The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the LORD; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth (Isaiah 40: 3-4)
It is common to hear people of some Christian archetypes in this age brazenly declare: “I am saved! I am certain I will go to heaven”. These are also the same people who do not believe in Purgatory where some souls are purified before they get to heaven. That boldness ought to be admired especially when done in spirit and in truth. It shows the attitude of someone who understands son-ship in relation to God; that God will not deny a worthy son his heart’s wish and that it is the will of God that all shall be saved (cf. 1Tim. 2: 4). It means, therefore, that they are perfect already because only a perfect soul shall enter heaven. Is it really possible for anyone to be perfect in this life? Can anyone be certified perfect while still running the race? You must be perfect for your heavenly father is perfect (Matt. 5: 48) is the ultimate requirement, but is it achievable? Perfection means the state of being without a flaw or defect, faultlessness, exactness, aptness1,
The instructions are clear on how to receive our God in our domains, as proclaimed by “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”. Who shall be worthy to receive Him? It is he who makes a perfect preparation. The instruction says
“Prepare the way of the LORD; Make straight in the desert, a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth” (Isaiah 40: 3-4).
A highway is to be made where there are mountains, hills, and valleys. Movement is impossible in such a place but when the mountains and hills are brought low and the valleys exalted, perhaps by getting them filled with the breakdown pieces of the mountains and hills. At first the emerging road would be very rough but when the crooked places are straightened and rough places smoothened, the movement becomes better and continues to improve. Irrespective of how the highway is smoothened we still experience some degree of little jerks and of vibrations as the wheeled vehicle moves on it; there will never be zero vibration on the vehicle. It will be discovered that as efforts are made to make the road smoother or straighter, we keep seeing that it could still be even better and that there are more opportunities to continue to improve on it, and the work required for making such improvements keeps increasing exponentially in magnitude. It behooves the client or the chief engineer supervising the job to declare when the road is acceptably smooth enough.
Consider a road that eventually becomes absolutely smooth – smoother than glass, perhaps. Is it possible for the wheels of the wheeled vehicle to turn and move? It will rather experience a gliding or floating movement, akin to flying which is the most near-perfect movement. Flying is still affected by friction – air friction – leading to turbulence of varying magnitudes. It seems the perfect movement would be the flying movement done in vacuum – the frictionless movement. Things are now in a different realm which is not a natural one for a wheeled vehicle moving on the prepared road by turning the wheels. It may be possible to get into this perfect realm but who can supply the technology?
Perfect on Earth?
The kind of way we are expected to prepare for our perfect God is the most perfect way where He should have a frictionless ride and we must set out to do our best to achieve it. None of us has the right, however, to judge when the way we are preparing is straight enough or smooth enough. We are neither the client who knows how he wants it and when to be satisfied with our work, nor the supervising engineer who has the relevant information. We will then be wondering when we will ever say we have done enough work on this road and be sure to get a good reward, since we keep discovering more things yet to be done. We cannot stop working until we cannot work anymore; we know it is impossible, in our circumstances, to prepare a frictionless way for our God but that is what we are called to do: “The crooked places shall be made straight. And the rough places smooth” (Isaiah 40: 4b). The “straight” and the “smooth” are to the standard of our perfect God: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”. We cannot stop working for perfection until we can work no more (until death terminates our work). That is when “each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is” (1Cor. 3: 13). That is when God will reveal marks allocated to each work and which persons qualify to be perfected, and they shall be declared perfect and they so become. No one achieves perfection on earth but persons can qualify to be perfected by God, some instantly upon transition while some others will have to be purified in Purgatory and perfected later (cf. 1Cor. 3: 11-15).
We must have correct understanding on this matter because it is very important one does not go astray or lead another astray. When you judge yourself as perfect, perhaps because you think you have been doing well in the race of life, you endanger your salvation because you will fail to see the ever-expanding room, need, and required efforts for further improvement. Also remember that “Everyone, no matter how firmly he thinks he is standing, must be careful he does not fall” (1Cor. 10: 12). The required efforts in the work towards perfection will be increasing because as one rises in holiness so also the efforts of the devil increases; as you keep defeating them they keep sending stronger demons in their hierarchical order, until your last day on earth. Be vigilant, pray constantly and take more and more opportunities to keep on increasing in holiness for you do not know at what point God awards the mark that will qualify you for perfection.
In everything we do in this life a sane realistic person cannot say he has done enough and therefore ready to leave this life. He keeps discovering something else that would still need to be done. Most people, virtually all persons, are not ever ready to die when death comes. People are in various degrees of preparedness, some being more satisfied with work they have done than others are. Nobody is ever absolutely satisfied and ready. How can we then readily shout “Amen. Come Lord Jesus”? (Rev. 22: 20).
I remember a Pentecost Rally talk at St Joseph’s Church premises Emene, Enugu, sometime in the late 1980’s. The theme of that Pentecost Week of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal of Nigeria was “Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus”. The theme and the discussions provoked a lot of spiritual disquiet and unease could easily be seen even in smiling faces. The reality of the end of life and the coming of Jesus came alive powerfully. The question seemed to be who was ready then; was anybody ready? Anyone who declared himself ready would not be telling the truth to himself and to others. He would, more or less, be declaring himself perfect, which is a very serious thing to do. One of the later talks seemed to address people’s apprehensions: the priest who gave the talk said people can never do enough to consider themselves ready but that people who are diligently and steadily working should not be afraid at all but go on working the more and not wittingly slacking, the important requirement being to ensure The Lord catches them working when He comes, and not sleeping. He made allusions to what St Paul told the Thessalonians similarly (cf. 1Thess. 4: 13-5: 22).
