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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Why I Stopped Trying to Get to Heaven

Where will you go when you die? Will your spirit take a journey to some sort of afterlife or will your spirit simply cease to exist? The vast majority of people in this country believe that our spirits will continue to exist in an afterlife of some type.[1] The majority of people in this country also believe in the existence of a place of reward and a place of punishment.[2] So it seems reasonable that from time to time, we may ask how we might get to the place of reward, known by many who’ve grown up with some exposure to the church as heaven.

Unfortunately, the concept of “getting to heaven” has become a main staple in the evangelical church. Many evangelical Christians spend their entire lives believing and teaching that the goal of being a Christian is to get to heaven. They invest tons of money, time, and energy into achieving this objective. Is this really the biblical goal of Christianity? Or is the goal actually quite different than this? I invite you to take a look at the Bible with me to discover the intended life goal for the Christian.

Why the Goal Isn’t to Get to Heaven

I’ve heard it said before that heaven is absolutely amazing. When I get there, I’ll be given the keys to a huge mansion. My mansion will be loaded with all sorts of great stuff. The more good things I do in this life, the bigger and better my mansion and the stuff inside of it. Outside, my mansion will be surrounded by the most lusciously green grass I’ve ever seen. And whenever I want to go for an afternoon cruise, I can pull out my Lamborghini and drive it down the streets of gold. This is the reward for the Christian.

Whoa, whoa…time out. Let me ask a question here. Who is the central focus of this picture? Me. That’s who. It’s all about me. Who’s going to take care of my mansion? I hate cleaning, I hate painting, and I hate doing laundry. So if I have to do those things, then heaven really isn’t going to be as great as I imagined. Therefore, someone else must do those things for me. Who is it? Is it someone who absolutely loves to do those things? That person sounds like a servant. Why does that person have to spend eternity serving me rather than getting to enjoy a mansion of his own? Or how about my Lamborghini? Who’s going to fill it up with gas, wash it, and wax it so that it stays super shiny? I’m certainly not going to do those things. Or who’s going to go grocery shopping for me? I absolutely hate going to the grocery store. Do you see the practical problem with this picture? The entire focus is on me and my satisfaction. And in order for me to be satisfied, others have to be at my beck and call, meaning that they will be dissatisfied.

If you’ve read the Bible, then you know full well that this picture of heaven isn’t even remotely close to the Bible’s description of it. The only part that even resembles the biblical picture of heaven is that the streets will be made of gold. Even the mansion part, which was the way a few translators translated one verse of the Bible, probably isn’t accurate.

Actually, when we read the Bible, we don’t see much of a description of heaven at all. But one thing that is very clear to us about heaven is that God, seated on his throne, is the central focus of heaven and everyone in heaven is doing nothing but worshiping him day and night.[3] The reason this part is so well defined for us is because it’s the absolute most important aspect of being in heaven.

But most of us don’t like this description of heaven because it doesn’t make sense to us. Instead, most of us still dream that all our earthly stuff is going to satisfy our parched souls. Maybe if our houses are just a little bigger and our paycheck a bit fatter, then we might finally be satisfied. How long is it going to take for us to realize that a bigger house, fatter paycheck, more luxurious vehicle, and sexier spouse can’t satisfy our longing souls? Yet, we dream of heaven being nothing more than a better version of what we have on earth. If getting to this picture of heaven is the end of the road for us, then we’re screwed.

In the same way, there’s absolutely no way heaven, by itself, can satisfy us. Certainly being in a place called paradise would be satisfying for a while, but the “awe” factor would eventually end and we’d no longer be satisfied by it. It’d be like moving to an ocean-front property. At first, it would feel so satisfying to live next to the ocean. But over time, we’d get so used to it that we’d find ourselves feeling dissatisfied again.

If getting to heaven isn’t the goal, then what is the goal of the Christian’s earthly life? Let’s take a look.

What is the Goal of the Christian’s Earthly Life?

In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul shared about his former life where he was focused on trying to get to heaven.[4] If a super-Christian was to write a similar letter today, it might read something like this:
I was born the son of a pastor, repented of my sins, accepted Jesus into my heart, was baptized into the church, read my Bible every day, attended church every Sunday, gave 10 percent of my income to my church, served as a ministry team leader, attended a weekly small group, served needy people in my city, went on a few mission trips to third-world countries, went to seminary, and became a missionary to an unreached people group in the 10/40 window.[5]
But immediately after sharing all his credentials, which by the way would’ve made him a great candidate to receive a huge mansion full of gold plated dinnerware, Paul made the following confession:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.[6]
Did you catch what Paul said in these verses? He realized none of his credentials would earn him a one-way ticket on the next train to heaven. Furthermore, he recognized the objective of the Christian was to gain Jesus. Let me say it again. Paul realized the objective of the Christian wasn’t to get to heaven, but rather, to gain Jesus. Jesus isn’t a means to an end; he is the end.

