February 9, 2016 by Alex Johannigman
In one of the final evenings of 2014 I found myself enjoying a couple pints at one of my favorite bars in Austin with a number of old friends from my home parish, many of whom, like me, had moved away but had returned home for the holidays. After we all said our farewells for the evening, one of my friends wanted to continue our conversation as we approached our cars. He explained to me that he had been struggling a lot with his faith lately. He felt like he was following all of the rules and obeying the moral code that God had given us so that we can live according to our design, but he wasn’t feeling like he was getting rewarded for it. In particular, he really wanted to get married some day, but kept seeing his friends get married while he struggled to start a successful relationship. He felt like the rewards he got in this life for following God didn’t exceed what he had to sacrifice to live for God rather than purely for himself.
This struck me because I tend to view my faith as true because it makes our lives here on Earth make more sense, and therefore bring us greater joy and satisfaction. The anthropology for humankind that the Catholic Church (and Christianity at large) proposes makes sense for me because my life has been so much more fulfilling when I have been following God than in times when I didn’t. And if I’m totally honest with myself, a large part of what has kept me faithful to God in recent years is that I’ve seen my life get so much better as I’ve given Jesus more of it.
But that’s not the case for everyone.
This hadn’t been true for my friend that night when we talked in the parking lot of the bar well past midnight. It wasn’t true for a number of saints such as Mother Teresa who experienced a lonely life of spiritual desolation in her later years when she was serving Christ most self-sacrificially. It wasn’t true for the countless martyrs for the faith, particularly in the Roman Empire and in the 20th and 21st centuries in the Middle East. It wasn’t true for Jesus Christ himself as he marched to his own crucifixion.
We need to move away from an understanding of Christianity that says that when we follow God, our lives here on Earth will get better. For some this is the case. God has freed countless sinners from serious sin that was destroying their lives, and brought them to a place where they can have hope in their futures. He’s blessed many faithful people for their obedience in him and the amount of trust they’ve placed in God’s plan. But that’s not why we are Christian.
That’s the prosperity gospel, not the gospel of Christ crucified.
We ought to love and follow God for two reasons. Spoiler alert: being rewarded with an easy and fulfilling life is not one of them.
- He first loved us and created us
- He wants us to live with him for eternity
Needing to serve God for reasons other than my own fulfillment on Earth stood out for me as a major theme when I looked back at the previous year over this past month. 2015 was an interesting year for me. It was a year when God reminded me often of my own mortality.
Shortly after I started my current job I was introduced to my manager’s boss who worked in our office in London. Clinton was an incredibly intelligent and charismatic man. Despite only being in his mid-thirties, he had already climbed to upper management. Although he was a busy man with lots of appointments during his trip to Texas, he was very interested in getting to know me personally in his first visit to our office since I started working there. He asked if he could buy me a beer after work and chat for a bit one-on-one. After a very brief amount of small talk, he jumped straight to some big questions.
“Where would you like to see yourself in 5 or 10 years? What are your major goals in life? And no, I’m not just talking about work.”
After I talked about my dreams of being a husband and father, and a philanthropist focusing on helping the homeless, he told me about his wife and twins, one boy and one girl who had just been born earlier that year, and how much they meant to him. The next day he took our team out to dinner at one of the nicest steakhouses in town and we had an awesome evening that lasted until nearly midnight after several rounds of food and drinks which caused our conversation to get louder and more boisterous as the night progressed. I knew I was going to really like this guy.
Less than two weeks later, Clinton was involved in a serious automobile accident. He spent the next month in the hospital as doctors attempted to bring him back to good health, but after weeks of his condition getting progressively worse he passed away in the first week of 2015.
I could write a whole blog post about what I learned about Clinton from the community of people who gathered in Dallas to celebrate his life, a life fully lived despite its brevity. But what struck me most was how he had everything that many people want in life- a great job, the respect and admiration of his peers, a beautiful and loving wife- until out of nowhere it was all taken from him. I didn’t know much about Clinton’s relationship with God, but I’ve prayed for him and his family a lot since then and hope that I’ll see him again one day in paradise.
We often lose sight of just how brief our lives on Earth are- and how long eternity is- by focusing on the worldly idols of money, status, health, and power. Like my high school friend and I in the parking lot on that December night, we get caught up in how God will solve our problems and lessen our difficulties now, forgetting that he’s already taken care of the biggest challenge that will ever face us, the possibility of being separated from him for eternity.
This is something God reminded me of with the death of Clinton just weeks after that conversation with my friend. It’s a lesson that was taught to me again just weeks after that when I heard of the passing of a former classmate of mine from middle school at the young age of 26. And something I was reminded of once more at a wedding the following May when one of the toasts included words from the late father of the bride who had passed away less than 3 years before she married my best friend.
Earthly life is brief. Eternity isn’t. This week we celebrate the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday, a day where we are given ashes on our foreheads and are reminded that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” It’s a recognition that our time on Earth won’t last long, but that we are made for something greater. As CS Lewis once stated, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
If you’re in a period of desolation and suffering, remind yourself that it can’t and won’t last forever. And if you’re in a period of great joy and celebration, you’d do well to remember the same lesson. In both situations, let’s give glory and thanks to the one who has made sure that eternal life is ours to accept, a gift freely given, by living for him in this life so that we may live with him in the next.