That is what it really is. You must be caught working, and working well the best you can. A fitting summary to the discussion, to put it in a good perspective, is a quote from Dr Chinyere Obasi, my classmate at the College of Medicine University of Ibadan. He wrote it in our Graduation Yearbook: “Reach for the highest; strive for the best. Live day by day; and to God leave the rest”. If you use this simple “formula” to work for perfection I believe you will be one of those that will be perfected by God the instant you get there.
Three Surprises in Heaven
When you get there and you are perfected and admitted into Heaven what do you think you will see and how do you think you will feel? No idea; you do not know and nobody knows; because “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him. (1Cor. 2: 9)”. No matter the concept in your head concerning heaven, it will never fit in. All known concepts of heaven point to Heaven being a state of ultimate bliss. Bliss is the highest form of happiness according to the hierarchy of comfortable feelings established by Monsignor J. B. Akam in his discussion of “The Concept of Happiness”2. The order is, from the least to the highest – Joy, Pleasure, Content, Felicity, Happiness and Bliss. On bliss he says “The issue is that this type of happiness is not worldly. It cannot be achieved here on earth. And possibly that is why it is regarded as the most permanent. May be because it has been taken to heaven, that is why the word is rarely used. People rarely refer to themselves or their actions as blissful.”
It is true that surprises await us in heaven, the nature of which we cannot describe, but Fulton Sheen’s “three surprises in heaven” makes an interesting consideration:
“How God will judge my life I know not, but I trust he will see me with mercy and compassion. I am only certain there will be three surprises in Heaven. First of all, I will see some people whom I never expected to see. Second, there will be a number whom I expected who will not be there. And – even relying on God’s mercy – the biggest surprise of all may be that I will be there. When the record of any human life is set down, there are three pairs of eyes who see it in a different light. 1. As I see it. 2. As others see it. 3. As God sees it.”3.
Many of the people beating their chests now and boldly proclaiming or insinuating they are sure of going to Heaven may not be found there. This is because things are not always the way they seem. A lot of people are full of very active Christian life but do not have adequate interior life. Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard says, among other things, concerning such souls: “not only is there an increasing dissipation or the ever-growing danger of a curiosity that has to find out all about everything; not only more and more displays of impatience or injured feeling of vanity or jealousy, presumption or dejection, partiality or detraction, but there is also a progressive development of the weakness of his soul and of all the more or less subtle forms of sensuality. And all these foes are preparing to force an unrelenting battle upon this soul so ill prepared for such violent and unceasing attacks. And it, therefore, falls victim to frequent wounds”4. Some people also go about deceitfully wearing the façade and garb of being pious Christians whereas they possess desperately wicked souls.
There are many things God can do to a soul which many people may not know about. A classic example is that most people who lived before the gospel account was availed would be surprised to see in heaven, one of the thieves crucified beside Jesus. They could not have known what transpired between that thief on the right and Jesus as they hung high up there on their crosses: how Jesus assured him of being in Paradise that day. Many people who lived obviously sinful lives repent at the last minute and receive pardon. Some just need to be purified in Purgatory and they are home and dry, while some may even be luckier than that by seeing a priest who hears their heart-felt confessions, gives them absolution and may go further to grant them plenary indulgence, meaning that they will not have any business with Purgatory anymore if they died just after that; they are like those other very lucky ones that receive Extreme Unction at the hour of their death. It may be possible for some of these people that committed heinous crimes, like suicide bombing, to be seen in heaven although they took their own lives and the lives of other people. This is because they may have been brainwashed into believing that they were doing the work for God and that the work was martyrdom which would get them instantly into Paradise. Their courage in taking their own lives for the love of God may even need to be saluted notwithstanding the grave evil their actions were.
Why should it be a surprise that you are in heaven when you worked so hard to merit it? the fact is that even those who have strong confidence of getting there, borne out of authentic fact of hard work, will be will shocked at their gigantic good fortune when they see the nature of Heaven and confirm that in spite of their commendable efforts, they are not at all qualified to be there. They will be humbled as they understand that it is only the grace of God that brought them there and not their efforts, though very commendable, because those efforts remained imperfect all through their life. All efforts of any living person are imperfect before God no matter how good. God knows when and why He gets impressed and awards us the pass mark. We do not know this “when” and this “why” and so should just keep on working, building with the best materials. No man can achieve perfection on earth.
For those people who preach that it is possible to become perfect on earth as our heavenly father is perfect, and those people who believe they are already perfect, it is important to see what is there in Hebrews 5: 7-9:
“who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him”
The man Jesus was also perfected, who are you to achieve what Jesus as man could not achieve? Yes, he was like us in everything but he did not sin (Heb. 4: 15); he should, therefore have been considered perfect. No; human nature can never be perfect on earth even when it is taken up by God Himself.
- WordWeb Dictionary and Microsoft Word Thesaurus.
- Msgr J. B. Akam, The Concept of Happiness. The Oracle of Wisdom: Towards Philosophic Equipoise. Snaap Press Limited , Enugu. P. 32.
- The Simple Reflections. Surprises in Heaven – Only 3, http://www.thesimplereflections.com/surprises-in-heaven-only-3/
- Chautard, Dom Jean – Baptiste OCSO. The Soul of the Apostolate. Sinag -Tala Publishers Inc. P.O, Box I 536 Greenhills Post Office Manilla 3113, Philippines.