Over the last couple of years, I’ve experienced what I can only describe as a spiritual awakening. I have believed in God, accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and sought to trust and obey him since I was a young child. With that, I don’t have a mind-bending come-to-Jesus story. But what I’ve discovered recently has really been life-changing. It’s like I opened up this box and discovered an abundance of treasure inside, that’s started spilling out everywhere, and painting a whole new world for me!
Spoiler alert: it’s all in the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God, fully inspired by God, fully trustworthy and fully relevant to our lives today. It’s the foundation of all that I believe and experience. But my understanding of and perspective on it has grown substantially and that’s made all the difference.
In John 10:9-10, Jesus says, "I am the Gateway. To enter through me is to experience life, freedom, and satisfaction. A thief has only one thing in mind - he wants to steal, slaughter, and destroy. But I have come to give you everything in abundance, more than you expect, life in its fullness until you overflow!" Is Jesus the smartest man to ever walk the earth? Do you think he meant what he said? I do! I would suggest this might be the only place where Jesus himself states his purpose in coming to Earth. And consider all the other statements in the Bible about what life should or will be like in God's Kingdom. What if those are for us...now? What if there's a whole new way of life, just waiting for us to tap into it? What if those statements describe what Jesus, Paul, and others in the Bible really knew and expected of human life when sourced from above?
From personal experience, I can tell you that yes, it is all there for us and it starts right now. JOY...PEACE...HOPE...these are conditions of the soul, not inconsistent feelings...as well as patience, self-control, purpose, significance, acceptance, contentment, gratitude...and it doesn't depend on circumstances. I've found freedom from stress, worry, striving, discouragement, guilt, fear, shame, inferiority, insecurity...And in case you think my life is all hunky-dory, you might want to pause here and read my story.
My hope in writing this is that it causes you to think about how you understand each of these topics and that you dive deeper so you find it true for yourself, as well. Then you’ll begin to experience the abundant life of goodness, peace and joy that comes about as result of taking God’s truth and promises to heart, and living in his kingdom (Romans 14:17)…it's here for you now, too.
First, what happens after you die...
Well, to start, if you're a friend of Jesus and have received the life from above, you won't die. Again, is Jesus crazy or brilliant and strategic? John 8:51; 2 Timothy 1:10. We'll come back to that. But for me, it first started with reading John Eldredge’s All Things New. This provided an incredible perspective and genuine hope of what eternity with Jesus will actually be like, and for the first time I was actually super-excited about Jesus’ imminent return and what happens afterwards. This was strengthened by Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy and other teachings of his. In short, I have learned that eternity will not be an unending church service in the sky but rather an ongoing adventure of the life we have now, where we fulfill what God originally created Adam and Eve for – to rule and reign with Him in his great universe. (Genesis 1:26, Psalm 8, Rev. 22:5). Having this hope and understanding makes what happens on earth in your human body much, much, less important. It allows you to really focus on the things that will matter for eternity. It gives you purpose. "You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God's great universe, here to become the person God created you to be, so that he can empower you to do what you want, as you rule and reign with him." (Dallas Willard)
But, it isn’t really about getting into heaven...
Accepting Jesus as our Savior, and recognizing his death on the cross as the door that allows us this eternal life in intimacy with God, is, I think, nonnegotiable. But his death and resurrection was a means to an end…it was so that we could have eternal life (John 3:16). Eternal life is defined by Jesus in John 17:3 as knowing God. “Knowing” is about experiencing someone (or thing) intimately and interactively, not having knowledge about them. The gospel that Jesus preached was that we can live in the kingdom of God now, experiencing eternal life that starts now, by walking in daily conversational relationship with God…now and forever. The promises of abundant life, the fruit of the Spirit, joy through suffering, and all the other promises described in the Bible are meant to be experienced now. Salvation is a quality of LIFE that starts NOW, living in the kingdom of God in relationship with Jesus. And that is the gospel message we should be teaching.
