I am 45 now. Wow. Somehow, I am still coming to terms with that fact. Believe it or not, I am getting to the point where, every once in a while, I can claim to have a little wisdom. A few years of reflective, thoughtful living will do that to you.
Anyway, as I was reflecting on some current reading, I got to thinking about how you could divide my life, spiritually-speaking, into two phases. Each of these phases were marked by one governing question, and furthermore I think in my case they were influenced by age (or lack thereof).
Overall, I have a tension with sweeping generalizations: on the one hand they eliminate and minimize subtlety and detail; on the other hand they are remarkably useful in saying an awful lot with a few number of words.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer up the two questions that the spiritual/Christian life asks. They are not necessarily age-bound, but I believe they tend to be, because they simply require different modes of thinking that aren’t always available at certain ages. When we are young, we can afford to think dualistically or in black and white; the consequences just aren’t that great (I once quit a band because they wouldn’t go to the chord I wanted), and we can afford to have our world be as simplistic as we’d like.
As we get older, and (ideally) encounter more and more of the world in all of its diversity and complexity, most of us learn that binary, dualistic thinking just won’t explain what we are seeing. We see marriages fall apart, and though black and white thinking would have us blame “one or the other”, in truth we know that most of the time both parties have contributed to the hurt and pain that kills a relationship. We need a better explanation for how the world works (and one that fits with our Christian worldview, I might add).
So with that in mind, here are the two questions that I have heard from life:
1. How do I get to heaven?
I grew up in the church, so it wasn’t a huge reach for me to start thinking about “heaven” and some kind of after life. As I’ve told a lot of friends, I prayed “the sinner’s prayer” at least a half dozen before I was 21; as I figured it, if there was a heaven (or hell), it sure couldn’t hurt to be sure I had that taken care of.
“How do I get to heaven?” definitely helped me ask some of the right questions, and it guided me to certain churches and individuals over time that helped me answer it.
However, there is a definite “on or off” nature to this question: you get to heaven by doing/believing X and Y.
It’s almost like a math equation, and to my mind at the time, a math equation was actually pretty comforting (as my wife likes to point out, one of the ways to calm yourself during an anxiety attack is to, ahem, do math problems).
But I have to be honest: math gets old after a while.
Furthermore, as I got older, life stopped asking me the “heaven question” over and over.
Things got complicated: marriages ended; children struggled; addictions reared their head; friends died unexpectedly; people lost faith (and in some cases found it again).
These things were all happening people who were indeed “going to heaven”—they’d got the answer to the question right—but the math equation was no longer relevant.
For a while, this caused a lot of despair: Was Jesus not enough to explain these very complicated, messy situations?
We all needed a different question.
2. How am I supposed to live?
Over time, the “heaven” question receded, and a new question took its place. This new question was not nearly as concerned with the math equation. In fact, the equation wouldn’t even line up behind this question, almost as if was a different discipline altogether:
“6-4 = the color blue”
This question has nothing to do with binary thinking; it embraces the complexity of life, without giving easy answers.
It’s content is qualitative, rather than quantitative.
It is not black and white.
Essentially, this question started to come up after I’d answer the first one fairly certainly: I knew I was going to heaven, that Jesus would embrace me when my time had come. However, what was really vexing me was trying to figure out why, given that truth, my life was still such a mess.
Why was I still struggling with repetitive sin? Why was I still given to bitterness, cynicism, arrogance and a radical self-centeredness that threatened to consume everything I held dear?
I knew I was “saved,” but somehow that question no longer seemed relevant, and as I began to ask the second, some amazing things began to happen, first and foremost that I realized (at least for me) that answering the first question left me “in heaven” but really a passive actor in my own spiritual life. After all, I was in heaven now—why bother about “the rest of the stuff”.
To put it another way, I was a “good Christian”, but my heart (and certain parts of my life) was really a mess.
I was going to heaven, but I was taking a hell of a lot of baggage with me.
Maybe it’s normal, but I began to be less concerned with the first question, and really embraced the second. I wasn’t nearly as concerned with “doctrine” as I used to be, but much more focused on does this work? Does it transform me into someone who looks JUST A LITTLE MORE like Jesus than before?
These are not black and white math problems.
These answers involve silence, meditation, focus, prayer, and embracing ambiguity (I am simultaneously a “sinner and a saint”).
Slowly but surely, I think it’s working.
Finally, there was something ultimately profound in wrestling with these two questions.
Focusing on the first question, doesn’t necessarily lead to the second. But when you focus on the second, most of the time you will get the answer to the first thrown in.
You may get to heaven, but your life may never change or evolve.
If you focus on transforming your life, with partnering with God for your spiritual growth, you will most likely find yourself fit for “eternal life” (and what’s more, for the “eternal life now” that Jesus talks about in the gospels.
Our spirituality should always ask us the deepest questions; what is your spirituality or faith asking you?
4 thoughts on “Two Questions That Have Governed My Spiritual Life”
The question “Who do you say that I am?” keeps coming up–in readings, in online sermons, even in NPR podcasts (http://www.onbeing.org/program/need-creeds/211). It seems to be going both ways; I’m asking Jesus and Jesus is asking me. Also, your wife is right about the math problems.
not sold. just thinking about math problems is making my heart vibrate.
yes sir. it is a great wisdom when you realize that the idea of an “afterlife” has the ability to ruin everything. i once heard someone say “there are two Christianitys. One is the religion that Jesus apparently taught (love, compassion, care for the poor, the kingdom is here and now, etc) and the second religion is ABOUT him. i have no interest in the second one. it only stirs up hatred, envy and the idea that everything gets fixed in the far future. no real need for justice here on earth because god will make the bad people pay in the end. the knowledge that i will die and that you will die and our beloved children will die and we need to make thing right here and now.