that will matter.
The Ultimate Life
The ultimate life is a life animated by love. Such a life must be lived from the inside. Most of it won’t be seen by other people, even those close to you. It’s a life where deeds and consequences are important, but motives are even more important. It’s a life that can be shared with others, but most of all with God. He’s the only one who can see all your thoughts and thus share all your motives. It’s a life where you don’t put heaven off until you die, you let it enter your life now. Maybe that’s one reason Jesus called this way of life “the kingdom of heaven.” It’s a way of life where heaven rules our thinking. It’s heaven enlightening and empowering the earth.
Heaven is a place that speaks of a Person. The kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of God. Life is boiling down to something profoundly simple: being aware of God. What is the ultimate motivation to do good? A moment by moment desire to please your Maker. It’s a very personal matter. Good relationships are cemented by shared intimacy. When it comes to God, this means sharing our innermost secrets. Our constant acknowledgment of His omniscience and love enables us to continually show Him the motives behind our actions. (More precisely, it’s letting God continually show us the motives of our actions.) A self-righteous person wants everyone else to know how right his motives are. A genuinely righteous person, however, only wants One Person to know how right his motives are. God takes your life seriously and personally. When you take His interest personally, you live the ultimate life.
How much difference can such a life make in the earth? Look at the life of Jesus. The ripples from that “pebble tossed in the pond” have yet to stop. Can your life make that much difference? It can to someone. Jesus didn’t travel worldwide. In fact, He never went more than 200 miles from home. He knew that the way to reach the world was to reach the person next to Him. You can do the same. Just seek to be motivated by a personal love for a personal God. If for some strange reason it doesn’t seem to make a difference to the people around you, know that it will make a world of difference to God…and you.
Developing Your Conscience
Conscience is our moral muscle. The more we use it, the more it grows. The development of conscience often comes with age, but it’s possible for an 18 year-old to have a more developed conscience than a 40 year-old. It is also possible to strain the conscience, as with a muscle. That is, we overuse it. This frequently happens when someone decides to “turn over a new leaf.” Maximum effort is invested in doing everything right. Sooner or later, the world comes crashing down on that person because no one can do everything right from one moment on. When the crash comes, such a person often then discards conscience altogether, saying, “It doesn’t work for me to try to do the right thing.”
Many people only use their conscience for big decisions. When the conscience is developed with little decisions, however, it can be much more effective for big ones. Other people only use conscience for little decisions, leaving the big decisions to be governed by self-interest. But a conscience being used this way never realizes its potential. The conscience is a spiritual GPS, designed to help us navigate life. That means deciding about all the twists and turns – big and little.
Some people have a stunted conscience. That is, they let other people do the moral thinking for them. If a certain person – be it a spiritual leader, spouse, or sports hero – says that something is okay, then it’s okay. No further questions need be asked. While it is good to have heroes, we can’t let them do our thinking for us. The good heroes would never consent to such an abdication of responsibility. It halts all our growth to let someone else’s conscience govern our own lives.
Conscience Works Best in Private
Conscience is a hidden faculty and it does its best work in privacy. Jesus said that when doing good deeds, we shouldn’t let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. That is, there’s a certain detachment that needs to go with living a life of love. I haven’t mastered it, but I’ve come close enough to see how self-defeating it is to meditate on my own goodness – much less hope someone else will!
The first big temptation that comes to those trying to imitate God’s way of life is that other people begin to notice your kindness…and praise you for it. You can’t fault them. God’s pleased that they noticed your change, and that they’re thankful. But before you know it, you’re doing the good thing for the earthly applause it brings instead of the heavenly ovation that’s much harder to hear.
One evening my wife called to me from the other room, “There is no glory in wiping applesauce off my baby’s chair.” It became a proverb for the two of us. It speaks of the lack of earthly glory that is associated with so much important earthly activity. If you’re going to stay motivated to keep a high chair clean, it’s best to have some sense of the heavenly audience that puts the proper emphasis on such things. The more hidden the conscience’s work is from earthly view, the freer it is to let the light of heaven shine on it. And when that happens, the moral pleasure can be its most intense.