And you’ve got to understand the larger story that we’re in…
Life doesn’t make sense when we don’t understand the story we’re in. We live in a world at war. We have an enemy that’s seeking to destroy us. The unseen spiritual realm is reality. These things are so important and helpful to understand! You can understand why God allows bad things to happen when you look at it in this perspective. You’ll also have a better understanding of the nature of God, his unquestionable goodness and love. Because God IS good and, although he can certainly handle our questions, when you really understand the Story, you simply won’t question his goodness. You’ll understand why bad things happen and you’ll trust that he’ll work it for good for you (Romans 8:28).
Then there’s your identity as a child of God…
When you really understand and embrace who you are as a child of God, as an intimate friend, even brother or sister of Jesus, it changes your life in a huge way! Once we accept Jesus as Savior, we have a literal new spiritual life as a child of God. He then sees us as flawless, holy, restored…because of Christ. We are not slaves or even servants…we are Jesus's intimate friends, God's beloved children, and we get to approach him as our true Father. It changes everything.
And we should be becoming more like Jesus…
As a child of God we should be growing to become more like Jesus. The fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control) should be continually growing into greater prominence in our lives. People should see Jesus when they see us! Becoming like Jesus, where we naturally and easily do the things he said to do, is both the goal and the hope of our salvation. There is so much freedom to be found when you discover that no; you don’t have to struggle with any particular sin for the duration of your time on earth. You don’t! (More on that in a moment.)
Tragically though, too many Christians have bought into the lie that you’re “not perfect, just forgiven.” Which is true…but you can get a lot closer to perfect than being just forgiven; a lot closer to perfect than what we’ve been told. This lack of character transformation…at the heart level…is why the world looks at us with skepticism, seeing no significant difference in our thought and emotional lives and behavior patterns than that of an unbeliever. Why isn’t there a difference?
“The simple program of Christ for winning the whole world is to make each person he touches magnetic enough with love to draw others.” ~ Frank Laubach
“Disciples are those who have been so ravished with Christ that others want to be like them. Others look at those disciples’ life in the kingdom of God, and they say, “This is the best thing I ever saw in my life. I must have that.” ~ Dallas Willard
…but you won’t be zapped into it. So how do you do your part?
We’ve not been taught our role in this transformation. The concept of grace, unmerited favor, has created a largely apathetic church. But grace is opposed to an attitude of earning, not the action of effort. We do have a very real role to play in our growth towards Christ-likeness. We aim at transformation at the heart level, and the behavior takes care of itself. The flaw in Christendom today is aiming at the behavior…that leads to legalism, and it’s deadly.
For transformation at the heart-level to occur, the first thing we must recognize is that indeed, it is the action of the Holy Spirit that brings us the ability to live in freedom over sin. It’s the Holy Spirit that produces the fruit listed above (Galatians 5:22-23). It’s about continually submitting to the Holy Spirit. (Romans 8)
Galatians 5:16…as you yield freely and fully to the dynamic life and power of the Holy Spirit, you will abandon the cravings of the self-life. If you’re unsure what those self-life cravings are, just continue reading to verse 19 where Paul lists the cravings of the self-life; you’ll recognize them! (Especially if you read that list in The Passion Translation). Follow that up with a study of Romans 8:4-16 and John 15:1-17, and you’ll see how the responsibility of transformation lies with the Spirit.
But we have to choose to continually turn our minds and hearts toward God, to submit to him, and to take action in training to become like him. This is where the much neglected spiritual disciplines come into play. It’s not a checklist of things to do; disciplines are simply training. They’re actions that we do, that enable us to do something we couldn’t otherwise do. We should be intentional with disciplines that Jesus and the apostles demonstrated: silence, solitude, fasting, Scripture memorization, and prayer are the top of my list. Study more of this in this article on discipleship and/or the books listed below. When we take action with these disciplines, we partner with God to bring about the change within our heart. He will not simply zap you into Jesus Jr.
