The Work of Grace

O Gracious God, by your Son, Jesus Christ, you call us forth from sin and into the baptism of new life. Help us work out our salvation with the fear and trembling necessary for any genuine disciple. Forgive us when we imagine you are done with your re-creative work in us.

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

None of is done growing. God has more to do in us. But spiritual growth isn’t always easy. We have to be willing to enter into the process, become more self-aware, and be ready to do some hard work. As the late Dallas Willard once said, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” Indeed, the above prayer draws on Philippians 2:12, where Paul says: “Therefore, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

For me, the last four or so years have been among the most significant of my life with respect to growing spiritually. Not because I have finally made it. Not at all. Instead, I would say that how I see the spiritual life has shifted in important ways. I have had a big change of perspective. But entering this process has meant being willing at times to deal with corners of my heart and aspects of my past that are painful to look at.

And it’s still true. Even now, there are areas of my life that need profound change. And what needs to change in the present is rooted deeply in my upbringing. Lifelong negative habits are often borne of emotional and psychological attempts to cope with other things. Who we are in the present, including the not so good stuff, is the end result of our personal history. This same stuff–habits, traits, proclivities, fears–is what God wants to go to work healing and restoring.

As a result, facing these habits, these things that need to change, can be very hard. It’s never only about the exercise of willpower. Though effort is needed. We also need to recognize that these things are spiritual. Because everything about our lives, especially as it pertains to how we relate to others and even to ourselves, is spiritual. Spiritual in the sense of having to do with the deepest part of ourselves, that image of God-ness, who God has made us to be. Spiritual in the sense of being re-made into the image of Jesus. Spiritual in the sense of needing to submit to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Spiritual in the sense of realizing that long before we began the hard journey home, our heavenly Father saw us from a distance and began running towards us, arms outstretched for an embrace.

In one sense, we go on that journey again and again. As soon as we find ourselves confronting another element of our painful past, or whatever it is that keeps us from being more fully ourselves or from growing, we need to learn to receive the Father’s love that much more fully. Because it’s his love, fully revealed in the person of Christ, that transforms and redeems us.

The question is always: Are we willing to let God into that space, into those painful areas of our lives? What’s more painful, the redemptive process of God doing his work in us or staying exactly where we are and allowing the guilt, fear, and shame have its way with us? Either way, life is going to be painful at times, at some level. But we have to choose our pain.

I’m facing a choice along those lines right now. I don’t even know exactly how to go about it. It’s an area of my life that I have struggled with for as long as I can remember. And while I know perfectly well that the pain of remaining as I am is much less desirable, making the effort again to change, perhaps at a deeper level, is not a prospect I necessarily welcome.

Part of God’s work of grace, I think, involves freeing us from all the baggage, the past hurts, that define how we deal with life in the present. He wants to break the chains that hold us back from experiencing the new life in Christ he offers. The spiritual life–life lived in the presence of God through Christ in the power of the Spirit–is not about holding on until we get to heaven, about just waiting until Jesus returns. No, it’s about the power of God at work in our lives in the present. Here. Now. It’s not an easy or comfortable process. There is some fear and trembling involved. But I’ve come far enough to know that the process is worth it. That God shows up in grace and love. And if I am going to keep growing, which he calls me to do, it’s knowing this that makes continuing this process possible. Not only for me, but also for you.

What I Don’t Know and What I Do Know

Are churches that refuse to abide by COVID guidelines making the right decision or the wrong decision?

I don’t know.

Are government authorities who fence in a church building or issue large fines for such refusals exercising power illegitimately? Are they violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by their actions?

I don’t know.

Is this really an issue of religious freedom or is it confusing such freedom with the traditional means of exercising our religious freedom?

I don’t know.

How do we know for sure when such freedoms are being unfairly restricted or even violated?

I don’t know.

Should the same guidelines exist for all situations and places and organizations?

I don’t know.

However, what I do know is that at a time like this there aren’t easy answers.

