I think we'd all choose heaven over hell. But what do we have to do to get in?
I remember my coach pulling me aside after the second day of football tryouts. “We’re going to ask you to play one more year on the non-traveling team,” he said. “Maybe next year.”
I was crushed. I remember vividly the sting of those words; I replayed them over and over in my mind in the following months.
At some point in our lives, we have probably all gotten that message: “You didn’t make the cut. You don’t measure up.” Maybe it was getting dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend. Maybe it was being rejected from your dream school. Maybe it was getting fired from a job. Maybe it was a parent who was never really proud of you.
It’s understandable that rejection causes some pain. But why does it hurt so much? Sometimes the pain of rejection lingers for years and can even—if we allow it—grow to define who we are.
Why does rejection have such power over us?
The Fear of Rejection
One plausible explanation is that rejection corresponds to something already going on inside of us. It triggers a landmine. It recalls a painful memory. It touches on an old wound, not yet fully healed.
Think of a man who is cheating on his taxes and lives in fear of getting caught. Whenever there is an unexpected knock on the door, his heart rate goes up. It’s more than a knock; it’s a message: You’ve been caught! You’ve been exposed! The knock on the door triggers a strong reaction, not because of what it is but because of what is going on inside this man.
The Bible, believe it or not, has a pretty similar view of human psychology. It claims that human beings were originally made perfect, and then something went terribly wrong inside us. In the story it tells, the first human beings walked around naked without shame. Imagine that—complete vulnerability without any fear of rejection!
But then humans made a choice to disobey God and go their own way. And when they made this choice, everything changed: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”1
According to the Bible, human beings live with the emptiness and anxiety of wondering whether we measure up because we all know, deep inside, that we don’t measure up. We have consciences that tell us we have fallen short of God’s standard. As a result, we live under the crushing burden of guilt and its inevitable companion, shame.
We have a landmine inside, just waiting to go off.
“Good Enough” for Heaven
A lot of the activity in the world seems to be motivated by this fear of not measuring up. We live in a culture of performance, threat, anxiety, competition—a culture of law. People look to their careers, relationships, résumés, and anything around them to answer this deep, haunting question: Am I good enough?
Most religions throughout the world—as well as many secular reactions against religion—boil down to some form of answer to this question. When it comes to getting into heaven, we tend to think in these same terms. And that is why Jesus is such good news.
One of the most striking things about Jesus is that religious people hated him. In fact, they eventually advocated his crucifixion. By contrast, ordinary, “sinful” people like prostitutes and thieves flocked to him in droves. Why?
In one fascinating conversation, the respected religious establishment of the day asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”2 Or, as we might put it: When are we good enough? How can we measure up?
“Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’”3
Really? you might be thinking. That’s it? Just believe?
This is a startling claim. Unlike other religions and philosophies, Jesus does not say, “do this” or “know that.” He says, in essence, “You cannot do enough, so I will do it for you. Just believe in me.”
Jesus Christ came into the world not as the highest expression of human religion, but as the alternative to human religion. In Christian understanding, Jesus was not just a teacher about God. He is God. He did not just tell us the way to heaven. He is the way to heaven.
This means that Jesus is the antidote to the culture of law in which our world operates. He is the end of all efforts to be enough, all efforts of self-validation and self-righteousness. He is grace. He is freedom. He is the anti-religion.
The Gift of Grace
Bono, the lead singer of the band U2, expressed this truth beautifully:
[Grace is] my favorite word in the lexicon of the English language. It’s a word I’m depending on. The universe operates by Karma, we all know that. For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. There is some atonement built in: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Then enters Grace and turns that upside down. . . . Christ’s ministry really was a lot to do with pointing out how everybody is a screw-up in some shape or form, there’s no way around it. But then He was to say, well, I am going to deal with those sins for you. I will take on Myself all the consequences of sin. Even if you’re not religious, I think you’d accept that there are consequences to all the mistakes we make. And so Grace enters the picture to say, I’ll take the blame, I’ll carry the cross. It is a powerful idea. Grace interrupting Karma.4
According to Christianity, the best thing in all reality is free. The world may operate according to a culture of law, but heaven operates according to a culture of grace. You may have to work for a lot of things, but if you want God, Christians believe it’s this simple: Trust in Christ. Surrender to him. Build your life and your identity on him, not your own accomplishments.
He did not come just to show us the way. He is the way.