Most people hope for a better life. Many people turn to Jesus because of hope for a better life, but what is the Christian hope for a better life? Sometimes I think even believers lose sight of it.
I was at church yesterday for a meeting I was leading, and I talked to someone who was there for another reason. We talked about the service there the day before for a 25-year old young man who lost his life in a car accident. It was hard.
I made the comment that we are all going to die. I didn’t say it just like that. I recognized with her that it’s hard for someone so young to die suddenly. It isn’t the natural order of things. We miss our loved ones terribly. The ache and the pain is real. A “life cut too short”, as we say, is a tragedy.
But, we should never lose sight of the bigger picture.
We are all going to die.
Sometimes … maybe most of the time … we don’t live like that reality is a fact.
I am not talking about the “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die” kind of attitude. Yet, the people we know who live like that are living with the reality of death, perhaps, more than we might do. Without God, everything is meaningless under the sun!
That reality should point the Christian to Jesus, who rose from the dead, conquering sin and death, and who gives us a better hope. That hope, however, is not just that we will live a better life, but that we will be resurrected to a better life!
Yes, we will live a better life here with Jesus, but this life is not the end game. That’s what I am getting at today. Jesus does not guaranty that we will live a more prosperous life now, a pain-free life, or even a happier life on this earth (under the sun). To the contrary, he said, “In this world you will have trouble!”
Ecclesiastes tells us in no uncertain terms that everything under the sun is meaningless; if this is all there is, this life is vanity; we die like animals and turn back to dust; it doesn’t matter how good we are, how much we accumulate, or how many people like us, know us or honor us. We go down to the grave and live no more, the king and the pauper alike.
This line of thinking prompts me to question: Why do we put so much effort and energy into hope for this life?
The message at church when I began writing this piece was from Hebrews 11. If this topic resonates with you, take some time to read Hebrews 11.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23 ESV
We have earned death. The “wages” we receive is what we have earned, God desires to give us the gift of life. He desires to exchange what we have earned for the gift of life.
We are from the dust, and to the dust we return. That is our natural lot in life. Death is our natural end, but God desires to give us life.
This is not unfair. Death is all we can expect as finite creatures. We cannot expect more, but God offers life. He offers us His life.
We did not create the world. We are not the captains of our own destiny. We are aliens in this place. From dust to dust we is our natural condition.
Yet, God inexplicably and unbelievingly offers us His life.
How do we know this? We know it because of Jesus. Jesus sad no greater love has anyone for another than to lay down his life for that person. (John 15:13) Then Jesus laid down his life. He laid down his life for us.
We know we can trust God because He became one of us. He emptied Himself of His power, glory, and privilege to experience the life we have. (Phil. 2:7-8 ESV) He didn’t have to do it. He did it willingly for us.
Then, he rose from the dead. He showed us that death has no hold on him. His life, the life that triumphs over death, is what He offers us.
It is not an automatic thing, though. We have to want it. We have to receive it. We have to accept it.
Some of us would rather accept only what we have earned. He came to the people with whom He long established a relationship, through whom He would reveal Himself to the world, but many did not receive Him. (1 John 1:11)
He chose to give us a choice. That choice He came to offer in person to the first century Hebrews with whom He cultivated a relationship over the centuries. Now He offers that choice to everyone, even us.
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (john 1:12-13)
This is a continuation of Risky Living: God Risk and Bad Risk. In that piece, I explored the difference between good risks and foolish risks. I was prompted to begin writing on the subject by a dream that I explained in the previous piece and the “lockdown” order covering most of the United States in April of 2020.
It is now April 2021. Much has happened, though much remains the same. This article I started a year ago has evolved. The path these thoughts have lead me down end in death, which is where the path of each of us will end. Before we get there, though, I will pick up again with the subject of my reckless youth.