People’s approval won’t make your motives any purer, and their disapproval doesn’t taint your motives. God recognizes your hidden reasons for doing things without checking with anyone else first. It’s those reasons that make all the difference to Him. Even actions which are viewed by a large number of people can still be invested with heavenly meaning. Jesus’ ministry was by no means a private affair. However, the workings of His motives were not on display. They were very much a private affair. There are times when our motives should be up front and fully declared. But happy is the person who keeps them at their purest, even when no one but heaven can see them.
The Limitations of Conscience
Prior to his conversion, the apostle Paul was one of the religious leaders who thought Jesus and His followers were wrong. He even imprisoned men and women who embraced the teaching of Jesus. After he saw a great light from heaven, he had a drastic change of heart. He immediately embraced the teaching and began promoting it himself. He went from persecutor to persecuted. Years later, when on trial for his faith, he said that he had lived his life with a good conscience. Therefore, it was his conscience that had guided him to persecute followers of Jesus and it was his conscience that guided him to become one of them. What sort of conscience was this? A human one; that is, one in the process of development – and subject to error.
Thus, being confident that you’re right doesn’t make you right. And being unsure you’re right doesn’t make you wrong. If you’ve ever done any parenting you know how hard it is to be sure you’re right. A certain amount of confidence is necessary to be a good parent, but a parent who is always sure of his or her own rightness of opinion is a burden to children.
The fact that even an active conscience, like Paul’s, can be in need of a big adjustment is proof that conscience is not an infallible guide. Our individual sense of right and wrong is not the final authority in the governing of the universe. God Himself is. Because of this, there is always room for us to be humble – no matter how sure we are that we are right.
You can never afford to disregard your conscience, for you never know what the consequences might be. But even if you follow your conscience, you must be prepared for the possibility that God, or others, may see things in a greater light. But even then, God will deal most gently with someone who’s doing the very best they know to do.
If we wait until we have perfect knowledge of what we should do, and full assurance of all the results our actions will bring about, then we’ll never act. If all you have is the slightest sense of the right thing to do, then act. That sense will grow every time you use it. And when that sense needs adjustment, God will intervene. We can figure, for example, that God opened Paul’s eyes precisely because the guy was trying so hard to follow his conscience. Your enlightenment may not come as dramatically as his, but you can trust that God won’t leave you laboring forever under false conceptions if you are seeking Him with an honest heart.
To spend a great deal of time in conscience is to increase our chances of running into God. For conscience is the house where He meets us. You won’t always recognize Him, and sometimes He’s gone as soon as He comes. He’s in a thought, a feeling, a hunch, a leaning. He comes like a gentle breeze…and goes the same way. You can’t put the wind in a bottle, and you can’t dictate how and when God will speak to you. He speaks in the conscience, but He’s distinct from it.
As you can see, the limitation of conscience isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing because that limitation is what leaves room for God. If our consciences were perfectly able to tell us everything we’d ever need to know about right and wrong, then we could live without an awareness of God. Since conscience can only go so far, however, we’re constantly reminded to look for the One who can show up there. And in finding Him, we can’t help learning more about love…because that’s the essence of who He is.
A Reason to Love
Knowing God’s nature is the key to understanding the things He says. Most of the mistakes people have made in interpreting the whisperings of God in their hearts have resulted from not understanding God’s nature. Have you ever been misquoted, or had your words taken out of context? Then you know how God feels. Fortunately, it hasn’t made Him clam up. We do, however, need to have a proper context for interpreting His words.
A good starting place for understanding God’s words is to remember that everything He tells us to do, He does. To put it another way, Jesus practices what He preaches. If He tells us to do good, we can know that He does good. If He tells us to forgive, we can know that He forgives. Therefore, we can better understand God’s words when we look at His behavior. In looking at His behavior we have something to imitate. In the imitating, we come to understand better what the words mean…and why there is always a reason to love.
Who Do You Want To Be Like?
When you were growing up, who did you want to be like? One lazy summer day I saw a movie about John Paul Jones and wanted nothing more out of life than to be a naval officer…until the next weekly matinée when someone else was the hero. Most of those years I wanted to be like Mickey Mantle and hit home runs for a living. When I became a teenager, my interests turned to music and I wanted to write songs like Burt Bacharach.
