If I had to summarize the life-story of each of us, in our own way, it would go something like this. We each pursue something, some dream, some fulfillment, with the hopes that it will give us some kind of "heaven on earth" here and now.
To some degree, this is good. After all, we are to take responsibility for our lives, be good stewards, and make good of what we have -reaching the potential that God has given us. But I believe each of us lives under the burden of a sort of perfect "utopia" of our own longings. We are find ourselves at the point of collision between these good longings, longing that are perhaps built into us as part of creation, and the reality of life in a world that has diverged from God's original design. But, in our natural state as fallen creatues, we refuse to live in reality. And most importantly, we refuse to accept that we do not have control to make reality into what we demand it be, right here and right now, on our terms.
What do I mean? Well, take the example of marriage. Please don't misunderstand what I'm about to say. I'm not negative about marriage, not at all. But most people damage their marriages terribly because they insist on living under the burden of our own self-made plans for "heaven on earth" here and now, on our terms.
Many times, women are looking for their white knight, the man perfectly suited for them who will meet all their needs and complete their soul. Men are looking for their ultimate companion who understands and supports them with love and tenderness and tenacity. Women want their Adam. Men want their Eve. But what happens? They get married and soon realize that the other person isn't the fairy tale they wanted. And if they cannot accept that, they turn on each other for not living up to their dreams.
As my pastor has said very wisely on more than one occasion, if you try to make another person the fulfiller of all your needs and dreams, you will crush them... and the relationship.
And in some ways Church doesn't help. Though we try to be realistic, in our desperate attempt to try and salvage marriage from the downward spiral the broader secular culture is in we may mistakenly contribute to the problem by raising marriage to an inordinate level of focus. Books and even movies give us the impression that adding Jesus to any marriage, and following the right principles, will fix everything and save it. Certainly, it cannot hurt! By all means, we should seek ways of constantly applying grace and forgiveness and love to our relationships. But when the Church turns around and sells just another version of utopia, but slaps a Christian label on it "Christian marriage", then how does that help?
I know people who have great relationships, so I'm not trying to say all relationships are bad. They aren't. But even the best ones aren't going to be heaven on earth, and even if they come close they are going to be terminated by death. This is why marriage, after the fall, is surprisingly relaistic in itself. We tend to think of marriage vows as being romantic -and they are- but they are also realistic. In our vows, we are telling the other person, "I know you aren't going to be heaven on earth to me all the time, but I still promise to love you."
Here is what I think we forget about and overlook. People, this age, this world... we don't need some fixing. We need to die and rise to a new creation. Improvements are great, but they will never bring heaven on earth. We need resurrection. While we should absolutely avail ourselves of every aid in helping alleviate the brokenness of this world, we must not forget that part of the reason this world remains broken is so that we would not hope in it but hope in the world to come. (Romans 8) The sober reality of a world where the best things don't last forever, or maybe never completely reach the good we longed for, is meant to propel us to hope, not despair. This isn't that world. This isn't that age. God does intervene many times to fix things, praise God, but there are many, many times He doesn't... because this is not that age. This isn't the age we hope for, and He wants us to really know and believe it.
I believe this is really missing. I believe modern, Western Christianity loses sight of that in various ways. Maybe we focus too much on personal salvation from sin and "going to heaven when we die", and we miss the entire New Testament emphasis on a Kingdom of God and an imminent hope in the age to come -not placing our hope in this age that is passing away. Maybe we focus too much on our own personal happiness, so God becomes a means to an end for fixing life and making it the way we want it. God becomes our personal genie for achieving our own self-made plans of bringing our own version of utopia to earth. And we miss that Jesus died and rose to bring a new age, not to ultimately be fixer for this age.
And in these ways and other ways like them, we lower our hope to this world. We keep our focus on fixing everything in the here and now. And "heaven" becomes something completely abstract to us, not something we look forward to more than anything. I remember chatting with a friend about this, and he raised an excellent point. Satan would love nothing more than to get us so wrapped up in dealing with all the things of this age that, when Jesus comes back, nobody is sitting at the gates waiting for Him. The enemy doesn't care if we use the Bible and treat Jesus as a means to an end for it. That doesn't scare him. In fact, he loves it because it gives us a false sense of security.
When we lose sight of the hope in the age to come, we lose sight of perhaps the essential motif of the Christian faith. Read the New Testament and pay attention. It is everywhere, from Jesus' talk about the Kingdom of God, to Him identifying Himself as the "resurrection and the life," to Paul's description of creation groaning until redemption is realized, to Peter's talk about a "living hope," to St. John's vision of the new heaven and new earth. It is Christianity. And when we do find that hope in the age to come, when we come to see the truth about this age realistically, when we remember that this age was "subjected to futility... in hope" (Rom 8), we can stop trying to squeeze out of things and people what cannot be found.
Perhaps relationships would actually become a little easier and less tense if people really believed that their partner would never create heaven on earth for them, and isn't supposed to, so that they will hope in the age to come and stop putting their hope in this age. Maybe we could give each other a break and live by grace if we truly believed that marriage and relationships also fall under the curse.
"Oh... I know it falls under the curse. I know it isn't going to be perfect." Do you, though? Do you realize what it means that this age is cursed? It means that we will constantly be reminded of falling short of our humanity, of God's image in us. It means that nothing will work the way it ought to, and even when it does for a time it is still subject to decay and death. It means that our deepest longings won't be perfectly fulfilled in this age. And it means that the world is full of people who don't really believe that and do what they will to squeeze the fulfillment of those longings out of things and people in this age.
But that is why the death and resurrection of Christ offers us actual hope. It is written that Jesus died for us "... so that we would no longer live for ourselves but for Him who died." Why does that mean? I think it means this:
We all have an inner, even unconscious sense of our own mortality and the futility of this life, but that clashes against our longing for eden. So, what do we do? We go about trying to frantically recreate eden in a broken, futile world that has a time limit on it -death. We scramble, living for ourselves, to pathetically make that paradise for ourselves in a world where it cannot be ultimately sustained. But then Jesus comes and dies for us. He dies ahead of us. And then He rises from the death, thereby ending the curse and ending death for all who believe. This means that death is no longer the end. We can rest. We no longer need to run around, scrambling to live for ourselves, because everything is given to us, reserved for us, in the age that is to come -secured by the blood of Christ for us. The impetus to live for self is destroyed. We have a real hope. Our futile quest can be thrown into the flames, and we can finally enjoy the things and relationships of this life for what they are, without trying to pour eternity into them. For everything we seek is promised to us in the age to come... an age just as real and tangible and sure as the resurrected Son of God Himself.
When you really believe that death and the end of this age is not the end of your dreams but the entrance into the beginning of their fulfillment, you no longer place all your hope in this life and in this age. And suddenly, you can relax and stop worrying about what others think, how you compare to others, who is better than you, who has beaten you and humiliated you, and how much "stuff" you accumulate. It means little... like an ebbing tide or a fading memory. "Life is a vapor," as it says in James. And life becomes about enjoying the time you have and shedding your light abroad for others, as a beacon drawing them toward the same living hope you await eagerly.