I should have known at a young age that I had an affinity for recklessness. As a pre-teen, I loved the idea of somersaulting from a high dive, and I was even tempted into thinking I could jump extremely close to the edge of a concrete pool from a high dive without hitting the edge. Fortunately, I never attempted it, but no one who knew my thoughts or inclinations would be surprised at the series of unfortunate misadventures I experienced in high school.
I was no Evel Knievel, but I totaled two cars before I was 18. I climbed three water towers in the dark after nights of drinking. I don’t remember driving home after some of those nights of drinking. I once jumped from a dead tree overhanging a cliff into the dark waters of a quarry in rural Vermont. I was run over by the car I was riding in driven by a 15-year old with no license.
There is more, but the point isn’t to glorify anything that I did. The point isn’t to beat myself up for it either. I was seeking. Maybe I was seeking a little harder than other people. It may have started out as attempts to gain attention, fit in and be noticed, but it became much more than that.
I was trying to fill a void. I was fighting back against the apparent meaninglessness and purposeless of the world. I just didn’t know it, then.
I thought that gaining the attention and what I thought was the respect of my peers at the time would be fulfilling. I thought the thrill of overcoming fear would satisfy me. I thought that drugs and alcohol would fill up the emptiness in me and drown out the self-loathing. None of the things accomplished those nebulous goals (or much of anything for that matter).
Evel Knievel took risky living to a whole new level, of course. My run-of-the-mill recklessness doesn’t hold a candle to Evel Knievel and the fame, fortune and international attention he gained by his precipitous endeavors (at significant cost to his own body). But, for what purpose? For what ultimate end?
I don’t presume to know what his answer might be if he was still alive to tell us. According to Wikipedia, Evel Knievel died in 2007 of pulmonary disease at the age of 69. He wanted a museum to be built in his name that would contain all of the memorabilia from his career, but that dream was never fulfilled. His memorabilia is scattered among transportation museums and private collections. In a generation or two, he will likely be just a footnote in history.
I have briefly explored the idea of good risks and bad risks in relation to the corona virus threat we have been facing over the last year. Using that as a springboard, I will explored the idea of tempting death, something, which we can’t avoid, regardless of how carefully we live. Now, I want to talk about the good risk of jumping from the ultimate precipice.
Some people gravitate toward risky behavior like a moth to the flame, and others impulsively withdraw into bubbles of protection for fear of sickness, injury and ultimately death. As one who gravitated naturally a little closer to the flames than the bubble, I lived a somewhat reckless youth. The precipice of physical danger, however, brought me to a more metaphysical precipice. The reckless attempt to find fulfillment in corporal, temporal things, led me far enough down that path to rule them out as the missing thing I really wanted.
As I read the Gospels for the first time in a college class, I recognized the truth in the statement that we should not lay up for ourselves treasures on earth. I could see that earthly treasures promised no lasting fulfillment. I had tested their capacity for fulfillment and found them wanting. I could see far enough down that road to know it contained a dead end.
Those experiences, eventually, led me to another precipice – a spiritual one. If God is real, I was on the outside looking in. I couldn’t see “in”. God stood behind a curtain to me, shrouded in mystery that I couldn’t penetrate.
I didn’t realize, then, that would find what I was seeking behind that curtain, but I was propositioned one day with the task of explaining God why He should let me in to His heaven…. That question brought me to the brink of that spiritual precipice.
His heaven… I realized in that moment that heaven (whatever heaven might be) was God’s place. He didn’t have to let me in. I was treading on His turf there, if indeed God existed, and He was under no compulsion to let me enter.
And why should He?
The answer that came from my mouth rang hollow in my heart. “I am trying to do better.” Better is a pretty relative term, but was my effort good enough? Was my effort even the best I could do? …. I knew it wasn’t.
If my best wasn’t enough, I was sunk, and I “knew” in my heart that it wasn’t enough. I knew in my heart I hadn’t even given my best.
When my questioner offered (finally) that heaven is a gift that God gives us, and we can’t earn it, I was dumbfounded.
