We have all met some really mean people in our lives. Let’s try an experiment: Take a moment and try to recall the meanest person you know. Perhaps it was your sixth-grade teacher. Or perhaps a neighbor who went beyond unfriendly all the way to downright mean. I’m talking about a real-life person, the kind who still has the ability to raise your blood pressure even if you haven’t seen him or her in years.
Have you selected someone? Someone real? Good.
Now imagine the same person in Heaven, standing among the people of every tribe, tongue and nation, surrounded by the worshiping assembly drawn from all generations. Don’t try to clean things up, leave him or her the same mean, critical, hard-hearted, stingy, and greedy person—the same person in heaven as you remembered on earth. It doesn’t seem right, does it? How could an unhappy, miserable, mean person join the throng of Heaven?
I know what you’re thinking. You figure I’m angling toward forgiveness. But this exercise is not about God’s forgiveness.
It’s about who we are after we turn to God. God forgives the deepest evil in the lives of men and women. As Corrie Ten Boom used to say,
“There is no pit that God’s love is not deeper still.”
I’m glad. Aren’t you? But forgiveness is not the same thing as spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is about what happens to us after we receive the gracious gift of Jesus and his sacrifice. Spiritual formation is learning how to live in heaven right now, on earth.
This exercise invites us to consider whether forgiveness is the only good news. What if we were forgiven by God but remained forever unable to change? What if our decision to accept Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross meant we were forever trapped in a cycle of sin and forgiveness, over and over again, unable to escape the kind of person we had become? How many of us want to come to God asking forgiveness for the same things year after year, decade after decade? Always forgiven, never able to change.
The earliest followers of Jesus expected spiritual formation to follow immediately after forgiveness. They took seriously the metaphor of the new birth. They knew babies grow into children, and children grow into adults. They considered conversion the beginning, not the end.
Paul shared the gospel with people in Galatia, and later wrote to them because they began to embrace a deadly spirituality:
“Now that you know God, how is it you are turning back to weak and miserable principles?… What has happened to all your joy? … I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” Galatians 4:9,15,19
His concern was not only for correct doctrine but also for growth and health. He expected Jesus could actually be formed in them. How many of us have the same expectation today?
Paul urged the believers in Rome to break free of the habits of the past and find not just eternal life, but the kind of life that could transform them into different people:
“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Romans 8:29
Whatever else predestined may mean, Paul clearly believed followers of Jesus have a destiny: to become like Jesus. Did he think we would magically become different people when we got heaven? Or did he expect spiritual transformation to begin here and now?
How many of us turned to Jesus for something more than forgiveness? How many of us heard all of the good news: right relationships, peace, and joy are possible in this life as we learn to drink deep of God’s presence here and now? (Romans 14:17) What if we can transformed from the “mean guy” into the “Christlike guy” day by day?
Did anyone tell us that the joy of heaven need not wait until the end of the age?
When we are born from above the beginning has just begun. The joy of heaven is available to us as we learn how to crawl, toddle, and eventually walk in the Spirit. The prisons of our own anger, resentment, and yes, our own meanness, can drop away as we position ourselves to receive more and more of the grace of God.
The Biblical ideal of spiritual transformation holds the promise of heaven on earth because we can begin to join the heavenly host now. Wouldn’t it be a shame to get to heaven and be unable to enjoy the party?