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THE TRAGEDY OF MISPLACED FAITH
Faith can destroy you!
As residents of Chicago, my wife and I clearly remember the Tylenol® tampering episode that happened here in 1982. You might remember that someone bent on random murder put cyanide in a few capsules. The poison did its work very well. One woman who bought her Tylenol from a drugstore near our church died within minutes after taking a single capsule. In all, seven unsuspecting people died.
Two unforgettable lessons emerged from this tragedy. First, faith does not in itself have any special merit; it does not have the power to change the nature of a drug from harmful to helpful. Seven people firmly believed they were taking medicine, not poison. But their faith did not save them. In fact, their faith killed them.
Faith is only as good as the object in which it is placed. Or, to put it differently, what we believe is more important than the fervency of our belief. That old cliché, "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere," just isn't true, as the victims of the Tylenol episode proved. Better to believe the truth with trembling hands than to believe error with steady confidence. What you believe really matters.
A second lesson we must learn from the Tylenol episode is scary indeed: Sometimes a false belief resembles a true one. To the casual observer, the cyanide looked just like the Tylenol powder. The label had all the earmarks of being authentic, so there seemed to be no need to distrust the contents. The promise was that these pills would relieve pain, yet taking a single one brought death.
Christ taught that many people who have a strong and abiding faith will someday discover that their faith cannot save them. To their everlasting chagrin, they will live to see the door of heaven slammed in their faces. They will spend eternity on the wrong side of the celestial entrance.
Maybe we can best capture the feeling if we use a story from this side of heaven's gates. Imagine standing in a swamp while a rescue plane flies overhead. You wave your weary arms and moan, but you know that the pilot does not see you. You do not have the strength to walk to civilization, and because your sense of direction is confused, you would not know where to walk if you could. Since the other members of your party died when your plane went down in the swamp three days ago, you are completely alone.
You stare into the night, knowing that you must simply lie down in the mud to die. You long for someone to be with you, but you must bear your despair alone. Waves of fear dissipate the courageous thoughts you had yesterday. You have a burning fever, and now you hysterically wait for the end.
Translate that feeling into cosmic proportions. You see the inside of heaven, catch a glimpse of some of your friends, but are told by Christ that you are permanently disqualified. There is no second chance, no opportunity to return the next day with the right documents in your hands. You can't reroute your travel plans. You turn away, never to see heaven again. You stare into the darkness ahead of you, conscious that you are entering the realm of moral chaos, loneliness, and darkness.
The words of Dante, long since forgotten, flash into your mind: "All hope abandon, ye who enter here!"
I wish it weren't so. And I know you do too. Yet Christ taught that many who expect the gate of heaven to swing wide open will be shocked to see it swing shut on them. Their exclusion from His presence is final, personal, and eternal. The words of rejection that they hear from Christ will ring in their ears forever.
Let us hear it from the lips of Christ Himself:
Not every one who says to Me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?" And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness." (Matthew 7:21–23)
These people never dreamed that they would be banished by Christ. After all, they acknowledged Him to be Lord and served Him. They had a whole bag of spiritual experiences that ordinary people like you and me could envy. I get chills when I visualize their contorted faces.
These religious types did not lack faith; if anything, they had too much of it! They had the confidence that they would enter into heaven. To hear them tell it, you would think they had a reserved seat in the front row of the balcony in the celestial cathedral. And now this!
If you did a personal inventory, their profiles would prove that these were not halfhearted souls who mouthed a commitment to God on Sunday and then did their own thing during the week. They were the dependable people who kept the church doors open year after year. They did miracles in the name of Christ. They even cast out demons and performed a litany of wonderful works. They thought of Christ as their Savior, not their judge. These good people were fooled into accepting cyanide in a Tylenol capsule.
Of course, it's easy for us to think we know who the people are that Christ was talking about. The other day I heard a preacher on television talk as though God didn't do anything unless He consulted with him first (that's an exaggeration, but you get my point). He told glowing stories about his work among the poor. He described all of the miracles God seemed to be doing through him. Maybe it was all true; maybe it was all false; or more likely it was a bit of both. Safe to say, God is His judge.