Having heroes is how we grow up. In looking up to them, we lift our sights and reach for higher things in life. It’s harder for children to find heroes today. And many of the heroes they do choose, fall off the pedestal. That’s one more reason why we parents need to be all the more mindful of our behavior – our kids are looking up to us.
You don’t have to be a child to want or need heroes. Adults also have cravings for models to follow. In fact, viewed spiritually, adulthood is a second childhood. Our first childhood had earthly parents, who, even if they were wonderful, were still flawed. Our second childhood – that is, our spiritual way of looking at adulthood – has God for a parent, in whom no imperfections can be found. (By the way, if having problem children marks you as a poor parent then what are we to say about God who has had more of them than anyone?)
To have Jesus as our hero provides the ultimate raising of our sights. His character shines so brightly, however, that it’s often more productive to break down its facets for glimpsing one at a time. In view of this need, the Bible is a hall of fame, providing stories of various humans who each exhibited one or more – but not all – of God’s character traits. For example, in Moses, we see God’s longsuffering and stamina. In David, we see God’s courage and emotion. In Solomon, we see God’s wisdom. In Jeremiah, we see God’s concern. In Isaiah, we see God’s hope. Each hero reveals a facet of the greatest hero of all. Taken together, they provide a composite picture of Him.
I have my own modern-day heroes. I could tell you who they are but you probably wouldn’t know any of them. They’re not famous. Except to me. I know a woman who nurses her invalid husband, takes care of children to earn income, and all the while keeps her house and yard looking better than mine. She never complains or acts like she’s got a rough time of things. She acts happy to be doing all she’s doing. I wish I was more like her. She’s my hero. I could tell you of a hundred other people, facing problems courageously, who also inspire me, but you probably know a hundred such people already.
Isn’t it humbling just to consider some of the wonderful people who live in this world? We can find much moral pleasure just in reflecting on the many kind things that some people do. I was once trying to get my car inspected. Time was running out to meet the state deadline and I left it at a service station with the understanding that the work would be done that day. When I returned, it had not been done and the person behind the desk said they would not be able to get to it at all, even though this would mean I’d be subject to a fine for not having the completed the inspection that day. I was under a number of other pressures at that particular time in my life. It all reached a boiling point when I heard those words and I said simply the word, “No!” It wasn’t a yell, but it was loud enough that every employee and customer in the room stopped when they heard it. No one moved; no one spoke. It was one of those eternal minutes. Then, breaking the awkward silence, a mechanic in the back spoke up and said, “I’ll do the inspection.” He took the keys from my hand and did the work right then.
Am I embarrassed to tell this story? Of course. I’m ashamed of how I let anxiety build up in me to the point where all I could do was angrily protest with a monosyllable. But that mechanic helped me out. He not only did something for me that I couldn’t do for myself, he overlooked my childish behavior and kept me from looking more foolish than I already did. He made me want to grow up…and be more like him. And I might as well tell you he was at least ten years younger than me.
Each hero we have is a rung in a ladder that leads to God. Every time we see a godly character trait in a fellow human, we have a specific goal to strive for. In achieving the goal, we make the trait our own and come another step closer to God’s overall character. And in climbing this ladder, we come to find something else. We find that true maturity is understanding what God means by “love.” We could never have understood love without taking those steps. For love takes on a whole new meaning once you’ve gone from observing it to doing it.
Everyone knows that we’re supposed to love one another. The Bible says so. Even people who don’t believe the Bible teach this principle to their children. We even call our family and friends “loved ones.” That word love, however, can be stretched to some mighty different meanings. Consider how we also say, “I love ice cream.” Or it could be french fries, football games, or fifty million other things. When we say we love these things, we mean that we love what they do for us. They meet our wants or needs and for that reason we speak highly of them and are committed to them.
Take ice cream, for example. If you love ice cream, it’s because it makes the taste buds happy and satisfies the appetite. If the bowl of ice cream turns out to be sour, though, you want no part of it. Swallowing the stuff is out of the question. You feel no need to bear with the bitterness of that bowl of nauseating curds. The ice cream exists for our interests only. We are under no obligation to serve its interests. A person who eats a bowl of sour ice cream for the sake of the ice cream would be considered strange indeed. The normal love of ice cream excludes all bad dishes of it. This is a kind of love that is completely selfish.
