Heaven, and How to Attain It
January 13, 2013
This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses
against you that I have set before you life and death,
blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and
your children may live, and that you may love the Lord
your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For
the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years
in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham,
Isaac, and Jacob.
When Jesus had called the people to him, with his
disciples also, he said to them, “Whoever will come
after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and
follow me. For whoever will save his life shall lose
it; but whoever will lose his life for my sake and the
gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what will it profit
a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own
soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
Whoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my
words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him
also shall the Son of man be ashamed when he comes
in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Reading from Swedenborg
Some people think heaven is granted to us by direct
mercy, and therefore simply involves being let in and
accepted out of good will. They do not realize that
the Lord, in his mercy, leads everyone who accepts
him; and that the people who accept him are those
who live according to the laws of the divine design,
which are the rules of love and faith. And they do not
realize that being led by the Lord from infancy to the
end of earthly life, and then on to eternity, is the true
meaning of mercy. If only they knew that everyone is
born for heaven, that people are accepted into heaven
who accept heaven into themselves in this world, and
that people who do not accept it are shut out!
(Heaven and Hell #420)
Do you want to go to heaven?
That sounds like a foolish question, perhaps. We all want to go there, do we not?
But I’m not so sure about that. Judging by appearances, many people want to go to the other place, though they may not be aware of it. It seems clear that many people today, judging by their actions, will actually want to go to hell when they die.
We don’t know, of course. And we have no right to point to this person or that. But if actions count for anything, a lot of people are choosing hell right now. And unless they do an about-face, they will choose it when they leave this world.
But to get back to our first question: Do you want to go to heaven? Are you sure you do?
I suppose we all feel we will want to go to heaven in the end because it is pictured as a place where everyone is happy. And no one will want to go to the other place, because it is pictured as a place where everyone is unhappy, and is being tormented for past sins. But we have learned much more about heaven and hell and there is still more to learn, if we will take the trouble to learn it.
This much we know for certain about heaven: those who dwell there are happy. And why not? I believe that happiness is the birthright of every human being. It is the end, or goal, for which the Lord created us. And it is the goal toward which he is leading us in every moment of our lives. Happiness is the reward or shall we say, the result of living a true and earnest life here on earth. Did not the Lord make this fact clear to his disciples, there on the mount? “Rejoice,” he said. “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad; for great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:12).
Look at the world in which we have been placed. How full it is of beauty! We miss much of it we who live in the city surrounded by rows of houses, walking on concrete pavements, almost deafened by the roar of traffic, and nearly suffocated by the smell of coal gas and exhaust from motorcars. But it is there, in the places where we haven’t spoiled God’s handiwork. The broad meadows, with sunlight and shadows racing across them. The tall, graceful trees reaching up toward the great expanse of the heavens. The quiet of the evening, as the west takes on the glow of sunset. Beauty is everywhere for those who love nature: God’s world, given to us by the all-loving God for the enjoyment of humanity.
Look at how the Lord has created us with the capability of finding deep and lasting happiness in the companionship and love of another, and placed in each heart the desire for that companionship and love. And the divine providence works constantly to help those who seek it to attain to that happiness. Yes, even in the most external ways. The urge to build a home. Freedom from privation and want. Furnishing the home. Seeking to provide everything for a happy, contented life, lived together in love and mutual cooperation. The very desire for these things is planted in the human heart by the Lord. And his providence is continually working toward helping us to attain that happiness.
In unnumbered ways, the Lord has created us with the ability to be happy and has provided the means for the attainment of that happiness. Surely, then, we may take it that happiness is the very goal, the very guerdon of our creation. It is that for which we have been placed here on earth. And it is perfectly natural that we should seek that happiness.
But we do well to think a little further on this question. Certain conditions govern the attainment of happiness. It is the part of wisdom to take them into account.
Happiness, to be true and lasting, must rest on an enduring foundation. For you see, happiness is never an arbitrary reward for living a particular kind of life. It is not given to one person and withheld from another merely at the pleasure of the Creator. Indeed, it cannot be given in the same way we might give a sum of money, a house, or an automobile. Nor is heaven a place into which the Lord invites some, and from which he bars others.
Happiness is as definitely and surely the result of right thinking and loving as the health of the body is the result of right eating and drinking—of following the laws of health. And the glories of heaven, wonderful as they are, are only the outer expression of the inner states of the angels. There is nothing arbitrary about this matter of heaven or hell—of being an angel or a devil. The angels are in heaven because they have heaven in their hearts. And the devils are in hell because they have hell in their hearts.
Heaven or hell? It is entirely a matter of “which do you really want?” And that is answered by the answer to the question, “Which are you?” This is why I asked, “Do you want to go to heaven? Are you sure you want to go there?”
But let us get back again to the consideration of marriage, for it has the potential to be the nearest approach to the life of heaven that we can experience here on earth.