Let's not misread Christ's point: He does not want us to think that only those who make extravagant religious claims will be deceived. His warning is more basic: If the people who seem the most likely to make it will be shut out of heaven, then plenty of other ordinary people will have the same frightful experience.
Many sincere people who are devoted to their faith, many who would never brag about their relationship with God, and many who just quietly believe and have good works to prove it—these, too, just might miss the heavenly kingdom.
I'm glad that Christ didn't leave us confused about why some people will find themselves on the wrong side of heaven's door. To keep us wondering would not have been kind, but would have left us with our doubts to brood over our uncertain future. What we need is light to find the right path.
Recently, I read about a very tired man who checked himself into a motel late at night. He peered out of the darkened window as he closed the shades, then sank into a deep sleep. When he awoke and pulled back the shades, he saw majestic Mount Rainier through the motel window. The mountain had been there all the time; it was there even in the darkness. But he couldn't see it until the light of the sun showed him where he was.
That's the way truth is. We can't make it up. We can't create it by sleight of hand. All we can do is discover it in the presence of God's light as revealed in the Bible. Just as the light of the sun can enable us to see where we are geographically, so the light of another Son (Christ) can help us see where we are spiritually. And I believe He wants us to know whether we will spend eternity with Him.
The purpose of this book is to help us understand all that Christ has done to make it possible for us to know where we are going and that we do have a place reserved for us in heaven. I believe that we can be just as confident as the early disciples that our eternal future is secure. Just listen to what Christ promised them:
Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go and to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:1–3)
The New Testament invites anyone, regardless of his or her past, to have the assurance that he or she will escorted by Christ into the glory of a personal, heavenly existence. It is interesting that Christ taught that only a few would take advantage of this offer. Before I explain why, let's hear Christ's description of the two roads that are going in opposite directions.
A Fork in the Road
Recently I was discussing the credentials of Christ with a woman who said, "I believe that there are many paths to God. People can come in their own way." I told her I wished that were true, but I was confronted with a choice—do I believe her well-intentioned opinion, or do I believe in what Christ Himself had to say? He was not as broad-minded as many of the gurus who occasionally make headlines.
Christ insisted that there was a narrow road that led to eternal life, but, in contrast, there was a broad road that led to spiritual death. Clearly, there are two separate gates, therefore, two roads and two very different destinations. Hear it in His own words:
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it. (Matthew 7:13–14)
Visualize an expressway with several lanes of traffic. Each lane has its own religion, philosophy, and point of view. Popular culture today tells us that we can choose our own belief, church, or personal philosophy. We can even switch lanes if we like. Everyone makes it to the finish line; everyone has a good time; everybody wins. The fun is in the journey.
Of course, it is quite true that when you are on an expressway, it really doesn't matter which lane you choose. And, yes, you can switch lanes as often as you like. In the end, you will get to the same destination as the folks who are zooming by on your left or the slowpokes you are passing on your right. It's not what lane you are in, but the expressway you are on that determines your destination. Your lane is your choice. Your final address is not.
Now it gets tricky. According to Christ, this wide expressway, which is thought by many to be labeled "The Way to Heaven" is actually "The Way to Destruction." Even in the Old Testament we read, "There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death" (Proverbs 14:12). The cyanide is labeled "Tylenol."
In contrast, Christ says that the way to life is narrow and "few are those who find it." Here there is only one lane of traffic. The travelers come in various shapes and sizes, but, as we shall see, they share a common core of beliefs. The lane is too narrow to accommodate a host of different opinions about religion in general and about Christ in particular. But I'm ahead of the story.
There are more people on the broad way than the narrow one. And if we are not careful, we will get the two roads confused. Just ask the people who expected to enter heaven but were told by Christ to leave. He consigned those otherwise good people to the same destination as those who "practice lawlessness."
No wonder that John Bunyan, in his classic allegory The Pilgrim's Progress, wrote, "I saw there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven!" And so there is.
Three Lanes on the Expressway
There are many wrong paths to God but only one right one. We don't have to be experts in identifying all of the false paths, for, if we are observant, we will notice that, despite differences, they all have a common characteristic. Try to find it as I describe three lanes of the superhighway that is going in the wrong direction.
