Perceptions of the Kingdom

Aristotle says in Nicomachean Ethics that every action is done aiming at a good. Before you start listing all the bad actions that people (especially you) do as clear counterexamples to this claim, consider your own thought process when you do something you would say you know to be bad. When you go back to the buffet for the third or fourth time, you may know that you’re going to be miserable and regret doing it, yet you go because in that moment, the partaking of that additional food is appealing and seems to be good. You aim at the good of enjoying food, but your understanding of enjoying food fails to consider the moderation necessary for actual enjoyment that is not fleeting. We can even look at more extreme examples like premeditated murder. When someone decides to kill another person, the murderer may recognize that the victim’s friends and family would be deeply hurt and, if caught, the rest of his life will be spent in prison. Yet, the murderer so strongly holds the belief that the world will be better for him if the victim is not alive in it, that the murderer acts, despite the negatives that could result. For Aristotle, being a good person is not about doing the right action, but about seeing what is good correctly, for an accurate perception of the good will result in right action. Because we all do what we perceive in that moment as good, the way we perceive the good is of the utmost importance. Additionally, the longer we incorrectly hold a perception of something as good, the more difficult to change it, as we fight back against the solidification of our perceptions of value that tend to happen over time.

However, the examples above point to the reality that we don’t properly perceive the good all the time, and that the idea of the good that some have is so misshapen that what is actually good may be repulsive to them. With Christians, Dallas Willard made the case in multiple places that discipleship is too often treated as an optional good for those who are really committed. The mindset is that actually living out the principles of the Sermon on the Mount are only for those “super-Christians”, clergy, or even no one, showing us how far we are from God. However, what Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount is the way of the kingdom, both now and in the New Creation. If these things look unappealing to us now, what reason do we have to think that they will suddenly become appealing upon our death? Jesus tells us that eternal life is not primarily a matter of what happens when you die, but about knowing the Triune God (John 17:3). So if what is now unappealing or lacks value becomes appealing and valuable in an instant upon death, it is worth pondering if it is really you that exists in the New Creation.

If eternal life is something that can be experienced already, then we should be living in that life of relationship with the Triune God in the here and now. Then, as I talked about in a previous post, when you’re in relationship and genuinely pursuing that relationship, the way you see the world is changed, and what you value changes as well. Eternal life is then about learning to see and value reality through relationship with the Sustainer of reality.

While there are seismic shifts that can happen in the way we understand the world, these shifts are incredibly destabilizing and often leave us feeling uncertain of more than just that issue, including who we really are. If we are treating discipleship as an optional part of Christianity, or a secondary emphasis to evangelism, I think we’ve misunderstood what Christianity is about. I am not at all bold enough to make any claims about the salvation of those who hold such a view, whether just in theory or in practice, but it seems that at the very least, the process of transformation into Christlikeness has to happen, and if it fails to at least start in this life, we only further solidify the parts of our life that are contrary to that process, making it a lengthier and more difficult process in the life to come.

The Christlike perspective is necessary in the New Creation, for without it, we may live in the Kingdom, but without an understanding and appreciation necessary for the flourishing we are all called to in the New Creation. So if we must gain this perspective, but it is presently a perspective foreign and unappealing to us, if clothed with that perspective in an instant, would we know how to function? This is not simply being given glasses to make things clear that were once blurry, but learning that what we thought was up is down,  what we thought was power is weakness, what we thought was ugly was beautiful. If we are able to immediately accept and thrive with that instantaneous change, what is the connection between these new people and the people we were before this change? It seems like all that we valued and even the way that we remembered our lives would shift so dramatically, that while it may be the same resurrected body, it may be the same embodied soul, but is that the person we knew ourselves to be before we died? [1]

However, if we are working to bring our perceptions in line with Christ, to see the world as He does, then, like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, what we now see as a reflection in a mirror, we will then see face to face in the New Creation; what we know in part now we will know fully in the New Creation. It is as though we will gain glasses to see perfectly the things we strained to see here and now. Glasses only do good for people who are trying to see reality, but are struggling. Glasses don’t cure blindness, nor do they cure those who lack a commitment to truly experience reality, preferring to perceive things in ways that serve them most.

Working to gain that Christlike perspective of the world cannot be done on our own, but requires Jesus, for at the very least, we need Him as a check on us as to whether our perceptions are actually becoming more like His or not. We too have work in this, as no one can make us see things differently than we want to see them. An oversimplified analogy would be that of the magic eye pictures that were so popular in the 90s. What looks like a weird, formless pattern on first glance, becomes an interesting 3D picture upon looking at it in the right way. However, if you don’t look at it in the right way, you’ll continue to only see the pattern and not the picture that is within the pattern. You can train yourself to make it easier to see the picture, but it is a different way of looking at the picture than you typically look at the world. In Christ, the reality of the Kingdom requires you to train yourself to see in a way that is foreign to this world, but failing to do so, means that you fail to see the depth of what is going on in the Kingdom, not just in the New Creation, but even in the here and now.

Again, I am not saying that those who call themselves Christians but fail to strive toward a Christlike in the present will not be in the New Creation, for the Triune God does not want anyone to perish, but all to be saved (2 Peter 3:9). However, the work necessary to change our perception can and should begin now, because I believe the Triune God wants all of us there, not just our embodied souls, and there won’t be an instant in which our perceptions are completely and dramatically changed to appreciate the reality and beauty of the Kingdom.

How do we do this? I’ll lay some groundwork for this in the next post.

[1] The explanation of why an immediate, dramatic change in values might undermine our identity is discussed at greater length in a future podcast to be linked once recorded.