And most important of all…what we’re doing here.
In our training, we will be choosing to become disciples (or apprentices, students) of Jesus. Jesus is our brilliant Master Teacher and we can learn from him how to live our lives as he would, if he was us. He knows the best thing for us to do in every situation! We can learn how to become the type of person who obeys his words (John 14 & 15) and actually does the things he said to do.
The simplest way to look at all of this is that union, or oneness with God is our purpose for being. Walking daily in intimate, conversational relationship with God. That’s the goal we should be aiming for. Everything else will flow from that.
The life that is pleasing to God is not a series of religious duties. We have only one thing to do, namely, to experience a life of intimacy and relationship with God.- John Ortberg
And out of that, you will discover a life of purpose, of significance and of power to influence good and advance the kingdom of God on earth. That will certainly happen and you will find great fulfillment and satisfaction. But only when you live out of life-union with God.
Worry, fear, stress…it all goes out the window when you live in the Kingdom of God now, understanding these truths by experience. Instead you’ll live in freedom, hope, joy, peace and goodness! It’s a WIN! It’s the abundant life that Jesus promised he came to bring (John 10:10). It’s why being a student and follower of Jesus is the BEST thing EVER! Discipleship to Christ is the greatest opportunity you'll ever have.
So, to recap the key points of this treasure I’ve discovered…and just a few of the Scriptures that speak to it.
Heaven, eternity with God, will be a grand adventure (Genesis 1, Psalm 8, Revelation 5:10, 21:1-5, 22:5)
We are living in a much Larger Story than we understand…(2 Cor. 10:3-4, Ephesians 6:12, 1 Pet. 5:8)
Salvation is about living life with God now and forever not just getting into heaven when we die (John 3:16, John 17:3, John 15:1-15)
Our identity as a child of God should dramatically impact our emotions, thoughts, behavior – how we live (1 John 3:1, John 15:9, eph. 1:5-6, Rom. 8:16, John 15:14-15, Rom. 5:1, Col. 1:21-22)
We should be continually producing more fruit of the Spirit and less of our self-life cravings (Luke 6:45, John 14:15, 21; Col. 1:10, Col. 3:1-17, 2 Pet. 1:3-11)
We do this by submitting to the Holy Spirit and letting him transform our hearts
But we do our part to partner with him by training in disciplines that grow us in Christ-likeness
And it’s ultimately all about union with God. Daily, intimate, conversational relationship, doing life with and learning from Jesus and thus advancing his kingdom. (John 14 & 15)
Let me leave you with these questions for your consideration:
What are the first three things you’re going to do when you see Jesus (after he returns, or after you’re “promoted”)?
Do you live each day with hopeful anticipation of Jesus return?
How do you reconcile the bad things that happen in our world with the goodness of God?
What is the gospel that you preach/teach…or that you demonstrate by the way you live?
How does the way you engage with God reflect your understanding of how he sees you?
How are you growing in Christlikeness? How are you training to do your part in that spiritual formation?
What is your goal with Christianity?
(How) do you structure your day so union with God is the priority?
For Further Study:
· On eternity: All Things New by John Eldredge, The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard, Heaven by Randy Alcorn
· Salvation as a life: The Divine Conspiracy and Hearing God both by Dallas Willard; Preparing for Heaven: What Dallas Willard Taught Me Living, Dying and Eternal Life by Gary
Black; Eternity is Now in Session by John Ortberg
· Neil Anderson’s Victory Over the Darkness for more your identity as God’s child, its transformative impact on your life and behavior, the nature of God and his will.
· John Eldredge’s Epic, and Waking the Dead for more on the Larger Story, the War, and God’s character
· Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Diciplines and Richard Foster’s Celebration of Disciplines, on training towards Christlikeness
· The Divine Conspiracy (Willard again) is the best for an overall look at living in God’s kingdom, as his disciple, now and forever.