The love that God is wanting us to practice with each other is completely selfless. The word love, therefore, can refer to a motivation that is totally self-oriented or one that is totally selfless. That’s a pretty wide variation for one word. Both understandings of the word are legitimate and used all the time, though, so we’re just going to have to distinguish the meanings in our own minds.
What do we mean when we say that we love our families, friends, and others? If we love them the way God does, it means we consider their interests more important than our own. If we love them in the ice cream sort of way, it means we consider our own interests foremost. What is probably true for most of us is that our love lies somewhere between these two extremes. Growing up spiritually means moving in the direction of God’s definition of love; that is, purifying our hearts of selfish desires which masquerade as love.
The love God wants us to practice keeps the other person’s best interests front and center. It doesn’t mean making ourselves a doormat, but it might mean making ourselves a threshold. That auto mechanic didn’t demean himself by forgiving my outburst and performing the inspection. I sensed no fear in him, as if he was afraid I was about to make an even bigger scene. He made a calm decision to go the extra mile. Because of his act, I stepped across a threshold of realization, and I hope I never go back to letting my emotions so control me.
Making the Choices
God’s idea is that we make the myriads of choices we face each day with the other person’s best interest in mind. This applies both to big decisions and to little ones. It takes more time to make choices this way, but the moral pleasure that results is incredibly satisfying. It is the ultimate reason to keep living.
There may be a difference between putting another person’s best interests first and doing what that person wants. If Jesus had always done what everyone wanted, He wouldn’t be the Savior of the world. Though He healed multitudes, you could hardly call Him a people-pleaser. Every parent knows that putting the child’s best interest first sometimes means displeasing the child. Dressing properly, going to school, and personal hygiene are all habits that are grudgingly cultivated by children. Putting other people’s interests ahead of your own can sometimes make you very unpopular (“I hate Mommy and Daddy because they won’t let me do what I want!”). Even though you’re not called to parent other adults, you’ll find that they, too, don’t always appreciate when you’re doing something with their best interest in mind. No one experienced this unpopularity more vividly and dramatically than Jesus when He was rejected to the point of crucifixion.
Heaven is the context in which all our choices can be made. It’s not only the destination to which we’re all headed, it’s a dimension in which we can now live. Making choices in the light of heaven, and putting other people’s interests above our own, transforms human life into an expression of love. Like Jesus, you may not always be understood, but time is on your side, for heaven will eventually reveal all the thinking behind your earthly deeds. And in the meantime, you can find much more meaning in life, knowing within yourself that you are doing it for love. Just remember to do it all out of love for the unseen God who sees everything. It cannot escape His notice.
Becoming Like God
It’s in the making of choices that we can become like God. It’s in the complexion of our soul, not in the color of our skin, that we can resemble God. When we face a choice between self-interest and concern for others, and choose as He would choose, we become as He is. The more we become as He is, the more we can understand how He thinks. The more we understand how He thinks, the better we can understand the things He says – whether they’re written in the Bible, heard deep in our hearts, or coming out of the mouth of babes.
A Reason To Live
Do you know why you do the things you do? If you have plans for today, do you know why you made them? Quick answers to these questions are usually superficial. Human motivations are complex. If we really want to understand why we do things, we have to spend time thinking about it. This can be painful, but it’s often very revealing…and rewarding. God would like for us to have a moral reason for all that we do. He does, and He wants us to enjoy the kind of purposeful life that He enjoys.
Making the moral choices that lead to discovering our purpose is an activity that takes place in that part of our being we call conscience. Conscience is the place where we weigh good and evil, the place we make choices about right and wrong. It’s one part of our being that we’ll definitely take to heaven and not leave behind. Conscience divides our activities into rights and responsibilities. Rights are what we’re allowed to do; responsibilities are what we’re supposed to do. These rights and responsibilities grow and change with age and with decisions we make. For example, marriage dramatically increases both the rights and responsibilities of the parties to each other. When we do something we don’t have the right to do, our conscience bothers us. The moral pain calls our attention to this sin of commission. When we fail to do something we have a responsibility to do, our conscience likewise pains us over this sin of omission. This moral compass we call conscience isn’t an infallible guide to rights and responsibilities, but in navigating the seas of life nothing else can take its place.