What I do know is that many government authorities are doing their best to protect citizens. What I do know is that not all governing authorities are the same–from province to province or state to state. We can’t equate what’s happening, for example, in the US or some parts of the US and look at our situation here in Nova Scotia through that lens with accuracy. What I do know is that there are examples of COVID restrictions that seem inconsistent, confusing, or applied unfairly. What I do know is that there are plenty of people acting in good faith, in churches and in the government, who are not on the same page.

What I do know is that followers of Jesus and churches are called to obey governing authorities unless they are telling us to disobey God. What I do know is that being able to protect and have religious freedom is important in a free society. What I do know is that it’s not always clear in this situation what it means to obey or disobey God’s word. What I do know is that Christians ought to be willing to do whatever it takes to love our neighbors. What I do know is whatever we do as disciples of Christ and as communities of faith will be our witness to our neighbors.

What I do know is that many of us are quick to give our opinions and slow to listen. What I do know is that people on all sides of an issue can get emotional, frustrated, and argumentative. What I do know is that all that’s going on in our culture right now is leading to division, polarization, and disunity. What I do know is that we often end up in echo chambers where all we hear is what we already agree with. What I do know is that social media platforms such as Facebook drive us apart more than bring us together. What I do know is that none of this is good for any of us.

But most importantly, what I do know is that the God in whom I believe is the Creator of each one of us. What I do know is that he calls us to love one another, even when we profoundly disagree. What I do know is that being a follower of Jesus involves laying down our lives, carrying our crosses, and sacrificing our desires for the sake of others. What I do know is that even those of us who are Christians don’t always want to do this or are willing to do this. What I do know is that we–including Christians–need the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of repentance and forgiveness, and the gospel of Jesus more than ever. What I do know is that without it we have no hope, no peace, and no way forward as we live in this difficult and confusing time.

No One “Goes” to Heaven

Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.

N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

Now that I have your attention with the title of my post, let me explain.

In Western culture, talk of what happens when someone dies usually has to do with whether or not such and such a person will “go” to heaven. Often what gets the most attention in these conversations is who gets to go to heaven and why. Is so and so good enough? Did they live an admirable enough life? Or to make it more personal still, will my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds?

And, yes, these kinds of mathematical attempts to g the likelihood of our getting into heaven need definite correction. The Bible certainly has a great deal to say on the matter. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. Instead, I want to draw attention to other cultural misconceptions, some of which are also shared and perpetuated by well-intentioned Christians. You see, even Christians often have wrong ideas about the afterlife or what the Bible means by heaven and what we can expect to happen to us when we die.

The first point is this: no deceased person is presently in their final eternal resting place. Whatever else we say of heaven, no one is currently in what will be their final state.

A lot of people can sometimes talk as if a deceased loved one is in heaven right now. A popular euphemism is that the deceased individual is in “a better place.” Yet according to Scripture we also know that with the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus there will be a resurrection of the dead, a final judgment, and, only then, will people enter their eternal state.

I would have to say that, though it’s difficult to understand (because Scripture doesn’t unpack all of the details for us), believers who have died are present with the Lord and that until the resurrection on the Last Day, this is not a bodily existence. Consider these words from the apostle Paul:

So we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. In fact, we are confident, and we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:5-8

Paul here is contrasting our bodily existence in the present with what our experience will be like when we have died and are, as he says, away from the body. He can’t be speaking about our final state, however, because that state involves bodily resurrection. See, for instance, what Paul says in his great chapter on all things resurrection:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come?”

So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body . . . And just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

1 Corinthians 15:35, 42-44, 49

When a person places their faith in the person of Jesus, they are joined to him. Theologians call this union with Christ. And part of what this means is that we have both died with Christ and that we will also be raised like him too. So if Christ had a spiritual, resurrection body, so will believers joined to him when they are raised.

So in the passage from 2 Corinthians 5 he must be speaking about an intermediate state–one that is away from the body–that believers experience between death and their ultimate resurrection. I can’t see how else to make sense of what Scripture says.

