Editorial NotesThis is a relatively short three panel episode. It still may take a minute or so to load, so why not spend that minute reading the thoughts below?
This short episode deals with what I believe to be one of the great paradoxes of mainstream Christianity. In other words, after almost two decades of "going to church", thereís something I still canít figure out.
There seems to be some tremendous evil out there just waiting to snag me and drag me down into the depths of spiritual oblivion. Of all the evils we Christians are supposed to avoid, there in one in particular that seems to eclipse all others in its ubiquity and its potential to separate us from God. I assume this because itís the one evil that I have been warned about from the pulpit far more than any other evil. This is the evil of trying to "work your way to heaven."
For some reason I need to be told over and over again that I canít work my way to heaven. I never once thought that I could. I donít know that I have ever met someone who thought they could, much less anyone who was actively trying to.
The more I think about this phrase "work your way to heaven", the more meaningless it becomes. I know what it means to work my way "to" something. I have worked my way "to" a college degree more than once. I did this by earning a certain number of credits at which time I was awarded a degree and no longer had to attend class. I have worked my way "to" getting promoted at work. I worked to demonstrate certain skills and in return received a different title and a raise.
What does it mean to "work your way to heaven"? Does this mean that there is a series of tasks I must work to complete and upon completion I am entitled a trip to heaven? Have you ever met someone who believes this, Christian or not? I havenít. Maybe there are people who believe this, but are there enough of them to warrant the number of times I have been warned against this from the pulpit? Well, whoever they are, I think they have received fair warning as to the error of their ways.
Is it possible that there are erroneous ways to live other than trying to "work your way to heaven"? Jesus told a parable about a farmer who went out to sow seed. Some seeds fell along a path. Some fell on rock. Other seeds fell in among thorns, while still others fell on good soil and yielded a crop amounting to a hundred times what was sown. (I am paraphrasing Luke 7).
The classic bible-study discussion that comes at the end of this parable is "what kind of soil are you?" The seeds along the path are the people who hear and donít believe. The seeds on the rock are people who believe for a short time but quickly fall away when things get rough. This is because they have no roots. The seed that fell among thorns are the ones who believe but are choked by lifeís "worries, riches, and pleasures". Finally, the seeds in the good soil are the ones who mature and produce a crop.
It is interesting to me that only two of the four seeds above can stay in their situation for their entire lives . The seeds on the path are gone immediately, and the seeds on the rock fall away soon after. However, the seeds in the thorns and the seeds in the good soil can remain in there respective places indefinitely. The difference is that the seeds in the good soil mature and the seeds in the thorns do not.
What have these seeds got to do with working my way to heaven? Here is what I have found to be the paradox of mainstream "church". I am continually told not to try to "work my way to heaven" though neither I, nor anyone around me, it trying to do that. I am rarely if ever warned against being a "choked seed", while that very metaphor aptly describes most of my Christian life and the lives of the Christians around me.
For almost the past twenty years, Iíve sat through "worship service" with rooms full of Christians who are either stressed-out, chasing their own worldly advancement, or wasting their limited days on Earth with pleasurable pastimes. I confess that I have spent way too much time in all of the above.
In fact, these three "chokers" tend to feed each other. The person who is stressed-out may waste a lot of time in escapist pastimes in order to medicate their stress. Relentlessly pursuing worldly advancement can get someone pretty stressed-out. The three "seed chokers", if not done away with, result in a plant that bears no fruit. From what Iíve read in the Bible, a life with no fruit does not have a happy ending.
We live in a culture that is saturated with "seed chokers". Thereís always something to worry about. If youíre personal life is OK you can worry about world events. Thereís always an opportunity for worldly advancement, especially if you want to spend all your time working for it. Once you have some time and money, there are more pleasures and pastimes to choose from than I could even begin to count.
It seems to me that warnings against being choked by lifeís worries, riches, and pleasures deserve a lot more "air time", and warnings against "working my way to heaven" deserve a lot less. Itís like Iím on a ship that is rapidly taking on water while the crew is running around with fire extinguishers. To me, the main problem with Christianity in America is not that the tens of millions of people who call themselves Christians are spending all their time relentlessly performing good deeds to try to work their way to heaven. Thatís a problem I wish we did have.
Why then, have I been continually warned against trying to "work my way to heaven"? In my opinion, itís because one can be bold about preaching this without taking any risk. Who will be offended by being told not to work? Not me, itís what I want to hear. I want someone to tell me that I can be "saved" without doing any work. What I donít want to hear is that all the stuff I worry about, and my precious materialistic goals, and my favorite pleasurable pastimes can all combine together to render my life a futile waste of time.
Now, youíll forgive me if I have a bit of fun and extend the seed metaphor a bit. The problem with "choked seeds" is that they are surrounded by thorns. Thorn bushes can offer a lot of protection to a little plant. If I want to reach through the thorns and move that seed somewhere else, I am likely to get scratched. In fact, If I am that little immature plant and I want to move to the good soil, I have to untangle or cut through those thorns that have grown up around me. I could lose a few of my leaves in the process. Moving a "choked seed" from the thorns to the good soil might be a painful process. I donít like painful processes, and I am not going to like anyone telling me that I need to undergo a painful process. But thatís really what I need.
Just one more thought. Hereís a passage from the book of Romans chapter 2: verses 6 through 8 (NIV). The book of Romans is, as far as I can tell, the primary source for the "you canít work your way to heaven" sermons.
God "will give to each person according to what he has done." To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.
Paul says here that there are two consequences available to us. 1) Glory, honor, and immortality by persistence in doing good, or 2) the wrath and anger of God as a result of a life of "self-seeking".
Today, if you go around telling people that you are seeking glory, honor, and immortality by being persistent in doing good, donít be surprised if someone doubts your faith and warns you against trying to "work your way to heaven."