John is forty years old and by all earthly standards a successful man. He’s happily married, has raised four children, and owns a landscaping company that easily affords him a comfortable life. He’s also a godly man as best I can tell.
We leaned against his blue Ford F150 in my driveway after discussing what trees would look best in my backyard. Dusk was upon us. I took a breath and sprang a question I’ve asked many godly men lately.
“Do you ever feel like all you do is work for a payday that never seems to arrive?”
He adjusted his Rockies baseball cap and looked at me past graying brows. I knew immediately that the question had struck a chord. Not surprising—the question always strikes a chord. I pushed further.
“I mean, think about it. Has your payday ever really arrived?”
“No, not really,” he said.
“But you have money. A decent life . . .”
“So what does it take to find true happiness?” I asked.
“You’ve lived the life, so tell me. How does someone like me find satisfaction?”
He thought a moment and then looked at the horizon introspectively.
“In the small things. A good marriage, a good family, a good job. And church, of course. A relationship with God. In the end, that’s what counts.”
“This world hands us all kinds of challenges, and without God’s strength I don’t think we stand a chance. Like they say, his strength is made perfect in our weakness. That’s the key to happiness.”
“But your ship has never come in, so to speak,” I said. “Life is mostly a struggle. No big payday yet. It’s always just around the corner; am I right?”
“Well . . . I guess. I don’t really know what—”
“You ever see The Matrix, John?” I interrupted.
“Sure. Good movie.”
“What if we’re asleep, like Neo was in The Matrix?” I asked.
“What if the reason we can’t find any lasting satisfaction in life is because we’re all asleep to a truth that would change our lives forever?”
“That’s the advantage Christians have,” he said. “That’s what I’m saying.”
“No, John. What if Christians are asleep? What if we’re missing the point of our lives here on earth? What if the church is asleep to a truth that would wake us from a deep slumber? Ever think about that?”
John just stared at me.
But that didn’t surprise me either. Christians often just stare at me when I first talk to them about the slumber of Christianity.
John is the victim of a slumber that holds hundreds of millions of Christians in the dark, unaware of their own demise.
Perhaps you know of this slumber; perhaps you don’t. Either way, any living soul who is even remotely concerned with enjoying life this side of death needs to know about a terrible shortsightedness that has lulled Christians by the millions into a deep sleep. Their life in God simply isn’t as thrilling as it once was, and they’ve settled for that disappointment.
At its very roots, Christianity is a faith that once loudly proclaimed hope for the downtrodden and a staggering dream of great reward for all who believed. But in the epic battle over mankind’s souls, the dream of eternity’s bliss has been buried in the rubble of misguided teaching. The stunning dreams we once all dreamed have become casualties of war.
The Rolling Stones had it right: I can’t get no satisfaction.
Though I try and I try and I try . . . I can’t get no satisfaction.
I would add another phrase: Even though I’m a Christian, I can’t get no satisfaction. Though I try, and I try, and I try, I can’t get no satisfaction.
The band U2 cried out in their Joshua Tree album: But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
I would add more: I go to church; I’ve been forgiven for my sins, but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
Have you ever wondered what happened to the dream that once urged you forward without regard for how difficult the path might become?
Have you ever wondered why you no longer approach life with the giddy happiness that once possessed you as a child? Think back to those early grade-school years, when the simple fact that it was Friday sent a thrill through your mind. Saturday was coming, and the adventure set before you was enough to make the last few classes drift by in a hazy blur.
Think back to the days leading up to your birthday, when all you could think about was the day you would be king or queen for a few hours. There would be a party and a cake and a new bike or a new doll to celebrate.
Think back to the weeks leading up to Christmas. Your anticipation for that final hour when you would tear into the packages under the tree kept you awake many nights. You counted the presents more than a dozen times, and you dreamed a hundred dreams of what might be hiding in those boxes.
Your recollection of the true thrill you once felt may be deadened by your slumber, but if you purposefully retrace your memory, you’ll recall those dreams you had. Why is it now so difficult to feel any giddiness at all over the adventure that lies before you?
As you grew older, the childhood dreams of Saturdays and birthdays and Christmas were replaced by lifetime dreams that you were sure would fulfill you. You dreamed of having children who would play happily in the backyard and a spouse who would sit with you on the porch and laugh at their antics.