This means that whatever else is true of people who have died in Christ, they are not currently experiencing what will be their final state: that of having a resurrected embodied existence like Jesus after he left the tomb. And, yet, Paul does say that people who have died in Christ are at home with the Lord. This means that somehow those who have died in Christ are in his presence now awaiting the final resurrection. To be with the Lord is what it means for a believer to be home. Those who are experiencing this intermediate state are experiencing comfort and peace and joy. But there is more to come. In fact, the best is yet to come.

My second point is this: heaven is not about some sort of eternal, incorporeal (non-bodily) existence. Though Paul speaks of being away from the body in 2 Corinthians 5, he is not speaking of what will be the final eternal state of believers.

When some people talk about heaven, they often talk as though our bodies have nothing to do with it. Instead, they conceive of it as some sort of weird, spiritual, ghostlike existence. Either that, or they conclude (altogether unbiblically, I might add) that people who have died, and perhaps were especially virtuous, get turned into angels. I think this in part because if they think someone can be in heaven in some final sense now, it is difficult to square that with the reality of a cremated or buried body. In other words, if when my Mother died in 2011 she went immediately to her final state of eternity, then it certainly can’t include her body which remains buried.

Might someone who has already died be given an altogether new, spiritual body entirely separate and distinct from their earthly and now deceased body? I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because of Jesus’ resurrection. His tomb was empty. His resurrected body bore the scars of crucifixion. There was continuity between Jesus’ pre-crucifixion body and his post-resurrection body. Resurrection is about transformation, not replacement. What was true of Jesus will also be true of those who are united to him in faith.

In any case, Scripture makes abundantly clear that whatever else we say of the final state of existence for those united to Christ, it will be a bodily existence. We will have arms and legs, fingers and toes, noses and ears. Jesus’ resurrection is an affirmation of the Genesis pronouncement over creation: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good indeed.

This brings us to the third point: those united to Christ don’t “go” to someplace called heaven; heaven and earth come together in the new creation. Heaven is not located up and away from earth. Heaven is where God’s presence is fully known and experienced. We’re not looking to escape earth; rather, we’re awaiting the renewal, restoration, and indeed, the resurrection not only of the earth but of the entire cosmos. Consider these words given to John on Patmos:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.

Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new.”

Revelation 21:1-5

And the words of the prophet:

For I will create new heavens and a new earth;
the past events will not be remembered or come to mind.

Isaiah 65:17

And of the apostle Peter:

But based on his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

2 Peter 3:13

What we are invited to anticipate as believers is not being able to leave this world behind for a disembodied existence in some other heavenly location but rather a new heavens and new earth, where we will enjoy physical lives free of all that limits and destroys life on this side of eternity. It will be creation as God has always intended it to be, free from the stain of sin and disease and the curse of death.

Put simply, God will resurrect us and the rest of the creation he made. Pastor Tim Keller says this: “The resurrection of Christ assures us that God will redeem not just souls but bodies, and will bring about a new heavens and new earth.” And, dare I say, it will be very, very good.

And so the fourth and last important point (at least for this post): heaven is not simply about living forever but about living forever in the presence of our Creator. And this is not an incidental point. As we saw in Revelation 21, what we can look forward to with hope is that God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God.

The point is relationship, indeed, perfect fellowship, between human beings, all of creation, and the very One who gave everything existence in the first place. Shalom. Complete and total flourishing. No hint of trouble or tears. Not a whiff of sin or dysfunction.

The upshot of this is that, unlike what many in our culture would like to believe, only those who confess faith in the risen Lord Jesus will be able to participate in this new heavens and new earth. Consider the following words from famous preacher and pastor John Piper:

The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?

John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself

In other words, if you think you could enjoy heaven without God, then you will not be there. We cannot separate God and heaven. Where one is, so is the other. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that it is in being in the presence of God that the experience of heaven primarily consists. Or to put it another way: getting to heaven is not the goal; getting to God is. The apostle Peter expresses it this way:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God.

1 Peter 3:18

So why did Jesus suffer, die, and rise? To bring us to heaven? No, to bring us to God, which is, in Christian terms, the precise same thing as heaven.

Now do you see what I mean when I say no one goes to heaven?

