There is something wickedly satisfying about arriving first in life. This I learned at a tender age after my first success in beating my older brother to the kitchen table in our house in Namibia. Our lunchtime races down the long passage had become somewhat of a ritual, and, being the smallest, I was usually the last one to arrive. But when success did come it came sweetly. After all the thrashings, I enjoyed his defeat even more than my victory.
This is why I call it wickedly satisfying, for joy derived from another’s misfortune is wicked indeed. The Germans speak of “Schadenfreude” (leedvermaak in Afrikaans), that is, that warped sense of relief we experience when something bad happens to others instead of us. It explains why humans enjoy gossip and are morbidly fascinated with vehicle accident scenes, and it reveals something of the universal human drive to end up on top of the heap, to always win, to die with the most toys (See Ecclesiastes 4:4). The rat race is indeed an apt description of life on planet earth.
Ego-death a Non-negotiable
Many prophets and sages have warned for millennia against running this race, and they have done so in the names of many gods. Take Buddhism, for instance. The Buddhist authorities in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan have banned advertising. If you remove the source of envy you also remove unhappy and resentful feelings about others’ possessions, they say. There are many similar examples.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, has a completely different approach to the matter. Instead of warning us against running the rat race, it tells us that we are rats. We are, therefore, perfectly consistent when we behave in the crazy ways we do. It is not our behavior that constitutes the problem, it is our identity. Hence the New Testament’s one and only prescription: The annihilation (read crucifixion) of the competitive rat.
Without this event, we can call it ego-death, any effort at Christianity is as sensible as attempting to climb Everest by staying at home. It simply cannot be done. The cross is no different to the guillotine, the noose or the electric chair. It is an instrument of death and serves the explicit purpose of executing the criminal. What a silver bullet and wooden stake are to a vampire, the cross is to the ego. The funeral of baptism is the funeral of self, and so 2 Corinthians 5:17’s “new creation”, resurrected in the image and the likeness of Christ, is a creation that seeks not to win but to serve, for this is what Christ came to do. It was Adam and Eve, under the inspiration of the serpent, who thought that equality with God was something to be grasped, not Christ (See Genesis 3:5 and Philippians 2:6).
A Religious Masquerade
Egos, of course, hide well, and they hide best under cloaks of righteousness, which is why we so constantly run into them in churches. In the Bible religious self exaltation is personified by the sect of the Pharisees: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others… they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” Their dress code, behaviour in the religious assemblies, status and titles all conspire to elevate them above the masses, giving them the bizarre privilege of fusing the religious pilgrimage with the ego-trip, impressing God and people simultaneously, obtaining heaven with earth still in their pockets.
Winning means arriving first, as my early races down the passage taught me. To win one must have arrived, and winning religiously implies having arrived religiously. For clerical supremacy to survive some sort of arrival is required, and, as it happens in churches, a fitting doctrine is needed to prove and clarify the arrival.
A doctrine of arrival, put very simply, is a theologically constructed idea which proposes some final insight, experience or realisation of promise. It distinguishes the one who has arrived from those who are still on their way. It also offers a circumvention of the painfully humbling business of believing, hoping and waiting. Proud people do not wait well, which explains why God employs time so successfully in humbling his servants. Forcing arrival by fabricating a destination is humanity’s attempt to appear victorious and to bypass the discomfort caused by the impatience of the ego.
The Error of Realised Eschatology
There is no heresy as deceitful as the one which offers a shortcut to the Promised Land. Such impatience led to Adam’s sin, to Esau forfeiting his birthright, to the Israelites constructing a golden calf and to the Prodigal leaving the family home. Every time the underlying philosophy is the same: We want it all. We want it now
Since the time of Hymenaeus and Philetus, who taught “that the resurrection has already happened”, doctrines of arrival have littered the ecclesiastical landscape. Theologians speak of “realised eschatology”, that is, the erroneous and dangerous view that the blessings linked to the resurrection of the saints, the Lord’s return, the visible and final coming of the Kingdom and the restoration of all things are to be appropriated somehow in this world and age.
There are many modern day examples of this age-old heresy, for instance prosperity theology (the restoration of our finances and possessions), extreme teachings on healing (our bodies and health have been restored), obsession with signs and wonders (natural laws have been made subject to us), the conviction that doctrinal perfection is possible (we understand perfectly), elitist churches who believe that they have a perfect understanding and practice of “fellowship” (we love and meet perfectly), post-millennial Reconstructionism or “Kingdom Now” theology (we have the perfect political system) and the belief in sinless perfection (we are perfectly holy).
All of these, of course, are just different and novel ways of proclaiming “we have arrived”.
The Biblical Doctrine of Waiting
It was David who said “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” This principle runs like a golden thread throughout Scripture. Abraham had to wait for the promise of a son to be fulfilled. Moses had to wait 40 years in the wilderness before God called him, and then another 40 years before he was afforded a glimpse of the Promised Land. The disciples had to wait for the promised Holy Spirit, and in the letter to the Romans we read that we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
The Kingdom has come in part but not fully. We haven’t arrived yet, and the pain of the planet is one of God’s most efficient tools to remind us of this and to build our faith. The heroes of Hebrews 11 were all looking ahead to a heavenly country. They were not perfectly healed, prosperous, organised or, if you look closely, sinless. Their ‘perfection’ beckoned from a heavenly country.
The ironic thing is: To the degree that we want to drag heaven down here we cease to find it in our hearts, we cease to live by faith, in other words. Perfectionism in its many guises is nothing but veiled materialism. It is an insistence to make the intangible tangible, a refusal to live by faith.
The answer to all of these is quite simple:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18 – 25)
Christianity is a waiting religion. When we wonder why this is so, we are reminded by Scripture that we are “saved in hope”, and that “if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Ultimately all waiting experiences are intended by God as exercises to strengthen us for the great wait: The day of his coming. Through them we are taught and reminded that the gratification of Christianity is not instant but deferred. Through them we learn to live by faith, not by sight.
(This article has also been published in the Auksano magazine)