October 19, 2017

Are We There Yet?

By Damaris Zehner

Last Sunday, the Bible readings included John 13:33-35 and Revelation 21:3-4. An odd conjunction struck me.

  • In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.”
  • In Revelation, John tells us that he heard “a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.’”

The first passage tells us that God the Son is not with us; the second confirms it by saying that at some point in the future he will be with us. And yet the Kingdom of Heaven is among us now, isn’t it? And the Bible tells us that God is not far from us if we call on him. So is God with us, or is he not? If he is, in what sense is he with us?

Guess what? I can’t answer these questions. I’m not a theologian or scholar. And even if I were, I suspect that the answer is paradoxical and would involve an understanding of both time and eternity, of how things can be still in the future and yet perfectly fulfilled.

What I have to offer instead is, I hope, the reassurance of realism.

God is not currently with us as he will one day be.

Do any of you find this statement a relief? I do. It reassures me that this is not all there is. That my current prayer life of distraction, lukewarmness, and misunderstanding are not the best it’s going to get.

Maybe – probably – you all have known this all along. Maybe you’re content to be running the race, knowing that you haven’t reached the goal. I hope so. But I do think there are a lot of Christians who were told, “Now that you’ve asked God into your heart, that’s it! You’re saved!” And who have subsequently thought, “Really? Is this all there is? Why is my life so dry?”

Anthony Bloom, in his excellent book Beginning to Pray, says something similar:

Try and think about the absence of God, and do realize that before you can knock at the door . . . you must realize that you are outside. If you spend your time imagining that in a mad way you are already in the kingdom of God, there is certainly no point in knocking at any door for it to be opened. Obviously you must look round trying to see where are the angels and the saints, and where the mansion is which belongs to you, and when you see nothing but darkness or walls, you can quite legitimately find it surprising that Paradise is so unattractive. We must all realize that we are not yet in it, that we are still outsiders to the kingdom of God, and then ask ourselves ‘Where is the door and how does one knock at it?’

The author here is talking about spiritual beginners; the book is called Beginning to Pray, after all. But I suspect we’re beginners all of our lives, given the eternity required for knowing and approaching God. And we will remain not just beginners but outsiders if we don’t have the humility and clarity to admit that we are not as we should be, that our relationship with God is hampered by our sins and weaknesses, that we are in fact outside and must beg for mercy to be admitted. The publican would have agreed that he was outside and longing to be in; the Pharisee would have said he was a solid insider. Which one went home justified before God?

This isn’t all there is. If we sense our distance from God, we’re right. We aren’t there yet. And it will be a long trip, but for those who humble themselves to knock at the door, the destination will be worth waiting for. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’”

Comments

  1. Boethius says:

    I truly enjoyed this essay. It answers the question why some Christians, and I am one of them, joyfully wait in anticipation for the life after death or Christ’s returning rather than this life. I will “occupy until He comes” but I will be most joyful when I get to go home. Sometimes I just feel so tired even though we are told not to “grow weary in doing well.”

    • It is good to look forward to the future, to the return of Christ and to the new life, but we are called to do more than merely occupy. We are called to establish God’s Kingdom here on earth. Not a political Kingdom, but a Kingdom governed by the Holy Spirit, filled with people who do God’s will, and train others to do likewise.

      This Kingdom is incomplete. It falters and stumbles and needs to be helped along. What’s more, this Kingdom advances as the people who build it suffer. It is by laying down our lives and pursuing the way of the cross that we build God’s Kingdom.

      So I understand the desire for Jesus to return, but I believe that we can make God’s Kingdom come even now, in some small way, and taste the fruit of what is to come.

  2. A wonderful post, a very hopeful offering for this (in Kansas City, at least) very rainy and cool Wednesday morning. The “always a beginner” riff sounds very Merton-esque, I think he said something very similar. I think the truth of what you’ve written is a great antidote for smug “We’ve got Jeeee-zussss…..and that’s all we need-ism” It’s the now and not-yet of the Kingdom.

    great work
    Greg R

  3. Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

    This may sound like a seminary cliche, but I’ve really been digging the concept of “already-and-not-yet” as the tension we live in as part of the inaugurated Kingdom of God.

    • Darn,

      You stole the comment I was going to make. 🙂

      As an interesting side note, Matthew 5 talks about the kingdom of heaven being a present reality for the poor in spirit, and for those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.

      For everyone else it speaks of a future fulfillment of their blessing. My partial understanding of this is that if you are willing to be stand up under persecution for the sake of Christ, then you are unquestionably part of his body and kingdom.