My entire life was about earning something – earning attention, earning respect, earning grades, earning my own self-acceptance – and I was always falling short. I couldn’t even live up to my own expectations of myself. I wasn’t who I thought I should be!
My recklessness for seeking attention and acceptance and achievement turned to recklessness (for a time) in my abandonment to drinking, doing drugs and risky living. I saw that I was incapable of living up to my own dreams, so I abandoned those dreams for a time to the numbness of a narcotic stupor. Yet, I couldn’t escape the longing, and it only deepened the gap to realization of it.
I had turned back from the inevitable dead-end of a self-induced stupor to a purposeful seeking, but that which I sought I couldn’t exactly define. It wasn’t in me, but it seemed attainable. It was elusive, but I could almost taste it.
I stood at a new precipice that day, when I realized that a God who created the earth controlled whether I might enter His heaven. At the prospect that He offered it freely to me, if I would take it, I jumped.
(I have been to other precipices since that day for which the jump wasn’t as easy, maybe because I wasn’t as reckless, maybe because I took the jump more seriously, counting the cost more completely.)
I had jumped from other precipices, physical ones, in my life in attempts to find the right combination of thrill and daring that would make me feel better about myself, earn the respect or (at least) the attention of my peers and help me fit in to the world I wanted to live in and the person I thought I wanted to be. Those jumps had not brought me any closer to anything that was really satisfying, but that metaphysical jump I took when faced with the prospect of a God who “owned” heaven changed my life.
I accepted the offer. I “accepted” Jesus as my Lord and Savior (not knowing nearly well enough what that really meant). Fortunately, God took me at my word (little, though, that I knew what I was doing).
When I started this piece, I was reading The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith by Sy Garte. He was a third-generation atheist, born to Russian immigrants who are members of the Communist party. He studied science and became a scientist. Along the way, the science that he was learning led him to question the philosophical naturalism and materialism that he had assumed was reality all his life.
I will end be telling the story of the precipice to which Sy Garte came. The landscape of this precipice looked different than the one to which I came many years earlier, but the decision to jump was no less momentous.
I am reading through the Bible chronologically. I am reading it Chronologically, the “books” of the Bible are only roughly chronological. Following the chronology closely requires jumping around a bit. I didn’t realize to what extent that is true before taking this journey that I am on.
Presently, I am right at the point where Moses stands on top of a mountain (east of Jericho, on the edge of the plains of Moab) to survey the land that God promised hundreds of years earlier to Abraham and his descendants. Moses dies right before they go in.
Before he dies, though, he reminds the people of all that has transpired. He reminds them how God delivered them out of slavery in Egypt and went with them every step along the way. The reminder of God’s presence was with them by fire at night and cloud during the day.
God revealed Himself in dramatic ways to these people. He instructed them through Moses in very details ways how they could have a covenant relationship with God as a nation. He provided ways He could be approached through Tent of Meeting, Ark of the Covenant and the offerings they were to make through the intermediaries of the Levite priests, among other things. They had 40 years of wandering in the wilderness with God’s presence continually among them in visual demonstration and ritual reminders.
Reading through this history of God’s interaction with the people He chose to lead eventually into a land He promised many, many generations before through a modern, intellectual lens can be unnerving. The skepticism of the age echoes in my mind and unsettles my heart.
Of particular note are the times we read that people are stricken dead for ignoring or refusing to follow the instruction. For instance, the Sons of Korah, the sons of Moses’ cousin, Korah, led a revolt against Moses. They and all the people who followed them died when “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah”. (Numbers 16:1-33)
Incidences like this prompt a person of modern sensibilities to wonder, “Why would a good God do such a thing?!”(Or to allow it.) It seems Draconian.
The stakes were high for these people, and even less intentional “slips” were sometimes met with the same fate. It’s hard to imagine living in those circumstances, especially in light of the grace that seems to color everything that Jesus said and did.