The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Matthew 13:45-46
What is the Summum bonum of life, the value above all values? Jesus called it “the Kingdom of Heaven”. What exactly is that? I believe it is the integration of God’s rule into all reality. It is living in such a way as to bring the eternal values to bear on the earthly and it is the ability to recognize Kingdom enterprise when it appears.
However, when I put a higher value on non-kingdom merchandise and activities—-spiritual dissonance occurs. In fact, the elevation of anything exclusive to God’s rule is idolatry.
Have you ever made a large purchase and then as you drove it away or drove away from the mortgage company where you signed the countless documents, you begin to get an uneasy feeling? We call this buyer’s remorse. I fear I have paid too much for something but now it is too late. Without exception, I will wind up paying too much when I put ultimate trust in that which is not of God, but in one of God’s creations.
How do we discern our way into recognition of what is and what is not of eternal worth?
Bernard of Clairvaux in On Loving God developed a continuum of successive stages toward real fulfillment.
The love of self for self’s sake
We all begin our journey here. The world revolves around me. We are aware of our needs and nothing else. This is narcissism or egocentric living. It is how we all started out as infants.
As a teenage boy, I lived only for my needs. I lived a life of extravagant hedonism. I did what I wanted when I wanted and with whom I wanted. I had no care of the damage I was doing to those around me. My life was all about me. (Over the years I have lapsed into that phase more often than I care to count.)
While it is natural, and the beginning point of our spiritual journey—-it must be left behind for it will lead to a destructive life.
C. S. Lewis spoke once of being awakened in the middle of the night during his bachelor days and not being able to go back to sleep. It was totally dark and utterly still in his bedroom at Magdalen College. There was no way to perceive anything there outside himself. It was as if he were alone in a vacuous black hole. Suddenly he sat bolt upright in bed, for it dawned on him that such isolation was the logical end of a self-centered life.
“What if,” he found himself asking, “we get in eternity exactly what we’ve lived for in time?” This means if we’ve truly loved others and beauty and ideas and causes beyond ourselves, we shall continue to participate in that realm of richness. But if we’ve lived only for ourselves—if every thought and concern has revolved around the self and the self alone—could it be that all we shall get will be ourselves and nothing else?
Such a condition would amount to total isolation, which is similar to that worst of all punishments, short of capital punishment—namely, solitary confinement. Such a fate cuts across the very heart of what we human beings are and need. To be utterly and totally alone makes even the images of a burning Hell seem mild in comparison.
We’ve no choice about beginning our lives in such self-centeredness, but we do have a choice as to whether or not we remain there.
The love of God for Self’s sake.
At this stage, there is a growing awareness of realities outside of ourselves. There are other entities, yet the focus is still very much on ourselves. We love God for all that God can do for us.
The other day I listened to my first sermon from over forty years ago. I was shocked at what I was saying. Not only was the delivery halting and stammering, but the perspective was certainly Joe-centered. I loved God, but for what God was doing for me. I told stories of only having enough money to wash my clothes in the machines while I was in college and not having enough to dry them. I would hang the wet clothes all over my dorm room. I was getting weary of this process, so I prayed and asked God to provide some money to dry my clothes. I went to the laundry room and checked the empty washing machines and dryers and found enough loose change to dry my clothes. I said in my sermon that that proved that God was interested in an insignificant college student.
While that is theologically true, it also shows us that I love God for what God was doing for me. I was loving God for self’s sake. That is better than loving self for self’s sake, but only that.
What happens when you love God for self’s sake and God doesn’t come through for you like you asked. What if he doesn’t give you enough money to dry your clothes? What if he doesn’t heal your brother and he dies anyway? What if he doesn’t grant your financial wishes and you have to file for bankruptcy?
I will tell you what our temptation is when God doesn’t come through for us like we think He ought: we tend to cut off communication with God. We pout and pull back from engaging relationship with Him. While this stage is better than the first stage, it is still manipulative and will ultimately never satisfy all the needs of our hearts.
The love of God for God’s sake.
This is a love for not what He can do for us but loving Him for His own intrinsic value. There are reasons to worship God that have nothing to do with our needs but only with the wonder of who God is. God didn’t have to be the way God is, that beautiful wonder of a Being that is too marvelous for human eyes to behold. But he is more wonderful than words can express, and we love to be in his presence.
I remember when my oldest son Cole was about 4 or 5 years old and I was trying to do some writing in my study at home, he came into the room and just stood beside me. I asked him what he wanted, and he said, “Nothing Daddy. I just want to be with you.” He could have asked for the world at that point, and I would have found a way to get it for him. It is one of those joy-filled moments that I will forever cherish.
I long to be the kind of man who goes to the presence of the Father and says, “I simply want to be with You and glory in what You are, not in what You can give me.”
If I had been putting this continuum together, I’d have made this the ultimate level. If I could learn to love God for the sake of who God is—wouldn’t that be the pinnacle? But this wise old saint thought different.
The love of self for God’s sake.
I was shocked when I first read that, but as I thought about it, I realized the wisdom. Who is the most difficult person in the world for you to love? For me—–it is me. One of my deepest issues with God goes back to the very first thing He did for me—-create me.
For some reason, the body I have, the mind I have, the broken family system into which I was born—-none of these are easy for me to celebrate. There is much about my very being that I simply don’t like. Even though I remember Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that I should love my enemies, I often find it very difficult to value the enemy inside my own skin.
One time during those confusing and awkward junior high years my dad asked me about how I felt about myself. I wasn’t self-aware enough to be able to answer. I was silent. He asked, “Are you self-conscious about the size of your ears? I know I was when I was your age.” I thought, “No. I didn’t realize I had big ears. Now I am concerned about them.” But I do remember that I didn’t regard the way I was created as good.
So—-I think Bernard was right when he said that the highest stage of development is when we learn to love self for God’s sake.
When God created all things in Genesis, how did He describe it? “Good, good, very, very, good.” The question is this: Am I a created being? If the answer is yes—-then how does God view me? “Good, very good.” He has placed a high value on me.
Each one of us, as we were created, is the pearl of great price, believing fulfillment lies in affirming that what God did in creation was good, and letting that become our joy surely as the pearl merchant found joy in what he found.
I am a favored son of the God of the universe. He loves me as if I were the only person ever created. He thinks of me as good—-very good. He values and loves me because he is God, and I am Joe. Isn’t that enough reason to value me? If not, I have other problems.
Part of what Jesus means when he describes the “kingdom of Heaven” is that He longs for the day that I will be able to discern the value of what He deems valuable.
The day that happens is the day the Kingdom comes to earth bit by bit and moment by moment.