Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’
“Absolutely nothing can inform, guide, and sustain radical and radiant goodness in the human being other than this true vision of God and the worship based thereon.”
—Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart
Last week, Sarah Clarkson wrote a beautiful post about Sophie Scholl, a German student who was martyred during World War II because her faith in Christ led her to oppose the Nazis. Sarah’s ruminations on Sophie’s life, and her own, have got me ruminating on mine. What Sophie’s story, as Sarah tells it, reveals is the paucity of my vision of the good life—largely because the good life as I have often imagined it has little to do with Christ.
Oh, I want to be like Jesus—I have since I read In His Steps when I was eleven—but spiritual growth too often becomes an end in itself, another achievement to attain, rather than a way of living that frees me, like Jesus, to lay down my life. The good life cannot simply be about having a larger house or a beautiful yard or attaining professional success or avoiding illness, with Jesus tacked onto the periphery so that I can feel good about my spiritual life. These things I want may all be very well in their place—but such a limited vision of the good life stifles the spirit. My heart needs a broader, loftier vision to inspire my devotion, to lift me beyond myself, and to free me to live in the freedom for which Christ has set me free.
Sophie Scholl had such a vision—a vision high and true and beautiful enough to claim her whole self, her whole life. Her vision captivated her, and so claimed her complete devotion—and her young life. But Sophie knew, somehow, that even in the valley of the shadow of death, the sun was still shining. This is what faith is—the vision that sees beyond appearances to the very heart of reality. And Sophie had faith. I want to have faith, too. I want to live in the light Sophie saw.
When I first read Eugene Peterson’s book on the psalms last year, one line of it drew me up short: his assertion that evil is bounded. Evil often seems rampant and all-consuming. But Peterson claims, with centuries of Christian witness to back him up, that evil has limits beyond which it cannot go. And beyond evil—is God. God binds the evil that surrounds me. Indeed, if my life is truly hid with Christ in God, then every evil that befalls me must first pass through Christ to reach me. Jesus mitigates the evil that reaches me. It can destroy my body, and it very well may, as it did Sophie’s, but it cannot destroy my soul—unless I let it.
And this is why the paucity of my vision of the good life is so deadly. If all I can see is the American Dream and myself smack in the middle of it, the frustration or destruction of that dream will be my undoing. It is not big enough to hold me. It is not eternal, and so it provides no hope to those who cannot, for whatever reason, attain it and hold onto it.
The vision of the Kingdom of God, stripped of its long conflation with the health-and-wealth gospel of America, is a grand and sweeping vision of a new heaven and a new earth—a new creation in Christ, in which the prisoners are set free, the hungry are fed, the ill and disabled are made hale and whole, the dead are raised to new life, where God, Who is infinite Love, infinite Truth, infinite Beauty, reigns. And though we can only see His infinity in fits and glimpses, through a glass darkly, God’s utter Realness compels our devotion, our awe, our worship.
My usual vision of God is too small. It is beneath small. It is puny. Who would stand up to die for a bigger house, a perfectly manicured lawn, or success in her career? Who would face a guillotine for such things?
And yet, I daily offer myself on the altar of these things—because my vision of the good life is too small. God offers infinite riches, and I settle for the American Dream. No wonder I am unwilling to die for my faith: I am not willing to live for it. I need a bigger vision. I need Sophie’s vision, the vision of every saint who has come before me and has seen, like Saint Paul, that whatever I suffer for the sake of the True Vision is but a momentary pang compared to the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. This vision is mine for the beholding, mine for the taking, if only I would receive it, gift that it is.
I pray that Jesus would grant me—grant all of us who call ourselves by His name—a vision of life in God’s kingdom. I pray that He would help me to see bigger and broader and more boldly and set me free from my slavery to things that are not worthy of my devotion. That He would direct my gaze to Himself, Morning Star, Light of the World, Sun of Righteousness, and enlighten the eyes of my heart that I may see His beauty and the beauty of living in His way, the way of the Cross, bearing all things for love, for the joy set before me, scorning the shame of and frustration of my small house, my overgrown yard, my professional failure, and any other difficulty that comes my way.
These things may be facts of my life, but the ultimate Fact of my life is Christ dead, Christ risen, Christ coming again. I want to live in the light of that Fact so that, like Sophie, I have a vision of the good life broad enough to encompass my whole life, my whole self, a vision that enables me to live—and die—with light in my eyes.
This essay was crossposted on A Deeper Church.