The amount of time we spend in our conscience has something to do with how we live our lives. If we heed our conscience, we find it comfortable to go there. We can find comfort in reflecting on our actions. If, however, we disregard what our conscience tells us, we avoid the place just like a criminal avoids the police. For this reason, some people have a conscience that if we were to see it, would appear like an abandoned shack. That is, no one lives there anymore.
Other people use their conscience only to assess the activities of other people. They become like the landlord of a tenement slum. You’ve seen these kinds of people. They know what everyone else is doing wrong. They know just how people should change to make the world a better place. The problem is, they themselves are a pain to live with because they spend so little time in their own conscience. They’re so busy passing judgment on others they have no time left over to reform themselves.
The Proper Use of Conscience
The first and best use of our conscience is to house and judge the thoughts and activities of our own individual lives. As such, it’s a place to seek moral pleasure and avoid moral pain. Compare it with physical pleasure and pain. We learn physical pleasures much earlier in life. We enjoy a good meal. We delight in a good night’s sleep. We can become enraptured with the colors and intricacy of a flower. The world is full of physical pleasures that are neither fattening nor sinful. We also learn quickly about pain. In fact, we come into the world crying. And there can be many reasons to cry right up until the time we leave.
Moral pleasure and pain come from nerve endings that can’t be seen. They come from spiritual, not physical, senses. Moral pleasure is what you feel inside when you give the shirt off your back to someone in need. It’s what you feel when you know you could get away with something dishonest, but refuse to do it just the same. The greater good that you do, the greater the pleasure that comes from doing it. This pleasure has nothing to do with other people’s awareness of your good deeds – it’s an internal thing. It’s between you and God.
Moral pain is likewise a personal and internal experience. We experience moral pain when we do things that are wrong. As the pain intensifies, we either obey the dictates of our conscience and abandon whatever activity was causing the moral pain…or else we repress the pain, make our hearts a little harder, and thus mute the voice of conscience in the future. Do this enough and your conscience becomes dead. Sadly, there are some people in the world who have rendered their consciences useless. (The good news here is that Jesus Christ can heal any conscience – even if it’s dead; see God Wants a Loving Relationship with You.)
Moral pleasure, on the other hand, is enjoyable. In fact, it’s more than enjoyable – it’s strengthening. It gives us the inner strength to live life well, even when physical circumstances are going against us. The Bible says that Jesus “for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” The joy was the moral pleasure that He received from knowing He was sticking to His purpose in life in spite of vehement and violent opposition. He was keeping His promises when there were all sorts of reasons why He should forget them. He took no delight in the way He died; He despised the shame of the cross. Rather, He took delight in the moral rightness of His course – a course that would lead out of earthly shame into heavenly honor.
Your promises are very important, too. Maybe the whole world doesn’t ride on them (as it did with Jesus’), but some of the world does. Will you keep your promises to your wife or husband? Will you keep your promises to raise your children? Will you keep your promises to everyone else? I don’t mean to make you feel inferior; we’ve all broken promises. If, however, we can take our promises more seriously, we can find tremendous moral pleasure in keeping them. And the moral pleasure will strengthen us to keep them even when we’re sorely tempted to let them go.
Much of the moral pain in the world today is due to broken promises. I’m not talking about the little ones like “I’ll take you to the store” as much as the big ones like “I’ll spend my life with you.” Even though we don’t explicitly make promises to our children at birth as we do our spouses at marriage, still there is an implied promise in bringing them into the world. By conceiving them, we imply that we will take care of them until they can take care of themselves. The multiplied broken homes today are signs of multiplied broken promises. The moral pain and despair that seethes beneath the surface of society can be transformed into pleasure and hope if we will only begin to remember that our word was meant to be our bond.
Don’t give up on making promises just because you’ve broken them in the past. Perhaps you should make them a little more slowly, but don’t quit making them altogether. For one thing, others need your involvement to enrich their own lives. For another, you deprive yourself of the moral pleasure than can come from making a promise and keeping it. Start small. Make a promise this morning that you can keep this afternoon. Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll work up to God’s level: making a promise like heaven that requires keeping day after day…for years without end! (Can you imagine the moral pleasure that comes from that repeated faithfulness!)
