On a visit to family in Brisbane we met a woman who’d recently immigrated from New Zealand, where she’d been unhappy. “You couldn’t buy vegetarian food or go outdoors because of the sand flies.” She came originally from England, we learnt in conversation, but had emigrated to Canada “for a better life”. That failed to satisfy, so she’d moved to South Africa, which “wasn’t safe for children”, and so to New Zealand. Her look when my niece pointed out that Australia had some of the deadliest creatures on the planet and plenty of flies suggested that she wouldn’t be there long either.
The woman didn’t appreciate that plenty people live happy, fulfilled lives in all these countries. (When we visited New Zealand a week later, we found it a beautiful country.) Her problem wasn’t the environments or societies; she’d learnt to be discontent whatever the situation. Nowhere would satisfy her, however often she changed location, until she changed herself.
In the West there’s a culture of dissatisfaction, with people encouraged to want more than they’ve got – a higher income, newer car, the latest electronic gadget. Their lives will not be complete, they are told, without these things. They fail to realize that the most important things in life cannot be bought. People are quick to point out society’s faults but seldom count their blessings or compare their lives with most people’s 100 years ago.
The church should offer a different perspective; but does it always? Much is made of the Fall from an initial Paradise; and we are told how terrible and godless the world now is. We’re encouraged to look forward to a Heaven that will provide everything we could ever want for our happiness, and to long for the return of Jesus in glory, who will then establish a new Earth, where everything will be made perfect for us. The millennium brought renewed interest in apocalyptic writings, and some preachers and writers are prepared to give us fine detail of this future world.
Apparently, everyone will have a healthy resurrected body, all at the prime of life. Your children, grandchildren, parents and grandparents will all look about the same age as you, and none of you will age physically again. There will be no marriage or children; no pain or death or disputes; no one will ever be sad or in need. Sin and sinful thoughts will be banished.
But would this make a perfect world? Once all danger, effort, and suffering are removed, there’s no scope for the best human qualities.
Without danger there’s no courage; without shortages, no generosity; without struggle, no sense of achievement; without hurt, no compassion; without uncertainty, no hope; without sacrifice, no love; and without the grief that death brings, there’s no room for the joy of birth.
This may be an imperfect world, but our responses to these very imperfections have given rise to all the creativity, love and self-sacrifice and the glorious diversity that God has developed in humanity. Pain and suffering may appear evil, but they are actually neutral. It is our response to them that determines how they affect our lives. I’ve visited house-bound people, confined to one room, in continual pain and with only a short time to live, whose lives have been full of joy and peace, and who made all their visitors feel better. As Teilhard de Chardin put it: ‘Not everything is immediately good to those who seek God; but everything is capable of becoming good.’
The darkest and most hellish situation can be transformed as witnessed in the prayer found on a scrap of paper by the body of a child in Ravensbrück concentration camp:
“O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill-will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we have brought thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to the judgement let the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness.”
Christianity was never meant to give an easy life. Some popular televangelist preaching stresses what we gain from faith in terms of eternal rewards and in God looking after us – being saved and being safe. Even good deeds are seen as earning one higher status and better accommodation in Heaven. But this comforting and comfortable form of Christianity, with its rather self-centred focus on how we will benefit personally, offers what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”, because it doesn’t address the rigour of discipleship. We are called to an adventure of faith, which involves self-denial and possible hardship, to help others and to fight injustice. The more we love and the more we open ourselves up to others, the more our lives will be filled with love but also the more vulnerable we become to hurt and grief. We are not promised protection from harm or from sadness but the spiritual strength, patience and hope to help us to come through difficult periods.
Jesus affirmed, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” It seems that Paradise isn’t a place, nor is it the absence of hardship; it is a way of being and of loving; a way of living in relationship with God and with others and of being at peace with oneself.
Jesus also made it clear that eternal life starts now. The challenge is to allow God to work through us to transform this world from within. Our response to the call of God in the here and now is our responsibility. If we make every situation we encounter one that reflects God’s presence and has an input of faith, hope and love, we can surely leave God to worry about his plans for the future of the universe. We shouldn’t be looking forward to eternal life; we should be living it.
© Philip Sudworth 2008