Continued from last week
So, here’s my theory: We are born as pretty selfish little creatures. From the very beginning there is a battle going on inside us. The image of God, the perfect, selfless, sacrificial God of Love in whose image we are made is at odds with the brokenness and failure that seem to be our inheritance.
What does St Paul say in Romans 7? “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.”
That pretty much sums up the human condition. I know what’s good. I do what’s bad. If I allow the selfishness in me to take over my being, when I die, that’s pretty much who I will be forever. Eternal aloneness. Just me. Forever. Maybe the first few eons would be tolerable, but eventually even I would get bored with myself. The good news is that this eternal aloneness is actually quite avoidable.
C.S. Lewis has the devil complaining that God is such a sophist. He will save a person on the flimsiest grounds. Why, even good intentions are taken into account! As St. Augustine puts it “To wish to go is to go.” In other words, all one must do is honestly admit that he has failed and needs God, and God will teach him how to fall in love with God. It may take some time, but if I admit that I need help and ask the Lord to change my heart, then I can spend eternity at an unending wedding feast. Not only that, I am not just a guest, I am somehow part of the bride and groom. The joy of one’s own wedding is just the crudest analogy. Heaven is more than we can imagine. So, it’s up to me. Heaven or hell. The wedding feast or the outer darkness. There is, however, a problem. To be happily married one must fall in love; really fall in love, selflessly head over heels crazy in love. Otherwise even a wedding feast can be a bit of a trial.
If you’ve ever fallen in love, I mean really in love, the only thing that matters is the other. To love is to allow yourself to forget yourself. I remember a fellow who drove about a hundred miles every day just to have lunch with his girlfriend who was in college. To you it seems nuts. To him it seemed reasonable.
I remember another story of a young man who married his high school sweetheart. Not long after the wedding she was injured in a terrible accident and was unable to use her arms and legs. She had also suffered some mental impairment. The years passed and he loved her no less. Every Sunday he would dress her in her finest and bring her to church. This continued as the young man slowly became an old one. A new pastor came to the parish and was told the story of the old couple who never missed Mass together, and once as church was letting out, the pastor said to the old man, “I so admire your sacrifice.”
The old man looked very confused, and said, “What sacrifice?”
The priest returned, “Well, every Sunday for as long as anyone can remember, you have dressed your wife in her Sunday best, and brought her here to church. It must be a great sacrifice for you to have done this all years.”
The old man looked shocked and said, “Father, it was no sacrifice! I love her.”
You see, true sacrificial love doesn’t notice that it is sacrificial. To live for God, to die for God, when one perceives the beauty of God there is no sacrifice. How often we hear stories of martyrs rejoicing on their way to death, singing and laughing. It is as if they are on the way to a wedding, which in fact, they are. But I, sinner that I am, count the cost and begrudge every little inconvenience that my relationship with God entails. I count the cost down to the penny. The amazing thing is that God loves me so much that He will make excuses for me if only I let him do so.
Therein lies the rub! There are people who would love to go to heaven, if they didn’t have to fall in love to do so. They have decided that they are the only person in their life really worth loving. Oh sure, they might desire another person, but they desire another person the way one might want a toy or an amusement. When the other is no longer amusing, they move on to the next recreation. There are people who have children in our times, as if somehow children were an accessory to the good life. As soon as things get tough, they find someone to do the heavy lifting for them. Some people don’t even bother with children. They convince themselves that the moral thing to do is get a pet and not burden the world with another human being.
The craze for pets in our times is astonishing. Now mind you, one of my best friends is a dog, but she is a dog. She has an owner, not a pet parent. We do not celebrate her birthday, nor does she get spa treatments. When one looks down the pet aisle in a grocery store, one cannot help but notice that things have gotten a bit out of control. Pets are wonderful. All that compassion and affection and they ask so very little…… That’s a great thing for people who want to give little. (Please don’t get too huffy about this. This does not apply to you. You have a perfectly healthy relationship with your Lhasa Apso/Rottweiler mixed-breed or your eighteen cats.)
The first step to heaven is the confession of sin. The word confess means to admit or agree. What are we agreeing with? Simple: We are agreeing with God’s opinion that we are not perfect. We have failed. We are sinners. Here is a bit of a problem. In the modern world we are trained to admit no such thing. It’s not our fault. Everyone is a winner. We give awards to everyone who runs the race. Competitive sports are frowned on in progressive schools. Medals and trophies are handed out like Kleenex lest anyone be offended. It’s not my fault! Since the groundbreaking work of Sigmund Freud we have the luxury of explaining everything away as the result of poor potty training or being frightened by a circus clown at the age of three. It’s not my fault that I am an axe murderer. I just developed a fondness for sharp objects because Poppa once cut himself while shaving and asked me to go get a band aid.
It’s not my fault that I am a sinner. I really have no free will. I can’t resist the compulsion to pick the wings off flies and throw cats out the window. God made me who I am. It’s His fault. God has got a lot to answer for. Poor people and sick children and concentration camps and freight trains stopped at railroad crossings in heavy traffic! Who does God think He is to judge me? If there actually is a God, He is going to have to explain a few things when I get my hands on Him. How dare He? God is just going to have to get over Himself and get with the times.
If I am right that narcissism is the sure fire way to go to hell, then the current age may be the very school of hell. We have our 1.8 children all of whom are definitely above average and all of whom are so gorgeous that parents are sure they should all have made a fortune modeling for baby food commercials. We convince our kids that the universe was somehow incomplete until they arrived. And guess what? The little prima donnas believe us. They walk around with their electronic devices taking pictures of themselves and wondering why the world doesn’t realize that they are geniuses who should never actually have to do an honest day’s work. They are unable to commit themselves to hard work or to stable relationships, like marriage and parenthood.
Hell may have no one in it, but it seems that a lot of people are applying for entrance these days. I have heard that all you have in heaven is what you gave away on earth, and conversely, all the useless stuff you cling to will eventually drag you down to hell.
Freedom? What was God thinking when He gave us freedom? Shouldn’t God make us happy whether we want to be happy or not, just like our parents try to do? Isn’t it His job to give us all the stuff we want just like mommy and daddy and daddy’s new boyfriend so we won’t be sad? Shouldn’t He support us when we shack up with our significant other and not mention the word sin? After all, we wouldn’t want Him to hurt our feelings. Jesus never hurt anyone’s feelings. (For the humor impaired, this is sarcasm.)
I think Bishop Barron is quite correct. He says that since freedom is essential for love, hell must exist. If there is no chance to say “No!” to God’s love and forgiveness, there can be neither love nor forgiveness. You cannot be forced to love. We may well hope there is no one in hell, but Bishop Barron, whom I regard as a very great man and quite possibly a genius, is quite correct. There is a hell. And it is quite possible that I might end up there if I don’t admit my need for God and ask Him to change my heart.