What Does It Mean to “Gain Jesus?”

According to the biblical writers, God doesn’t sit around watching everything unfold on earth. Instead, he is very invested and involved in his creation. He is a personal God, meaning that he has a personal relationship with his people. This is very different from the gods of many of the other religions throughout history which view their deities as being far from personal.

God is so invested in the relationship with his people that he is currently in the process of uniting all his people, the invisible church, to one another as one unit which will be wed to Jesus as his bride.[7] According to the Bible, when a man and a woman get married, they are no longer two but become one.[8] Therefore, God is going to unite his people to him.[9] This is absolutely amazing!

God is wholly and eternally satisfied. If we are going to be united to him for all of eternity, then we too will be completely satisfied. Our satisfaction won’t come from things he creates, but will come from him. He will be our source of eternal satisfaction![10]

How Do We Gain Jesus?

Gaining Jesus isn’t a one-time thing nor is it something we can fully accomplish here on earth. Nonetheless, it’s something we, as disciples of Jesus, strive towards every single day.

In the Bible, God said, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”[11] If we want to gain Jesus, then we need to embark on a journey of seeking him with all of our hearts.

One component of whole-heartedly seeking Jesus is to read the Bible every day because the Bible is God’s written Word to us. He communicates who he is and what he does. The more we read it, the more opportunity we have to learn about him. For further explanation on this topic, I’d encourage you to read my article entitled, “Why I Read the Bible Everyday.”

Another component of whole-heartedly seeking Jesus is to spend time in prayer. I’m not just talking about praying for other people; I’m also talking about quite a few other things like pouring out your heart to Jesus, meditating on the ways in which you see his presence and handiwork around you such as in nature and in the way he’s working in your life and in the lives of the people around you, requesting his strength to make it through the day, and requesting that he transform your heart to be more like his heart. Basically, spend time with God the same way you would spend time with a mentor you greatly respect. Talk to him as someone you trust completely, yet for whom you have the utmost level of respect. Since God is infinite and outside of time, you can talk with him all day every day and never be a burden.

How Do You Know You’re Gaining More of Jesus?

You’ll know by the fruit. What do I mean by that? The fruit I’m talking about isn’t evangelical fruit, but the fruit of the Spirit. Do you notice that you love God and others more? Do you experience more joy today than you did five years ago? Is your patience growing? Do you see more of God working in and around you than you did a few years ago? These are some of the signs that you’re gaining more of Jesus. You’re never going to gain all of him in this life, so don’t expect to attain that lofty goal. Nonetheless, strive to continue gaining more of him each and every day.[12]

If you’re struggling with feeling like you don’t want to worship Jesus, I have great news for you. As you continue gaining more of Jesus, you will want to worship him. It’s pretty similar to the way you cheer for your favorite athletic team. Do you want to cheer for your team? Of course you do. No one has to command you to cheer for them. That’s because you love your team. In the same way, as you continue to love Jesus more, you will want to cheer for (worship) him with everything that you are. The desire to freely worship Jesus is another sign that you are gaining more of him.

Why did I stop trying to get to heaven? Because I realized that it isn’t the goal of being Jesus’s disciple. The goal of being Jesus’s disciples is to gain Jesus. Getting to dwell in heaven is merely a byproduct of being Jesus’s disciple, not the central aim. Being a disciple of Jesus is about becoming his whole-hearted follower, not about getting a get-out-of-hell-free card. I encourage you to dig deeper into this topic in Philippians 3 and then spend some time in prayer asking God to allow you to gain more of Jesus.

[1] According to a survey conducted by Lifeway Research Group, 82 percent of young adults believe a person’s spirit will continue to exist in an afterlife. See Ed Stetzer, Richie Stanley, and Jason Hayes, Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them (Nashville: B&H, 2009), 41.
[2] According to the same survey, 77 percent of young adults believe in a place of reward and 60 percent believe in a place of punishment.
[3] See Revelation 4, 21, and 22.
[4] “Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” – Philippians 3:5-6.
[5] The 10/40 window is a region between 10 and 40 degrees latitude stretching from western Africa to eastern Asia. This region is home to some of the largest non-Christian populations in the world.
[6] Philippians 3:7-9 (emphasis mine).
[7] See Ephesians 5:22-33.
[8] “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” – Genesis 2:24.
[9] See John 17, especially 17:20-23.
[10] In the Gospel of John, Jesus said he was the living water and the bread of life (John 4 and 6) and if we wanted to have eternal life, we must eat his body and drink his blood. He wasn’t speaking of literally eating his body and drinking his blood, nor was he talking about partaking in communion once a week, but instead, he was talking about being satisfied in him.
[11] Jeremiah 29:13.
[12] “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” – Philippians 3:12.

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