Heaven isn’t an automatic; we must strive for it, with God’s help

Like a mountaintop that must be climbed with much pain, effort and sacrifice, heaven is a destination that we must strive to reach. Fortunately, God doesn’t simply wait at the top for us to make it there; He offers His help every step of the way. 

“Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” —Luke 13:24

That 1980s icon of intimidation, Mr. T, put most succinctly the point of this article: “Without pain, there ain’t no gain, fool!”

Those of us who are called, borrowing St. Paul’s term, to be “fools for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10), would do well to consider both the pain and the gain promised by the Lord Jesus to those who “come and follow” Him.

Our pain probably leaps to mind first. These days of COVID-19 and social unrest are painful for all of us to one degree or another.

We need, however, to reverse the order in which we consider the pain and the gain of the Christian life. It is by understanding what we gain, the golden promise of eternal life, and by desiring that prize more than anything else, that we can hope to understand the role of pain and suffering in our lives.

One of the negative consequences of the COVID-19 crisis has been the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Even in their absence, however, the Olympics give us an image of the harmonious relationship that can exist between “pain” and “gain.” 

During the Games, we get a glimpse of the mind-boggling amount of training and personal discipline required even to compete in the Olympics, let alone to win gold medals. We see the fruit of years spent dedicated to becoming perfect at one thing, whether it is swimming, track-and-field, gymnastics, etc. Those of us who are not Olympic-grade athletes find it hard to imagine all the effort, the sacrifices, the discipline, and the persevering dedication it takes to stick with that one thing for all those years. But the athletes do it because they love it, and they do it because they deeply desire the glory of Olympic victory.

In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus tells us to “strive to enter through the narrow gate” (emphasis added). Reading this entire passage, you might notice that Christ was not directly answering the question He was asked. Someone He met along the way had asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus’s response is not so much about how many people will be saved, but about how you and I can be saved. Jesus knows, yet He chooses not to tell us, how many people will go to heaven and how many will go to hell. But you had better be sure He wants you to know how to avoid hell and go to heaven! Anybody who wants to go to heaven has got to strive for it.

Sometimes, people think of heaven as an automatic consequence of dying, as if we were collecting a kind of spiritual Social Security. Not at all! Salvation is a gift, won for us by Christ in His death and resurrection. But it is a gift that requires an active response from us. In that sense, it is less like a gift of cash, and more like a gift of books or exercise equipment. You have got to read books and exercise with equipment if those gifts are going to do you any good.

Salvation is God’s gift, but it requires that we lead lives of holiness, which means lives of dedication, discipline, work and even suffering. This is the kind of earthly life Jesus lived, and to be like Christ is to be holy. 

Becoming like Jesus is the work of a whole lifetime. He is the Son of God, after all, so we cannot expect it to be easy. The 20th century mountaineer Geoffrey Young once said that “to have attained a summit too easily is to have neglected most of its opportunities.” To become like Christ is to climb the highest possible spiritual mountain, and if it seems like the climb has been easy so far, then we may have neglected some of its critical opportunities.

We also compete against a culture that prizes comfort, convenience and self-indulgence. In many ways a middle-class person in today’s America lives better than the kings and queens of old. Did they have air-conditioning, La-Z-Boy chairs, or pizza delivery? Did they have a thousand TV channels, escalators, or the kind of pain medication we have? God has blessed us a whole lot today, but we cannot become attached to comfort and pleasure, as if they were the point of life. We need to work, to strive, to endure — to climb on our journey to heaven.

Fortunately, we do not make the climb alone, and God does not sit in heaven indifferent as to whether we make it or not. Our Heavenly Father loves us and wants us to make the climb the right way, and to make it all the way to the summit. He will discipline us along the way, as is promised, for example, in the Letter to the Hebrews. God is our great Trainer and Coach (and so much more, but this is just an image). He will not let us take the easy path unless we refuse to follow His direction — a refusal we would make at the risk of our own destruction. 

God will allow us to suffer, which is always an opportunity to imitate and to be united to Jesus in a very special way. We cannot see suffering as an argument against God’s love for us. The saints consistently recognize that suffering comes as a sign of His love, a help to us on the climb to heaven and in making us saints. Saints are the only kind of people who are prepared to live in heaven. 

The Lord gives us another and even greater Gift to help us in our striving for heaven: the Bread of Heaven, the Holy Eucharist. Pope St. John Paul II once wrote, “The Eucharist is a straining towards the goal, a foretaste of the fullness of joy promised by Christ” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 18). 

In the Eucharist, the striving of Jesus, His suffering and death, is sacramentally made present to us once again. And we strive with Him, offering our own lives to the Father along with the Body and Blood of Christ. 

Jesus then feeds us with His Body and Blood as a promise and a foretaste of heaven. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we get a glimpse of the summit toward which we are climbing. The clouds part, and the sun shines, and the mountaintop becomes visible to us. Then, strengthened by Heavenly Food, we “go in peace” and begin another week of climbing, ever upward, no matter what winds or obstacles or temptations we face. 

Another famous 20th century mountaineer — this one was also an important Catholic author — Arnold Lunn, once wrote that “the best kind of happiness must be paid for.” The “price” he was talking about was not money, but self-sacrifice. Jesus has paid the ultimate price for our eternal happiness. May every one of us agree to pay whatever price is required of us, that we might win the greatest of all prizes: eternal life with God.

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.