The Transition to Maturity
One of the great transitions in life comes when we can learn to make moral pleasure more important than physical pleasure, and moral pain more important than physical pain. To make this transition means achieving a spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity isn’t a function of how old you are. It’s a function of your decision to regard virtue as more important than physical gratification. The crown of thorns and the cross itself were physically painful to Jesus. However, He subjected His physical feelings to His moral ones and showed us a maturity to which we can aspire.
Young people in love but unready to marry, are at a crisis that will move them toward spiritual maturity or push them farther from it. If physical gratification is postponed until marriage, or if marriage is entered because physical gratification can’t be postponed, then a measure of spiritual maturity has been achieved. This maturity will benefit every other area of their lives. The maturing doesn’t hang on whether they marry or not. It hangs on whether they behave in a way that is consistent with what they decide about marriage.
Knowledge of consequences would indicate to the two young people the proper choices, but that might result only in their doing what’s right for fear of getting into trouble. Deciding out of motives cleansed by conscience, however, would bring the additional benefit of moral pleasure. This is the transition from living based on fear to living based on love. Fear of negative consequences is self-oriented; it seeks to protect me from trouble. Love is others-oriented; it seeks to protect them from trouble even though it costs me in the process.
Doing things from a motive of love not only helps us make good decisions every day, it leads us closer and closer to discovering and fulfilling our purpose in life. I used to think that I needed to discover my purpose in life so that I could fulfill it. I have come to see that it’s in fulfilling my purpose that I discover it. As I live day by day, trying to do what is right in God’s sight, I am drawn closer and closer to the purpose God has for me. That purpose is love, and the specific expression of it my circumstances allow me to be. My purpose is something I continually discover as I continually fulfill it. My purpose is love…and reasoning with my conscience is how I find it…one day at a time.
Meeting with God
The conscience is more than a place for deciding what’s right and wrong. It’s a place for meeting with God. Now don’t get spooked on me. I know that “hearing from God” is a touchy subject. People have done some mighty strange things in the name of “God told me such-and-such.” But since we don’t throw away our good money when we hear that someone’s passing counterfeit, I don’t think you should throw away your right to hear God just because someone else misuses theirs. Besides, God usually talks to us in ways so subtle and personal that it’s hard to pass on to others anyway.
If you’ve ever “heard” the “still small voice” which is something beyond conscience then you know the experience that sensitive humans felt at the Second Coming. All over the world, whether they were Christians or not, people who tried to live right and keep a good conscience began to sense Another’s presence when Jesus came again. While He was “coming” in heaven He was “coming” to human hearts. Not a genie that you could keep in a bottle, but gentle and majestic whisperings that took moral pleasure to new heights. (For more explanation, see the post Jesus Christ Has Already Come Again, which includes a link to an online book Whatever Became of Jesus Christ?)
It is God Himself who is the ultimate reason to live. It is knowing Him that is life itself. And for this reason, Jesus called knowing God “eternal life.” The most wonderful thing about knowing that we’re going to heaven is that we can know better the One who made us…while we’re still here. And therein we find a reason not just to live…but to love. Only through Him do we know what love really is. Only through personal awareness of Him can we attain the moral life described in this essay. On our own, we are powerless to live a life of good works. (For help, see the post Practicing the Presence of Christ.)
The Promise of Heaven Inspires Us
It takes guts to live. God has woven the inner part of you as well as the outer part of you. If you’re wondering if you’ve got the stuff to make it, quit wondering. Your insides were wired by the same One who wired the insides of Job. When that man stood in the face of heart-sinking calamity and refused to abandon the principles of his Creator, he was showing what you have the ability to do. When Jesus felt the pain of rejection from those he’d loved most and responded to their actions with, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” He was showing what you have the strength to say in similar circumstances.
The Courage to Face Heaven
All sorts of situations in life call for courage, but the greatest courage that living requires is the courage to face heaven in the process. Heaven is the home of the awesome Creator. Heaven is the home of the awesome Forgiver. How can we look at light so bright? Not directly and not often. But that doesn’t mean we should hide from it either. A regular amount of sunlight causes good things to grow. The underside of rock is a place where yucky things grow. Have the courage to live in the light. Let that light penetrate all of your thinking.
