Our Stairway to Heaven?
We are born, we die, we have either been good enough to go to Heaven or we have not is an understandably common enough belief. At the beginning of my particular journey I frequently asked myself the question, 'what, if anything, must I do to get to Heaven?' Surely, I thought, I must play some part, and, if so, then what? Is it possible, even necessary, I wondered, for Christians to earn brownie points from God by performing in this life more good deeds than bad?
According to most if not all Christian theologians, we seem to have virtually no say in the matter as we are, or so they say, saved only by the Grace of God. I found the first glimmering of an answer in the prayer, 'Count not any good we might do, but forgive us our sins'. Seemingly, I must ignore whatever good I might believe I have done as I suppose it is the underlying motive for doing it that really matters, and I am totally unable to disentangle the many disparate strands which go to make up that particular conundrum.
It therefore seems logical that as I do wrong at all times and in all places, in thought, word and deed, and so need constantly to bring my failings before God and to have Him expunge them through forgiveness, I can only be saved by the merciful Grace of God in Christ.
Presumably wrongdoing is wrongdoing no matter what, and if circumstances can be used in mitigation then that particular aspect must be left to God as the ramifications of the sin, forgiveness, mitigation and redemption scenarios are so complex that no human intellect could successfully determine a final outcome.
Was Stalin and Hitler doomed for their big sins and is Joe Bloggs equally doomed for his little sins and how little is little and how big is big? Is there a cut off point of badness where an act of wrongdoing is not counted or do I earn penalty points and have my card marked in the same way that motorists can knock up penalty points for infringements of the motoring law? Does one or more acts of goodness in any way attenuate the effects of sin, or does God wipe the slate clean after three, five, or ten years of only minor offences? Am I saved if I truly repent, and not saved if I do not? How many acts of repentance and forgiveness are allowed me? (At least seven times seventy, according to Christ) How can I possibly know if my acts of repentance are sufficiently genuine and my heart sufficiently contrite for me to be forgiven?
If we are not sufficiently clever to unravel the reasons that contribute to bad conduct then it follows that we are in no position to pass judgement on the resulting behaviour of anyone except, perhaps, that of ourselves. If the Grace of God alone does not save me, then, unless I am given the opportunity to see the error of my ways in pursuing a particular course, I shall never draw even late wages at the vineyard.
If my genetics are wrong and the environment in which I spent my formative years predispose me to anti-social behaviour then evil per se will seem the norm. Some people appear to be born into more brutish and animalistic personalities than others; or are they just made so by circumstances? Some are intelligent, whilst others are not so bright; some are perceptive and sensitive, others are unfeeling and insensitive. Some people certainly seem to be more spiritually empathetic than others and so, to use current jargon, it would seem we are not all working from a level playing field.
Is God therefore despotic, saying, 'you, and you, were born into a spiritually impoverished mind and body, as well as being born into a poor environment, and therefore cannot be saved?' I do not think so, as this would bring His outlook and actions down to our level and frankly I do not believe that God works in that way, or indeed in any way that is familiar to us. I am totally and utterly convinced that the soul of each human being is on a journey back to its source which is God, whether we are aware of it or not; and that the very essence of our humanity will be given every chance to accompany it there.
Throughout the Gospels our Lord gives ample warning of the possibility of me losing my soul in parables such as those of the 'Wheat and the Tares', 'The Foolish Virgins' and the 'Wide and Narrow Road' to name just three. I suppose it is possible that as I have been given the freedom to pursue whatever path in life I wish, there is no reason why God should compel me to have eternal life if I have clearly demonstrated my wish not to have it.
Christ urges us to love our neighbour as ourselves, to do absolutely nothing to hinder his or her progress, even to the point where if we are asked to go one mile, we must offer to go two. If someone asks for our shirt we are to give our coat as well. He tells us not to judge the lives of others as we can only judge them by the outward way in which they behave, whereas He will judge them in much the same way that we judge ourselves, using understanding towards motive, and with justice, mercy and forgiveness. I must therefore try to remove the plank from my own eye before tackling the tiny speck of sawdust in the eye of another - easier said than done but I must at least try.
He also says that I am not to concern myself about food or clothing or possessions, as in the final analysis these things are a hindrance and will lead me to squabble over my rights and to demand a larger share of the available cake than is my due.
Seemingly, nothing is bad in itself but only becomes so if it slows my progress or that of others on the journey home to God. Certainly my frail humanity needs a few diversions on the way and food, drink and music are but three examples, but these things should only be oases that provide rest and relaxation on the journey, both to my body and my spirit. The danger is they can become ends in themselves and call a halt to my pilgrimage, making me neglect my spiritual development. I should not sit in judgement on others as my extremely limited human intellect is not capable of comprehending each and every influence of genetics and environment that has shaped their behavioural responses.
'Love me more than the world,' says Christ. 'Love me more than your mother and father.' Why on earth would He say those things? Is it that these physical shells that we come to hold so dear are ultimately of no value? I must learn to give freely of myself to others. Why? Because spiritual growth comes from wanting to give to others and to God? Unless an apple tree bears apples there is no point in it existing and for all the use it is it might as well be uprooted and burned.
My primary task in life must always be to help others and by so doing I begin the process of freeing myself from the needs and desires of self. It is in reaching out to others that I allow the seed of my human life, my ego, to fall to the ground and die, and by so doing give birth and increasingly, life, to the spirit.
Our whole natural education is devoted to silencing the shy, persistent, inner voice which seeks to convince us that the earth is our home. But despite all its efforts, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy.
There is more, far more, to this faith of ours than I ever dreamed of at the beginning. The glory that I know will be ours when the journey is completed will be of such a magnitude that earthly sufferings will be as a sub-atomic particle when compared to all the matter in the universe. I am now increasingly convinced that if we so desire we will complete this journey and that it is the task of all Christians to make others aware of their destiny and to help them on their journey. We are here simply to make the load lighter for others and for ourselves where we can.
People matter, and within the confines of the number of talents I have been given it is important that I help them when and where I can. The race has to be started and much of it has to be run in this life if we expect to finish it in the next and long ago I learned the hard way that there is a world of difference between wanting and doing and that I, like many others, tend to embrace the easier maxim of 'do what I say, not what I do'.
As always, I found in the Gospels the answer to the question of how I will receive the crown of eternal life with the Father. It is in the Gospel of St John, chapter 5, verse 24, where Jesus said to those who would listen that: 'I tell you the truth, whoever hears my words and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.'
I now realise that joining with our Father at death has nothing to do with earning brownie points but has everything to do with believing in and loving God and dispensing justice and mercy to others. It really is that simple.
Those who hear Christ's words, and obey and believe Him who sent Christ into the world, have already received the Grace of God and have, whilst still in this life, already crossed over from death to life.
Once someone willingly gives their lives to God, how can they do anything other than live forever? Conversely, for someone to remain apart from God how can they do anything but wither and die?