Some are foolish and ignorant enough to believe that marriage, in and of itself, will give happiness. They think that all they have to do is to go through the wedding ceremony, set up housekeeping together, and Presto! they will live happily for the rest of their lives.
Well, it just doesn’t always work out that way.
Why not? Because many people ignore, or are not aware of, the conditions on which happiness in marriage rests. Marriage, in itself, is no guarantee of happiness. In fact, there is as much, if not more, unhappiness, misery, and loneliness among married people as among those who are not married. Why is that? Because a lot of people ignore, or are not aware of, the conditions upon which happiness in marriage rests.
In marriage, perhaps more than in any other human relationship, it is true that everyone gets out of it what he or she puts into it. Happiness in marriage rests upon the genuine desire of each to live for the other; to consider only the real good of the other, and place that first. If any marriage doesn’t provide all the satisfaction and joy expected of it, it would be well for each of the partners to sit down sometime and ask themselves, frankly and honestly, “Where am I falling down in this relationship? What am I failing to do that I should do to make ours a happy marriage?” [Editor’s note: This is, of course, not the case where abuse is being committed.]
The trouble is that the situation is nearly always reversed. The tendency is to make out a long, long list of the other person’s failings, and forget one’s own. This spells failure every time. [Editor’s note: Again, this is not the case where abuse is taking place.]
It is the man or woman who forgets himself or herself who finds the truest happiness in marriage— the person who says, “It is my job to see that this loved one who has united his or her life with mine is as happy as I can make him or her,” who says, “Never mind what I am getting out of this partnership; what am I putting into it? Is my husband glad he married me? Is my wife finding the joy in life that she dreamed of when we were married?” It is this person who is at least on the right road to happiness. In other words, it is those who seek not their own happiness, but instead seek to give it, who all unconsciously find it.
“Whoever will save his life”—seeks to gratify his own selfish desires; seeks his own pleasure even at the expense of others—“shall lose it.” And whoever shall lose his life”—is willing to forget his so-called “rights,” the gratifying of his own desires, the serving of his own ends—“will find it.” Not the old life. No, a new life. A new happiness of a kind that he or she did not dream of before.
So it is with heaven. Since heaven is synonymous with happiness, we naturally hope that one day we will attain it. But strangely enough, the more we set our hearts on it, believing that it will mean happiness to us, the less likely we are to realize our hope. The heavenly life is the forgetful life: forgetful of our own selves and our own happiness and comfort, of our own selfish interests.
Some folks think they earn the right to heaven by their good deeds. That is all wrong. Good that is done for the purpose of gaining heaven is not good—not to us. It may benefit others in a worldly, material way. But as far as we are concerned, it is only a form of selfishness. It is the man or woman who says, “Am I striving to live according to the laws of God?”; who has learned to be just in his dealings from the love of justice; who finds a delight in adding to the happiness and well-being of others; who will be more than just; who will be charitable—it is the man or woman who is willing to lose his own life for the sake of Christ and the living of his teachings who will find heaven, though he or she never gives a moment’s thought to the seeking of it.
There is nothing inherently selfish in looking forward to a life of happiness in the great beyond. It is our birthright. It will, if we attain to it, be the gift of God. And at first, the desire to secure that happiness may be an influence within us to seek to do what is right and good. But in the end, that must cease to be the motive for our right living. In the end, we must be moved only by the desire to bring happiness into the lives of others; to serve them; to help others on the pathway to God and heaven.
Is that an impossible picture? Do we feel like the Psalmist, who cried, “It is high; I cannot attain unto it”? (Psalm 139:6).
“With man, it is impossible.” In our own efforts, guided by our own prudence, lived in our own strength, it is impossible. But “with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
Do you want to go to heaven? Do I want to go to heaven? We shall go there, if we do want it. But we must bring at least something of heaven into our hearts and lives here on earth if we are really going to want it in the great beyond.
Creator God, we thank you for setting before us life and death, blessings and curses. Give us, we pray, a heart to choose life, and hands to live in the way of life. Give us a desire for heaven that is not merely theoretical, but is one that transforms us from the inside out, so that we are living a life of heaven here on earth. Then in the end, welcome us into your many mansions. Amen.
Not with the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward;
But as thyself hast loved me,
O ever-loving Lord!
E’en so I love thee, and will love,
And in thy praise will sing,
Solely because thou art my God,
And my eternal King.
- Latin, 17th century, trans. E. Caswall
Protect us, Lord, during this our earthly pilgrimage, that we may seek you diligently, walk with you lovingly, and serve you faithfully; and, having been ready to do your will in the world, may we be eager to meet you in the glory of heaven; through Christ our Lord.
- Richard Baxter (1615-1691)
O God of grace and freedom,
increase our desire for truth,
that we may live honestly with brother and sister.
Increase our desire for what is right,
that we may live justly with our neighbors.
Increase your compassion in us,
that we may love even our enemies for your sake.
- Julie M. Hulme, 2001
Rev. William H. Beales