    • I was thinking about saying this as well. I would add that anyone who wants to study more on this subject should read the Gospel of the Kingdom by George Ladd. It’s a slim book and he lays a good theological foundation for the idea that God’s Kingdom is both already and not yet.

      Of course, better than reading books is going out and practicing. Seeing what we can do to advance God’s Kingdom and learning to cultivate patience so we can hold on until the Kingdom arrives in full.

  4. I agree with “already-and-not-yet”, but I think the “always a beginner” is at odds with the exhortation of Hebrews 6:1 to press on to maturity, and at odds Paul’s own claim to have “finished the course” in 2 Tim. 4:7.

    If we were not intended to get on a path towards maturity, then why would God need to send his Spirit as a helper?

    • Maybe an analogy would help here. For years, I worked with one of the finest faux finishers in a decent sized city. Just when you thought you knew somethng about multiple glaze layers and subtle texturing, my boss would whip out something that was a “14” on the one-to-ten scale. So, even though we are always growing and learning (striving for maturity) the richess of God are like the depths of the ocean. We may have logged a lot of scuba hrs, but the vastness of what we are swimming in, makes it seem as if we’ve hardly started. And at times the difficulty of what we are about makes us feel like the rankest of beginners.

      Does that fit with hebrews 6 ??

      Greg R

    • Perhaps one aspect of maturity is realizing more and more how far one has to go, and not letting that discourage us or make us apathetic, but rather having it spur us on toward Christ. Philippians 3 comes to mind–“not that I’ve attained. . . but I press on.”

      • For me, that’s so on the money…..and for what it’s worth, my faux finishing boss had that exact attitude: always learning and getting better, even though his work belonged in Architectural Digest.

      • That’s helpful, thanks.
        Perhaps what you are describiung is both a sense of progress, and with it an expanding of the view of the seemingly endless horizon ahead.

  5. At the risk of sounding too mystical, I get the impression from scripture that God’s spirit, that third person of the trinity, has always been here on earth, since the beginning. So in that sense, God has always been with His creation, through the constant presence of His spirit.

    • I agree with this, but at the same time, scripture does talk about God’s absence. Many of the psalmists ask God, why are you so far from me?

      Most of us have this idea that God is omnipresent, and I certainly believe he is, but there is a sense that often times God isn’t fully present. This is something I still struggle to understand.

      On a similar note, there’s the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus says to the goats, go away, I never knew you. That one always makes me scratch my head. I want to say, but you’re omniscient, how can you not know someone?

      I think I understand what Jesus was getting at, but the way he says it is at odds with my own philosophical ideas about God. It makes me wonder sometimes.

      • Lukas db says:

        The problem is perhaps, at least partially, that english uses the word ‘know’ in two distinct senses. In French there are two words for ‘know;’ connaitre, which indicates factual knowledge; and savoir, which indicates an experiential knowledge – an apprehension of something’s nature or of truth through direct contact or experience. I find this a useful distinction; I suspect that when Christ said ‘I never knew you,’ He meant it more in the sense of savoir. He knows about the person, and everything about them, factually of course; but He doesn’t know them in a deep and personal manner.

        • Damaris says:

          A useful distinction, Lukas. We should especially bear it in mind when we’re tempted to think that salvation/relationship with God is just knowing about Him, as opposed to knowing Him.

    • Theresa Simione says:

      But Jesus did say – He had to go to send the Holy Spirit …but He will be back at some point, so someone is with us and yet someone is not – already and not yet seems to fit here too..just a thought.

  6. Maybe its the same idea as the Spirit of God abiding in the believer (1 John) and “if you have not the Spirit you are none of His” (Romans) and still being exorted in Ephesians to “be filled with the Spirit”. There seems to be a distinction between “having” and “being filled” or controlled. So there is a difference between God’s presence as in omnipresent, He will never leave us and His presence being more fully realized or experienced. (Maybe my rambling makes a little sense.)

  7. wandering_sheep says:

    It is both real and unimaginable, the finite distance we have covered and the infinite distance we have yet to cover, the perfection that can never be attained and the obligation to work towards it nonetheless, like a gate at the end of an endless path. An infinite future enclosed by eternal truth. Such a beautiful concept…

  8. solid…I linked to this on my facebook, still enjoying the good thoughts and musings on this site…thanks for keeping it going, I am a reformed baptist and I constantly find myself needing…balance.

  9. I like this. It reminded me of one of my (many) favorite quotes from G.K. Chesterton. I can’t remember it verbatim, but he says that other systems of belief try to create happiness and fulfilment by somehow making us fit into the world, while Christian happiness and fulfilment and hope are based on the fact that we DON’T fit into this world. It’s encouraging, especially when you read the news.