Recently, I wrote an article for our church bulletin. I liked it. I thought it was one of the more thought-provoking, interesting articles that I’ve written in a while. Well, I supose I was the only one since it was welcomed with thunderous silence. Usually, someone will say something about my articles, but this time nothing, except for someone asking me what kind of response I got from it. The theme of the bulletin was “Seeking the Face of God” and had a flattering picture of my daughter on the cover, so we were all writing about spiritual formation. Here’s the track I took. Tell me what you think.
You might have noticed that I don’t talk about Heaven much. It’s not that I’m not interested in it or don’t want to go there; it’s just that—believe it or not—I’m not convinced that going there is the point of the spiritual life. I’m aware that that might sound sacrilegious to some people, but I don’t believe it is. As Dallas Willard helpfully points out, a gospel centered on getting individuals to heaven makes us “vampire Christians who want Jesus for His blood and little else.”
It seems that a great deal of contemporary Christian spirituality centers on how to get into heaven after you die. So the church talks a lot about sinner’s prayers, or baptisms—whatever “conversion” means for a group—and once you’ve done that your duty is to hang around the church enough to be considered a “good Christian,” contribute what you can financially and be nice to people. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with those things, but I have to ask: Is that it?
Surely, it can’t be!
Can you imagine what the ministry of Jesus might have looked like had getting back to heaven been the Savior’s endgame? Why spend time in solitude with God? Why minister to the disease-riddled and broken? Why commune with a band of twelve guys who couldn’t get much right? Why even bother with studying in the Temple, or preaching the Sermon on the Mount or Plain? Certainly Jesus could have angered the Pharisees enough to kill Him without all of these touchings and teaching in between.
What we see in the life of Jesus between the nativity scene and the empty tomb is spiritual formation. Time alone with God, moments spent with a small group of people struggling to understand the kingdom of God, ministry to the hurting and powerless, prayer—both in solitude and in community—dwelling on the word of God, the journey toward a destiny, struggling with the call of God, anguish, mourning, celebration, and others practices and experiences are the spiritual life. Jesus chooses to embrace each of these experiences and practices not because His goal is to get back to heaven, but rather because He knows what Heaven really is.
Let me put it this way: There is more to Heaven besides getting there, there is also enjoying it. One ancient spiritual master said that the goal of life is to love God and enjoy Him forever. And as a more modern thinker has said, “For some, the flames of Heaven will be hotter than the flames of hell.”
What these spiritual masters mean is that it is through engaging the disciplines of spiritual formation that one comes to more deeply love God, more intimately know His personality and character, and hear his voice. Without which, Heaven would be like listening to a group of old friends reminisce about the wonderful times they’ve shared and see the joy they experience while in each others company and feel as though you are on the outside looking in.
So when I talk with people about Christianity, Heaven is not usually on the agenda. For many of the spiritual masters, Heaven was about enjoying God, and through the various processes of spiritual formation—prayer, friendship, dwelling, solitude, silence, suffering, seeking the face of God, etc—we are given a taste of knowing and enjoying God right now.
So we don’t have to wait until we’re six-feet-under to experience Heaven. It is here, waiting for us.