The Wrong Question
(This excerpt is taken from Dr. Tiel's book, "Why Did Adam Fall?" and other Unasked-for Sermons. To read more, you can get the book from our bookstore here.)
Texts: “Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18); “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Religious people are often obsessed with the question of how to get into the kingdom of heaven, how to guarantee a spot there rather than the fiery alternative. But sometimes, getting into heaven seems more important than understanding what it is, and that failure to consider heaven’s nature might well inhibit our entry. In fact, I suspect that asking how to get into heaven isn’t all that different from asking how to get into a girl’s pants. It’s really the wrong question. When the sole focus of our attention is the physicality of sex, we lose not only the reality of sex but its object: unifying love with a human person. Sex without love, physical intimacy without emotional intimacy, biological unity without marital fidelity—all of this sacrifices our personhood on the altar of appetite. I sometimes ask my college students whether they’d be comfortable seeing someone they shook hands with today in the breakfast line tomorrow. Naturally, they don’t yet see the point of the question, but when I then press them on whether they’d be comfortable seeing that same person in the breakfast line where their connection the day before was not hand-shaking but sexually “hooking up,” well, then the discomfiture seems prescient. Sex is a genuine unity of persons, whether we wish it to be or not. Like all metaphysical realities, it has a divinely instituted structure that we muddle to our own peril.
Unfortunately, we can have just as impoverished a view of heaven as my students sometimes have of each other’s bodies. We can think of heaven merely as a place without much consideration of the person who dwells there. That failure to consider who God is can likewise lead us to ignore who we are, whether we are the sorts of people fit to know him. A man who uses a woman for her body not only depersonalizes her, he depersonalizes himself. Thus, an obsession on place—whether sexual or heavenly—obscures the fact that those places are the hallowed meeting grounds of persons.
In our first text for today, a young man approaches Jesus obsessed with the wrong question, wondering what he has to do to get into heaven. In his mind, heaven is a place that you either get into or you miss, something you either inherit or you don’t. So, he wants to ensure he’s done all that is necessary to guarantee his ticket, ensure that he’s in God’s last will and testament. Jesus plays along with him, telling him to keep this or that commandment, but omitting the one commandment he knows goes to the core of the man’s problem. The young man excitedly replies that he’s kept all of these rules, confident now that he has his entry set. But then Jesus tells him one last thing: “Oh, by the way, go sell all that you have and follow me.” The text tells us that the man left Jesus sorrowful because he was very rich. This reveals two important considerations for our inquiry today: first, Jesus had omitted the command not to covet, because he knew that the man’s central problem was greed. By asking the man to sell all that he had, he was revealing to the man this deadly vice. But second, the real issue wasn’t his greed; it’d be better to say that greed obscured the real issue. His love of things blocked him from loving Jesus, a person, the Person! Jesus had just said to this man the same thing he said to the disciples: “Come, follow me.” He was being given the opportunity to know Jesus, but he tossed it aside for the sake of money. He didn’t realize that knowing Jesus is what heaven is. To this man, heaven was just a place where he could continue to exploit the people around him. But heaven is the personal intersection between God and man, and if you have no desire to know God, then the last place you wish to be is heaven. The rich man did not desire to know God, because to know God, he would have had to have placed a higher priority on persons than stuff. So, the question of heaven is less about place and more about the sort of person one has to be to like being there.
Heaven is the meeting of two lovers, God and man. God’s love for man is beyond doubt. As such, the only question is whether we love God. If we do, then we very definitely yearn to be with Him. If not, then we will very definitely try to avoid Him. Why? Because of who God is, His nature, in other words. It’s not for nothing that we are told that God is pure goodness, divine light in whom there is no darkness at all. If we don’t love goodness, then we don’t love God. If we love evil, then we don’t love God. If we hate our neighbors, in short, if we live lives full of vice—and moral vices are all habits of interpersonal harm—then we cannot possibly love God. Why? Because God is love.
So, if vice is more important to you than goodness, you do not want to be in heaven, because heaven is the meeting place between you and pure goodness. And if you do love goodness, then you have nothing to worry about, because God already loves you and longs to be with you. It’s not like you can miss heaven if you love God! But it’s also impossible to “get into” heaven if you really don’t love God. This is why the greatest commandment really is the greatest. It reveals the single most important thing, namely, that we must love God with all of ourselves. Only therein can we ever be happy, and as such, only therein can we possibly enter heaven. But Jesus tried to point this out to the young man when (in Luke 18:19) he challenged him for calling him “good.” The man seemed oblivious to what, and more importantly, who goodness is, namely the person standing before him.
Lastly, let’s consider what Jesus said to Nicodemus in our other text. He, too, wants to know about entering the kingdom of God. And, once again, Jesus has to shock his audience into realizing they are asking the wrong question. He tells Nicodemus that he needs to be born all over again. Supposing that this is the secret method for sneaking into heaven, Nicodemus is mystified because he cannot figure out how to climb back into his mother’s womb. But what is Jesus really telling him? You cannot just be born of woman, you must also be born of God, born of the Spirit. In short, the only way to enter heaven is to transform into the sort of person fit to know God, a transformation that is so monumental that it’s like being born all over again. Being “born again” was never meant to become a catch-phrase for conversion; it’s a metaphor of how radically different our lives must be if we are to become true lovers of God. But, like Nicodemus, we all want to cheat. We want to find a sneaky way into the kingdom that requires the least amount of change in our lives. But doing this or that to just barely make it in confuses the whole matter, for heaven is less a place and more a Person. And the only way to connect to a person is through love.
So we have to start asking the right question: what sort of person do I have to be to become God’s lover? It’s really not all that different from the kinds of questions we ask ourselves about marriage versus a one night affair. One’s moral and personal credentials don’t matter a whit to the people hooking up, but when you think about loving a person for your entire lifetime, then who you are and who she is matter a great deal. God created sexual love as a model, an image of his love for us; he surely cannot be pleased to think that we have so mucked up sexual love that it now obscures the kind of relationship he longs to have with us. But, in the end, it all comes down to the love between persons. The place really isn’t the point. Don’t ask, “What is the minimum I have to do to get into heaven?” Instead, pray directly to God as the Person that he truly is, “Lord help me to love you, to do all that is possible to become your most perfect bride.” But that’s what a saint would say, you might object. Exactly.