You dreamed of making enough money to spend countless hours leisurely enjoying a relaxed life, or taking in the wonders of the world on many extended vacations.
You dreamed of a soul mate to cuddle in the mornings while the rich aroma of coffee wafted gently through the room.
Or perhaps your dreams were more ambitious or more adventurous.
A significant ministry in which thousands would depend on your brilliant guidance, or a career that would pay large dividends, filled with peers who would stand in awe at your value and skill. A large house handsomely decorated, with a Porsche parked in a three-car garage, maybe two Porsches, or a Porsche and a Hummer. The winning Powerball ticket that would set you finally and completely free to buy a yacht and an island.
These are the common dreams of many.
Whatever your dreams, they were well drawn and they fueled your ambition. They were why you followed the path you eventually took. You went to college because an education was necessary to satisfy your dream of becoming a physician. Or you skipped college to marry the man or the woman who was sure to fulfill other dreams. You leveraged what earthly possessions you owned to purchase your first home or to buy your first car.
At some point, however, you began to suspect that those dreams might not satisfy you as you assumed they would.
Although you dreamed of children, you’re struggling with infertility, or you have children who fill your days with worry and frustration.
You dreamed of leisure and vacations, but as it turned out, you make barely enough money to pay the bills, much less go on extended trips around the world. There is very little if any leisure time in your life.
The dream of pastoring a church has long since faded or been dashed by the very church you intended to serve. The education required to launch you on that brilliant career as a physician became too expensive to complete, and you settled for far less. In the morning it’s body odor, not the aroma of coffee, that awakes you. The Porsche parked in your three-car garage is actually a Corolla parked in a one-car stall.
Or, worse, you have fulfilled your dream of becoming a pastor, but have found that pastoring brings more burdens than satisfaction.
You do have a brilliant career but can’t seem to find any time to enjoy its rewards, and when you do find time, the rewards are far less satisfying than you imagined. You do own a Porsche parked in a three-car garage, but it long ago lost its appeal. In fact, you’ve achieved every dream you once conceived, and they’ve all fallen short. There is nothing left to dream of. You are in the full throes of a midlife crisis.
If you haven’t reached the point where you realize that all the promises of life fail miserably, you will soon enough.
Even a cursory glance at our society reveals the simple fact that most people are not happily living their dreams. If they seem to be, some simple probing reveals otherwise. A recent study of lottery winners well makes the case. Within a mere six months of winning large sums of money, nearly all lottery winners surveyed characterized their lives as no more fulfilled than six months prior to their winning.
Our magazine racks are littered with covers promising more happiness. More satisfaction in sex, more satisfaction in relationships, better diet to make you feel better about yourself.
Why? Because we all want the kind of happiness we don’t have. Yet, like the ever-failing diet, the dissatisfaction always returns, and at some point we begin to settle for less happiness than we once dreamed of.
And what about the pleasures of this life? The pleasures that held out great promise when you were an adolescent lose their luster after you’ve had your fill of them. If we don’t see the world clearly, our lives may well become a long string of disappointments punctuated by dwindling pleasures.
This is the human condition. This is the ultimate conclusion of so many philosophies. This is the state of most people, whether Christian or Muslim or Hindu. This is the honest observation of the bumper sticker we all know so well: Life sucks, and then you die.
But why? Why is true satisfaction so hard to grasp? And above all, why is genuine happiness so elusive for the Christian, who is supposed to live a fully satisfied life in Christ, brimming with happiness and joy unspeakable?
The general failure of life to produce the happiness of achieving dreams is especially interesting for Christians because, judging by their actions rather than their claims, Christians on the whole are no more happy than people of other faiths.
It’s the open secret of the church—we make all kinds of incredible claims based on the holy Scriptures, but our lives are pretty much the same as the lives of the unchurched. We live with the same problems and suffer the same challenges.
Look at the divorce rate as of September 2004 for an unequivocal benchmark of the lack of satisfaction found among married couples. According to The Barna Group, 35 percent of all non-born-again couples end their relationship in divorce. And what about born-again couples? The same—35 percent.
