One of the axioms of my life is that this world is not the end. It is neither the end in the sense that after this life I am finished; nor is it the end in the sense that it is the goal or purpose of my existence. This world exists for one purpose, and one purpose only, and that is to train people for Heaven.
Does that sound like an odd concept? Why would Heaven be something that we need to train for? We train for unpleasant, hard, nasty things. Heaven is pleasant, easy and wonderful.
But is it? Let’s start with what Heaven is. Heaven is love.
Okay, fair enough, but what kind of love are we talking about here? Are we talking about puppy love? Cute and cuddly? Fluffy ears and wet noses and wiggly tails? If that is the case then we probably don’t need to train for it. (But then again, some curmudgeons like me might need to practice it a little bit).
Peter Paul Rubens, Crucifixion, c.1618-1620
Or are we talking about Calvary love? The total donation of self to God, and the complete opening of self to receive God? Are we talking about The-Inner-Life-Of-The-Trinity LOVE!? Because if that is what we are talking about, then I am afraid that it sounds neither pleasant nor easy to me, although it is undoubtedly wonderful.
The truth is that Heaven is probably an acquired taste. This doesn’t mean that it is bad, only that it is very, very strong. You get hints of it here on earth. St. Paul might have been hinting at something to do with that when he said, “I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, because you weren’t ready for it. And you’re still not ready! That’s because you are still worldly. As long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, you are worldly and living by human standards, aren’t you?” 1 Corinthians 3:2-3.
The metaphor is a good one. Milk, of course, is easy to drink compared to meat or potatoes. Learning how to eat solid food for a baby is not a simple, uncomplicated proposition (nor for the parents either). It usually involves some coughing, spluttering, spraying and at least a few foods the baby doesn’t like. In the end, though, the reward is bacon, which makes it all worthwhile.
This is true throughout life, from the most basic level to the most advanced level. Learning to walk requires falls and stumbles and parents nervously explaining a plethora of bruises in various stages of healing to steely-eyed pediatricians. The reward, however, is the ability to move about this great world. In time it becomes so easy that no adult ever looks back and questions, “Were those bruises really worth it?”
Not easy, but so worth it.
Running is another step on the same continuum. When we are kids running is usually fun because we only ever do it for fun. In order for a grownup to enjoy it, though, they usually have to train at it. A lot. The grownup has to push past discomfort and sweat and pain in order to become so accustomed to running that it becomes second nature. Then it is fun and it becomes its own reward. The same is true of hiking. No one is automatically able to hike up mountains, but when you train up to it and you can actually enjoy it, you would never want to go back to being a couch potato.
That is the way of life. To be able to live at a higher level, either emotionally, mentally, artistically or physically, it is necessary to push past your comfort zone and endure failure and pain. This is true whether you want to play the piano, paint, write, practice medicine, stay married, enjoy staying married, be more in love after fifty years than you were after five. In every case, when you achieve this goal or ability you will be more fully alive than you were before, but you will have to kill some of your couch potato to get there.
We are like overweight video game junkies who think that because we can turn quadruple backflips on ski-master 2000 for x-box, we will be all over it when Dad takes us out on the slopes for real. In reality we are in for a rude awakening. Learning to ski is nothing at all like playing a ski video game.
For the same reason I think it is dangerous to assume that Heaven will be easy and natural for us. This is why I say the purpose of life is to train for Heaven. Heaven is the most fully alive any human being can be, so much more fully alive that we cannot even conceive of it. In one sense it is the easiest and most natural thing in the world, because Heaven is what we are made for. But in another sense it is hard and unnatural because we are unnatural. Our natures our twisted and tainted so that we like things that we shouldn’t and don’t like the things that we should. We are half dead, and we are called upon to wake up.
This is nowhere more evident than in our choice of leisure pursuits. What do we choose to do with our spare time? Do our recreations make us more alive or less alive? Do they restore and revitalize our faith, our hope and our love? Do they inspire gratitude for the wonderful gifts of creation that God has showered upon us? Or do they confirm us in our ruts, dull our wits and deaden our spirits?
Do they prepare us for Heaven?