What do we do with all this, then?

The first thing is to stop thinking about heaven according to a false cultural narrative–one that affects people both inside and outside the church. Christians are called to be biblically minded, to have their thinking on these matters shaped by what Scripture actually says, not what we assume or wish it says.

Another takeaway is that the physical world–our bodies, the ground we walk on, the food we eat, the beauty we admire–is good. Inherently good. And one day it will be perfected and eternal. The so-called afterlife is not an afterlife after all. It is life as it was always supposed to be. It is not a consolation prize. It is the jackpot. Imagine the very best of this life brought to perfection. Contrary to what some think, we will not find ourselves bored in heaven.

Lastly, there is hope. With all that ravages our world, from the various forms of violence and dehumanization, disease and disaster, most of us long for a world without any of these things. We want to be free of pain. We don’t want to worry anymore. We want to know what real, lasting peace is like. We want our relationships to be healed of anger and regret.

And all of this is what God is going to accomplish by creating a new heavens and new earth, by making all things new. Indeed, this is what he began to do in raising Jesus from the dead. That was but the beginning, the utimate signpost to an available new reality which we can start to experience even now, but we can only fully experience on the other side of our resurrection. And to know that we will participate in this new reality, we need to acknowledge that it was indeed inaugurated through the empty tomb of Jesus. As he says in John 11:25–26, I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

How do you answer Jesus’ question?

So, sure, no one “goes” to heaven. But doesn’t all this sound infinitely better?

A Prayer to Close Your Day

As our evening prayer rises before you, O God, so may your mercy come down upon us to cleanse our hearts and set us free to sing your praise now and for ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

Where are your thoughts at the end of the day? Is your mind still occupied with the cares of the day? Is your heart still weighed down by your fears or by discouragement? Or do you perhaps have feelings of gratitude and joy welling up from within?

Each of us can probably point to both highlights and low points from our day. The real question is: what is God saying to me in the midst of all that I’ve gone through in a given day? What has God been up to in my life? Can I look back and see moments where he was present? Or is there a moment when perhaps I wasn’t as sensitive to his presence as I might have been?

I firmly believe that God is both interested and active in all aspects of my life each day. He cares even about those little things we think are insignificant. Because God uses all of our experiences, big and small, profound and mundane, to form and shape us. He’s at work in the little details to draw us nearer to himself.

There is an ancient tradition in the church called the Daily Examen, which means taking time at the end of a day to ponder and pray about how you have experienced God’s presence. One website outlines the practice this way:

1. Place yourself in God’s presence. Give thanks for God’s great love for you.

2. Pray for the grace to understand how God is acting in your life. 

3. Review your day — recall specific moments and your feelings at the time. 

4. Reflect on what you did, said, or thought in those instances. Were you drawing closer to God, or further away? 

5. Look toward tomorrow — think of how you might collaborate more effectively with God’s plan. Be specific, and conclude with the “Our Father.”

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes: “True wisdom consists in two things: Knowledge of God and Knowledge of Self.”

The Daily Examen enables us to grow in our knowledge of each. I don’t use it every day, but once in awhile it is helpful to grow in self-awareness and our awareness of the presence of God.

A Short Prayer to Start Your Day

Are we starting our day in the right frame of mind (and heart)? Often our minds are already crowded and busy first thing in the morning. Or mine often is. For this reason, it is good to step back for a bit to quiet your heart and open yourself up to God’s presence. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

All I might add to Lewis’ words is that our fears and anxieties can also rush at us first thing in the morning.

What we usually need is to have our attention redirected from ourselves and our circumstances to God. Not to ignore our circumstances but rather to have our perspective changed.

Sometimes the very thing I do not want to do—including slowing down rather than rushing ahead—is the most needful thing. Specifically, prayer. Paying attention to that larger, quieter voice of Jesus. Abiding and resting in him. Not always easy to do, but for that reason all the more important. Sometimes I fail to exercise such wisdom.

Here is a little prayer that can perhaps get us started:

“As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence, O God,
set our hearts on fire with love for you;
now and for ever. Amen.”