Talk to other Christians about the stark similarity between the lives of those who go to church every Sunday and the lives of those who do not. You may get defiance from those who haven’t been presented with the statistics, but you’ll find the secret isn’t as secretive as it used to be. You’ll get more and more sighs and nods at suggestions that Christians aren’t really so different from non-Christians, certainly not on the scale you would expect considering the promises of love, joy, and peace boldly pronounced from thousands of pulpits across the land. We spend our money on the same kinds of entertainment, we buy the same kinds of foods and clothes, and we spend as much time searching for purpose.
Don’t misunderstand me, there are exceptions. There are communities of thriving disciples all over the world who are burning with passion for Christ and filled with joy at their lot in life, pleased to be given yet one more day to sing of their Redeemer’s mercy. These are the people who groan inwardly for the day they will meet their Creator face-to-face.
But on the whole, Christianity has failed to satisfactorily respond to the glaring observation that Christians, despite a tendency to describe themselves as happy, are in practice no more happy than non-Christians. Our religion’s answer has been predictable: Seek more, sin less, and have faith. Then you will find happiness in your marriage and on earth.
Most Christians have followed this mantra in spurts, yet they invariably end up dissatisfied with the results. Their marriages still fail. Their jobs are still downsized. Their cars still break down. Their health still wanes. And they still can’t seem to find enough faith to ignore their general predicament in life or embrace the great happiness they once had as naive children.
As a result, Christians settle for less and call it being content in much the same way the world settles for less and calls it being content.
Christianity, it turns out, looks less and less like a child’s blissful Christmas, and more and more like a long slide down the hill of hard realities shared by humans in general. Why?
The answer is quite simple. It begins with a wonderful, revolutionary truth highly esteemed by the early church, but forgotten in our day. That truth is: This life is powerless to satisfy our dreams of great happiness and pleasure. These dreams can be satisfied only in a mind-bending reality that awaits us in the next life. As long as Christians are asleep to this reality, they will search in vain for any lasting fulfillment.
Unfortunately, most Christians have fallen asleep to the mind-bending reality that awaits us.
Christianity is in a slumber.
I’m not saying that the religion of Christianity has slipped into slumber. I’m not saying that our faith has fallen asleep, necessarily.
I’m not speaking about any failure to live good Christian lives.
I’m not saying we all are going to hell with FedEx labels plastered on our foreheads.
I’m simply saying that the prevailing teaching of Christianity has become preoccupied with finding true pleasure and happiness and purpose on earth rather than in the age to come. As a result, Christians, who are saved into a faith preoccupied with salvation in the next
life, quickly fall asleep to the bliss that awaits them—and their slumber makes the very happiness they seek on earth impossible.
Most Christians are either asleep to the bliss of the afterlife and awake to the pleasures of this life, or asleep to both. We must awaken passion for both, because, as we will see, they are critically dependent on each other.
The pleasures of this life and the happiness they bring have been dealt a death blow by a systemic lack of passion for the next life.
The gravest concern we now face is the fact that our hope for the afterlife has slipped into slumber. Our hope for heaven has fallen asleep. And when I say heaven, I mean Christ in heaven, for he is the Light of heaven, of the afterlife, of all the glory that awaits us.
In reading the New Testament, we see the writers repeatedly expressed their insatiable longing for their own inheritance, the hope of glory. For the bliss that awaited them. But the groaning for the afterlife so often expressed by these early writers has become a moan of boredom in the church today. We are more interested in the pleasures of this life than the bliss of the next.
Let me put it plainly: We have here in this life many foretastes of the bliss that awaits us, but unless we know what those foretastes are of, they will never satisfy us. Unless we become desperate for the bliss of the next life, we will never enjoy this life.
The fact is, nothing in this life can satisfy unless it is fully bathed in an obsession for eternity. Nothing. Not a purpose-driven life, not a grand adventure, not the love of a dashing prince or the hand of a beautiful maiden.
Not a thousand hours of leisure time or a hundred exotic vacations.
Not a great marriage or wonderful children or pets that seem to love us dearly.
Not a large boat or an expansive celebrity mansion or a vacation to an island in the Caribbean.
Not success or fame or the popularity we ascribe to those who have either.
Not a large church filled with a thousand worshippers or an expanding ministry to the poor or the healing of a thousand limbs.
Not our religion, our faith, or any version of Christianity less focused on the prize that awaits.
These all will fail our need for unencumbered happiness. We will always be torn and frustrated, no matter how much rejoicing we do this side of death, unless we awaken a new passion for heaven on earth.
