Heaven Can’t Wait
By Audrey Stallsmith
Never having been an athletic type, I fared poorly in swimming classes as a child. But I excelled at the less energetic sport of holding my breath under water. (Not breathing has to be about as passive as you can get! And, no doubt, an introvert like me enjoyed the temporary silence.)
Some of us still have the impression that if we can hold our breaths in the murkiness of this world long enough—stifle our natural instincts toward sin long enough—we will eventually surface into a brighter place. There God will pat us on our heads and pass out colored ribbons.
But the Bible tells us something different. Heaven isn’t a prize but a kingdom. And it starts now. Or, as Helmut Thielicke put it, “heaven is not a space overhead. . .it is the background of our existence.”
Like the citizens of nations overrun by the Nazis during World War II, we live in a world occupied by its enemy, but maintain our loyalty to the rightful government. Some of us may not live long enough to see Christ take back this world again, just as many in the resistance died before their countries were liberated.
But, He is sovereign of much more than just our earth. So we can look forward to joining Him wherever He is. But our citizenship in His kingdom doesn’t start then. It begins whenever we choose to start serving Him.
A couple Sundays ago, my church hosted a visiting preacher. I gleaned something from his sermon that is patently obvious, but to which I’d never given much thought before. Fellowship, he pointed out, is based on what we have in common.
I can second that, as people who attend our Christian writers’ conference frequently speak of feeling “at home” immediately. This is, I suspect, due to the fact that our conferees share not one, but two, important passions—a passion for Christ and a passion for writing. So, whatever their differences in temperament or denomination, they understand each other at once.
More importantly still, our closeness to God is based on how much we have in common with Him. “Do you,” the pastor asked point-blank, “love the same things that God loves?”
I found it difficult to reply entirely in the affirmative since God, as we all know, loves everybody. And I couldn’t honestly say that I did the same. And then there is the fact that, although we modern Christians claim to serve another kingdom we have become much too well adapted to this one.
That probably wouldn’t be the case in totalitarian cultures where Christians are heavily persecuted, or suffer from poverty and disease. Those believers, I am sure, can’t wait to get to heaven. But those of us in more comfortable conditions don’t feel the same urgency. After all, as long as we stay quiet and keep our heads down, we don’t attract much flak.
Of course, there are things from which we have to avert our gazes. Just as citizens of those Nazi-occupied countries had to look away from what was happening to the Jews in the gas chambers, we have had to stomach the slaughter of thousands of unborn infants. Not to mention the deteriorating morals of a society that puts what it wants before what God wants.
Peter writes of Lot that he was a just man “vexed with the filthy conversation (conduct) of the wicked.” But, troubled as he may have been, Lot still had to be dragged out of Sodom. That well-watered plain, after all, boasted a much more luxurious lifestyle than the difficult terrain where his wiser uncle chose to stay. And, although Lot himself may have remained righteous, his family’s loyalties had obviously been lured away long before God rained fire on the city.
So our present difficulty is to remain in an evil world without allowing it to occupy our hearts. To be successful, we must have those hearts already filled with the kingdom of heaven. Not, admittedly, an easy thing to do when we are constantly being told that our king isn’t coming back—or that he was never more than a myth to begin with!
In Passion and Purity, Elizabeth Elliot writes, “We are not meant to live merely by what is natural. . .We need extraordinary fare. We need manna. How else will we learn to eat it, if we are never hungry? How educate our tastes for heavenly things if we are surfeited with earthly?”
Fortunately, as Chesterton notes, “heaven was man’s first love, and the earth is only a substitute.” And, try as it might, evil has never been able to entirely uproot that memory from our hearts. People are more willing to endure a totalitarian state if they have never known any other. But God’s children realize that evil is just a parasite, latching on to something it never created, just as Hitler co-opted governments that had been in existence much longer than he had.
Although some of the weaker people in those nations took the easier route of collaboration with the enemy, the strong remembered freedom. And they kept their real country alive by never forgetting it, and always working for its restoration.
“Evil,” after all, as Elliot notes in Discipline, the Grand Surrender, “has no existence apart from the good, of which it is a corruption.” And, much as evil may try to convince us that heaven is “wispy, thin, and vaporous, it is earth that is like withering grass, not heaven.” (Heaven Your Real Home by Joni Eareckson Tada)
I recently read Lisa Duffy-Korpic’s My Life as a Dog Catcher, and especially enjoyed one of the incidents she related. Officially “an animal control officer,” Lisa had been sent to pick up a wounded groundhog that had inexplicably turned up in an apartment complex. After examining the animal, she was sure it was dead.
But, because the man who’d called her had recently been devastated by the loss of his wife, she wanted to take the groundhog away without admitting to him that it was deceased as well. So she simply laid it on the floor of her hatchback and sat down to finish filling out a form about the call.
She was roused by the widower screaming at her to get out of the car, because the groundhog had come back to life with a vengeance. As it bounced around the vehicle like a ball in a pinball machine, the bereaved man enjoyed the first good laugh he’d had in months. We Christians will be able to laugh without reservation too, once we finally realize that death itself is just an illusion.
We find the end of our existence such an affront because we know it shouldn’t happen to beings such as ourselves. And it really doesn’t, because our death here is simply—as Tada points out--our birth into another world. The process of labor must seem painful and frightening to the infant involved, because it is being evicted from the safe and comfortable confinement it has known for nine months.
What it can’t foresee is that it is being pushed into a much broader and brighter world. And beings such as ourselves, who have always endured the restricted conditions imposed by time, can’t really conceive what heaven will be like until it actually dazzles our sight.
I keep my most tender plants indoors under grow lights over the winter. And, although the manufactures of the fluorescent tubes have contrived to imitate the spectrum of sunlight, those tubes are—of course—a weak imitation of the real thing. The plants will do tolerably well during the fall and winter, when they are semi-dormant anyhow.
But, as spring approaches, they begin to grow restless, begin reaching for a brightness that simply isn’t there. And this despite the fact that real sunlight will burn leaves long accustomed to the artificial. But the plants want what they were made for, no matter how much it might hurt at first.
Something in us craves the light of God. And nothing dimmer will satisfy us more than temporarily. So, instead of trying to accustom ourselves to the world’s overcast conditions, we should be groping after the true Sun, soaking up as much of him as we can down here. If we make His loves our loves, broaden all that we have in common with Him, our transition to the real world--where he shines in full brilliance--will be that much less difficult.
It will be, I imagine, like surfacing from a murky, muffled, and stifling underwater atmosphere into a burst of color, sound, and air. Like being finally able to see, hear, and breathe properly. Like coming home.