The Ladder Climbers
While riding on a plane, I had a conversation with a man who said to me, "My greatest fear is to stand behind Mother Teresa on the day of judgment and overhear the Lord saying to her, 'Lady, you could have done a whole lot more!"' This man was an achiever who was trying to climb a ladder to God, but he wasn't sure whether he had even made it to the first rung!
Though it has variations, you have probably heard it a dozen times: God has given us a conscience, a moral nature that can distinguish (however imperfectly) between right and wrong. He gives us the ability to do good works that have the power to purify the soul. Our task is to use these gifts to the best of our ability.
Devotions, prayers, and disciplines help lift us rung by rung. And though we might not do all that we should, we can depend on God's grace to get us the rest of the way. As the cliché says, "God helps those who help themselves."
Chances are your friends believe this. Maybe you do, too. If you are a perfectionist, or if you have had to work for everything you have ever had, this route will be particularly appealing. According to a Barna Research report, almost all Americans believe they are good enough to get to heaven. That doesn't mean they think they are perfect, but that they think they are as good as, or better than, others. Even those who don't go to church see themselves as decent enough to have a good chance of "making it."
I often ask people this question: "If you were to die today and God were to say to you, 'Why should I let you into heaven?' what would you reply?" Nine out of ten say something like this: "I'm a pretty good person, and I'm trying hard to do better."
For now let's just file this answer in the back of our minds. We'll reflect on it later.
The Religious Types
Perhaps you are surprised that I've put religion in the "mistaken" category, that I'm listing it as just another lane on the broad expressway. "After all," you might say, "if religion does not get us to God, what will?"
But think about this for a moment. The people who were banished by Christ were certainly religious. I get the impression that they didn't just serve God occasionally but actually made it a way of life. When they were knocking on heaven's gate, the reason they expected to gain entrance is that they had done so many religious works in the name of Christ.
Religion can take many forms. For some, it involves sacraments, which are believed to be channels of grace for the faithful. The church, the argument goes, has the power to complete our incomplete deeds.
For others, religion is studying the ethics of Jesus and trying to live by those precepts. Knowledge linked with proper motivation helps us live a religious life, we are told.
We've all met those who believe they have met God through nature. The contemplation of the works of God leads to a knowledge of God, they say.
As you well know, there are dozens of different religions in the world, and each has its own creeds, ethics, and expectations. Religion, if understood broadly, is much more diverse than most people realize.
However, religion is really just another version of the "ladder theory." Religion defines the rungs more carefully and states the expectations more clearly. And, of course, God's help is often sought. But religion, as such, is not the way.
Reasons will be given later.
Of course the mystics are religious too, but I've given them their own category because they are unique people who usually seek God with more intensity than others. Throughout the years, some devout souls (bless them) have renounced the world and secluded themselves in monasteries to find God. Maybe there are not many people who do that today, but the idea that we can find God within us through meditation and concentration is gaining adherents.
I've often admired the Christian mystics, those hearty souls who can take their faith that seriously. These men and women took the words of Christ "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37) as their compelling vision. They fasted and they prayed; they meditated on the Scriptures or other devotional literature. They tried to deal with the sin that cropped up in their own hearts so that they could love God with pure motives.
Certainly some mystics found God, but not in the way or for the reasons that they thought. The temptation was to fall into some form of the ladder theory, to strive within the soul to make oneself worthy of God. Finding salvation through mysticism was such hard work that few mystics knew when they had finally made it. Indeed, most thought one could never know.
New Agers of today are into a different kind of mysticism, a form of spirituality that seeks an inner encounter with whatever God or gods there be. Techniques of meditation and self-help promise that God is just waiting to be discovered. Usually the goal is to lose one's identity and "become one" with the ultimate, or the divine.
These folks believe God is accessible to anyone who seeks Him. Often they also believe that He can be found in any one of the religions of the world. After all, if God is within us all, He is available to everyone, at any time, anywhere. We just need to find the key, and the door to spirituality will swing wide open.
But, as we shall see, the door is jammed.
Excerpted from How You Can Be Sure That You Will Spend Eternity With God by Erwin W. Lutzer. Copyright © 1996 Erwin W. Lutzer. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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Posted June 4, 2011
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