Recently, my husband and I were at the home of a friend of ours from church. As we chatted in the living room, my husband noticed a set of juggling balls sitting next to the television, and our friend began to teach us the proper way to learn to juggle. As my husband practiced, he mentioned his tendency to become obsessive over technique-driven activities (he once pulled an all-nighter in college, not finishing a paper, but working out a Sudoku puzzle). Part of why he loves running is that he enjoys perfecting his technique, which, for him, takes priority over lofty goals like “run a marathon” or “lose fifty pounds.”
“That’s because outcome is unimportant,” our friend commented. He suggested that consistent practice in improving the form and activity of something is actually more important than achieving a certain goal. Then he connected this to Christianity, saying that the Christian’s ultimate goal should be improving the activity of loving God as best as we can.
I pondered his comments for the rest of the day. It reminded me of something our priest has mentioned more than once: God honors our struggle, not our perfection. Because we are fallen creatures, we will constantly fail in our efforts to pursue righteousness. However, the goal is not perfection; the goal is to keep trying. If we give up because of our failures, the devil wins. If we keep struggling toward God, he will bless us for it.
Struggling through prayer, Scripture study, fasting, and other spiritual activities doesn’t change God; it changes us. We don’t do these things for God’s benefit, but for ours. Through such activities we become better oriented toward God and in a position in which we are better able to love him and, in turn, receive his love and grace.
A critique of Christianity I’ve heard multiple times is that some Christians use scare tactics as evangelistic tools; they threaten eternity in hell to encourage (or frighten) more people into becoming Christians. I understand the critics’ point: if Christianity is solely about “getting into heaven,” then the act of being a Christian becomes selfish and legalistic. Christianity is about better loving and knowing God, and loving our neighbors, than about ensuring our reservation for our own personal corner of paradise. If someone only wants to be a Christian out of fear of eternal torment, and/or out of desire for eternal comfort, than I believe they are missing the point. Our state of being in the age to come is not a reward or punishment doled out from God for meeting, or failing to meet, a certain list of requirements; it is a result of how we work to orient ourselves toward God in this life. As my priest put it recently, heaven and hell are not necessarily two different places, but rather they are two different dispositions toward God. The question, then, is not whether Christ will embrace us in death, but whether we will embrace him.
In his contribution to Rachel Held Evans’ Hell Series, Jerry L. Walls sums this up nicely (see his answer to the second question in the post). He references Acts 17, in which Paul preaches on Mars Hill:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything…Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ — Acts 17:24-25, 27-28
God’s disposition toward us never changes; his sustaining love and grace is not contingent upon our actions. However, because our very existence is contingent upon God, we can never be fully separated from him. Rather, we can be either properly or improperly oriented toward him. We can either accept and benefit from his embrace, or reject it and find only suffering in it. The struggles we endure in this life can help us reorient ourselves away from sin and back toward God and our divinely intended state of being.
I came across an article adapted from a speech by Archbishop Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in which he also describes the importance of Christian struggle over seeking an end goal (in this case, the Kingdom of Heaven as a Christian’s final destination):
It is within Christ that the Kingdom is to be experienced. For this reason, we cannot think of the Kingdom as something we are either “in” or “out” of. Through baptism and a life of repentance, we participate in the Life of Christ, and thus we participate in the Kingdom. The Kingdom is a dynamic state, wherein we grow in perfection through God’s grace. Our journey is not to the Kingdom, our journey is in the Kingdom.
As long as we are struggling to be Christlike, we are assuredly tasting of the Fountain of Immortality. When the struggle ends and the growth ceases, the Kingdom disappears. It is nowhere to be found. The moment we think we have achieved something, that we have earned our place, then we have lost the Kingdom. Our struggles are meaningless without Christ, and vice versa: without struggles, we are meaningless, because we will lose Christ.
Archbishop Joseph further makes the important point that God honors and helps us in our struggles:
When God sees our struggles to put aside our ego, He will grant us strength. When He sees us acting on our desire to enter into the Kingdom of His love, then He will help us in our time of need. No one shall ever perish from seeking after God.
While the outcome of how we live our current life can’t, I think, be called unimportant, it is certainly a secondary concern. The goal of the Christian life should be to always strive to improve one’s orientation toward God. This is achieved through struggle, not perfection, and by the grace of God. We should work not to “get into heaven” or achieve some end goal of perfection and ease, but to love God better and to set aside our pride and humble ourselves before our neighbors as we love them, also. Christianity is a way of life, the way of life for which humanity was created. It is not merely a means to an end.