Words and deeds are but a result of the thoughts we think. The mind is the womb where the outward aspects of our lives are conceived. Healthy thinking produces healthy behavior; inspired thinking produces inspired behavior. Reforming outward actions is useless if there isn’t a corresponding change in motive. God doesn’t just notice the things we do, He notices why we do them. A good deed for the wrong reason is not altogether a good deed, is it? Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that lust was simply adultery committed in the thought life; hatred was nothing less than murder committed in the mind. Our thoughts are of the utmost importance to God.
The reality of heaven sheds light on our inner motives. Heaven is home to the purest heart in the universe. From there our Father, our Judge, our Maker looks at our motives and compares them to His own. Having your motives laid alongside God’s for measurement takes moxie. But He made us in His image and delights when we measure ourselves against Him instead of someone else. What father wouldn’t be delighted when his child comes up and asks, “Am I getting tall like you?” The courage to face heaven is born of the sense that even when you don’t measure up, there’s something healthy in the stretching.
Discovering Your Purpose
People often describe their purpose in life in terms of being a respected doctor, a bank president, a professional athlete – in short, a significant career. As a result, less stellar occupations like ditchdigging, taxi driving, and motherhood – to name just a few – don’t often spark the interest of purpose-seekers. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with defining purpose in terms of an earthly occupation. But there is a better way to define purpose, a way that transcends earthly careers. When purpose is defined this way, all earthly occupations are elevated to the lofty status they deserve.
The better way to define purpose is this: your purpose in life is to do what God would do if He were in your shoes. If God were in certain shoes He might indeed become a doctor, or CEO, or pro athlete – or ditchdigger, or taxi driver, or stay-at-home mom. If someone had strong arms and access to a shovel, and if people needed a ditch, and if God was in that someone’s shoes, then God would be a ditchdigger. Therefore, if I am that someone, I would discover my highest purpose in being a ditchdigger. Earth might not recognize that I’d achieved this high purpose. but heaven surely would.
Everything on earth is temporary; only heaven is eternal. Whatever I do on earth is going to be of a temporary nature. Being a doctor is useful work here on earth, but there won’t be a soul to show up if we hang out a shingle in heaven. Therefore, being a doctor can be a high calling, but only because it helps people. The fact that it might pay well or gain us respect from others should be secondary, and perhaps even irrelevant.
Another reason for defining our purpose in terms of what God would do in our place is the upheaval in society and workplace that so marks our age. You can spend half your life making gadgets that are one day made obsolete by widgets. All of a sudden you’ve got twenty years of experience in something nobody wants to buy or make anymore. God would have no problem walking away from such a job because He wouldn’t want to spend His time on something that was no longer helping people. And He would have no problem looking for another job because he knows people are always needing something. Therefore, if you lose your job, remember that He’s at work in you…with this kind of thinking motivating Him. Walk away from the old and look for the new, confident that you’ll find it. With God inspiring your vision, you’ll be sure to recognize what people are needing.
Every human occupation is intended to help other humans. I can’t keep up with how many people help me. Somebody wired the electricity into this room. Somebody else designed the computer I’m using. Somebody else built it, somebody else sold it, and somebody else shipped it. All these somebody’s probably had help, too. Thousands of somebody’s put together the car I drive. And if somebody’s hadn’t paved the roads and put up traffic lights I’d have nowhere to drive. We all benefit from each other. The times I am tempted to think that one occupation fills a higher purpose than another are when I need, for example, an auto mechanic…or a plumber…or a doctor…or…
Even if your purpose in life is found in a particular occupation, that could only be temporary. When the light of heaven shines on another area of human need which you are uniquely gifted to supply, then a change is required for you to keep fulfilling your purpose. And, in the process, the higher purpose is continually discovered. That is, you don’t usually know all your purpose in the beginning. You find out as you go through life making choices. The more right choices you make, the more you discover your purpose. Even wrong choices can help you discover your purpose, if you let the light of heaven keep you honest.
Knowing the Reasons
God’s desire is that we live thoughtfully, as He does. He wants us to think through what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, as He does. Thoughtful living means knowing the reasons that we do things. To do things for no particular reason makes our lives meaningless to us. But to spend time determining the reasons behind our daily living is to discover the storehouse of meaning that life offers. “Come now and let us reason together,” says the God of the Bible. If we accept His invitation, we may be surprised at what we find.