Think of your life as a story. Without the climax of that story, the entire experience is a disappointment.
What happens when the film breaks ten minutes before the end of a movie you’ve waited months to see? You moan with disappointment! You demand a refund. All that has preceded the missing climax feels empty.
So it is with the stories of our lives. They exist for the climax! We, my friends, were created for climax.
Only when our eyes are fixed on the climax of our faith, which is the next life, can the many pleasures given to us in this life bring satisfaction.
The good pleasures given to us by our Father, and the Godbreathed passion we have for discovering that pleasure, were meant to drive us toward the afterlife. Yet we have fallen asleep to any tangible hope for the bliss of the afterlife and embraced earthly pleasure as a substitute.
Even now my mention of bliss falls rather flat, doesn’t it? Perhaps your mind has been dulled by sleep, and this climax of life doesn’t enthrall you as it once did. If you are like most Christians, you are so distracted by the adventures and purpose of this life that what thoughts you do have of the great climax of your faith are ill-defined and thoroughly uninspiring.
Don’t misunderstand me—I have no intention of directing you away from the pleasures of this life. To the contrary, I will argue that these incredible gifts we call pleasure are necessary for our appreciation of heaven. They are indeed heaven on earth, so to speak, and we were created to seek pleasure. To the extent we can embrace the gifts as intended, we will have a picture of the bliss to come that will inflame our passion for eternity.
We must relieve pleasure of the false expectation we’ve placed on it to fully satisfy. We must see pleasure as simply a foretaste— only then can we be left panting for a far greater bliss.
Once you embrace this new understanding, your bread will taste sweeter. Succulent meats will ravage your taste buds; music will sweep you away; sunsets will numb your mind; love will fill you with warm longing. Pleasure will come alive in a way you never imagined.
Yet, stripped of a preoccupation with heaven, this life and all its pleasures will continue to disappoint you, because life isn’t really about purpose or adventure in your allotted time on earth. It’s more about the purpose and adventure of eternity.
You will find great happiness for this life only when you lose yourself to the climax of the next life.
Short of that climax, there is no true satisfaction, even for Christians.
Satisfaction comes hard when the eyes of your heart are closed to the prize at the end of the race.
But when the eyes of your heart are opened to the staggering experience that awaits you, the gates that hold back lasting satisfaction in your life will be blown off their hinges.
Then you, along with Paul, will groan for that day of bliss.
Then you will wait in eager anticipation for a fast-approaching day, like a bride who waits for her wedding; like a child waiting for Christmas. Then your life will be filled with a new and living hope that will consume you with delight now, while you wait. Then a bright light of hope will shine back on this life from eternity and illuminate the pleasures around you.
This hope in no way minimizes the work of Christ on the cross to deliver us from the bondage of sin now, while we run the race. But we will experience our final escape from sin only in that final day of ecstasy. In the meantime, our access to that day of bliss is found through the pleasures of God and in particular through a portal called hope.
It is critical that we begin to understand our great slumber and awaken to reclaim our incredible and enviable inheritance.
It is time we begin to hope, really hope, for the incomparable riches that await us.
It is time we begin to feast once again, now on the foretastes of heaven, and with a new appreciation for what those tastes precede.
It is time we stop being driven from a world of disappointments and start being drawn by the light of glory, like moths to flame.
The world’s bumper sticker reads: Life sucks, and then you die.
Perhaps Christian bumper stickers should read: Life sucks, but then you find hope and you can’t wait to die.
One of my favorite quotes from C. S. Lewis is found in his book The Weight of Glory. Listen:
Indeed if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday by the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
I have no intention of minimizing the pleasures God has given us here on earth, as I see them as critical to embracing the hope of greater such pleasures to come. Yet, like Lewis, I agree that the church’s passion is anywhere but on the holiday by the sea.
If you follow with me on this journey of discovery, I will help you see your own slumber. If you continue that journey to the end, you’ll hopefully be awakened from that slumber.
Your fundamental view of life and faith will be challenged and changed. Then, and only then, will you be able to look at the adventure set before you on this earth and embrace it with the kind of anticipation a child has for Christmas.
Our journey will consist of two primary legs. The remaining chapters in Part I will examine the slumber we have fallen into and explain how we were lulled into sleep. The four chapters of Part II will concern themselves with how we can awaken from that slumber.
Hold on tight, my friends.