“Eternity: Smoking or Non-Smoking?”
That’s what this month’s marquis asks at a local church. And while it’s clever, that’s not the most important question for me.
All my life, people have told me, “Be grateful you’re alive.” That never made sense to me. Even in my earliest memories, I wasn’t glad to be here. My undiagnosed autism made my life a challenge, and I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” I was suicidal at age 15. The suggestion that we suffer in this lifetime so we can be in Heaven in the next was, to say the least, unsatisfactory, It spoke of a cruel, even sadistic, God that I could not accept.
I rejected that god and became an atheist at age 13. Later, as I sought help with my addictions at age 25, I graduated to agnostic. That’s a natural state for an autistic person who often needs to see in order to understand.
When I got serious about exploring a spiritual life, I tried several churches. All of them proclaimed a message of future salvation. None of them addressed my primary questions: How do I live in this world? What do we do about suffering? When I accidentally stumbled onto Buddhism, I heard a different message. It wasn’t based in faith in things unseen, but in a practical set of steps to take to address the problem of individual suffering. Summarized, the Buddha’s first sermon, the Four Noble Truths, can be stated this way:
- Life is suffering.
- If there is suffering, then there must be a cause. That cause is attachment.
- If there is a cause, then there must be a means to remove that cause. That is nonattachment.
- The means to nonattachment is the Eight-fold Path.
This made more sense to me than anything else I’d ever been told about life and how to live it. I became a Buddhist for several years.
Then the 1992 riots devastated the city I lived in. It was clear to me that people who could behave that way were in a lot of pain. This brought up a new question I had not considered: what about other people’s suffering? Was it enough to simply relieve my own suffering?
As I pondered this, I became convinced that it was not. My meditation teacher said that compassion meant being aware of the suffering of others while remaining in nonattachment. Hindu teacher Ram Dass said something different: “There is a paradox: everything is the way it is supposed to be, and our job in this life is to work to end suffering.” This sounded better, but still lacked the promise of making things better. Later, I heard Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne say that if you have compassion, you must help those who are suffering. This made more sense. I followed this instruction for about a decade. I helped his organization with planning and strategy, learned a lot about community development, and eventually became a field researcher and strategist for the peace movement in Sri Lanka on a team that helped bring about the 2002 cease fire.
I came away from that experience exhausted, traumatized, and bitter. I vaguely sensed that something was missing. By that time, I had finished my BA in Theology. I’d had a very powerful experience of the presence of God. But it terrified me, and I ran away from God– or tried to.
It took years before I revisited the “God question.” When I did, it was because of suffering. This time, it was not the meaningless of life I struggled with, but grief over the loss of a baby. And this time, I was led inexorably though not unwillingly to Christ.
I have great respect for Buddhism. It does contain truth– though in my opinion based on 50 years of experience, not the whole truth. I still agree that the biggest question in life is not eternity, but suffering.
It is with this lens that I approach the Gospel. And the Gospel meets me there. Jesus’ ministry was not simply about salvation after death. His first proclamation in the oldest of the four Gospels is, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The King James version said, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The Aramaic Bible in Plain English reads, “the kingdom of God has arrived.” Darby reads, “has drawn nigh,” while Young reads, “hath come nigh.” Revelation adds, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Messiah… (Rev 11:15).
This Kingdom of God that Jesus announced is not some future event– at least not entirely. It is here, now.
Then there’s the Great Commission. Mark’s version (the earliest) reads,
Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:14-18)
The other versions omit references to healing, but Jesus says in Matthew for example, “Observe all I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). This would surely include his earlier instructions upon sending them out for the first time:
[P]roclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. (Mt 10:7-9)
Then there’s John’s report:
“Do you love me?… Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:17)
The Gospel cannot, in my reading, be separated from relief of suffering. Yet it is not our selves that do the work (John 14:10). This is what was missing from my life: I tried to do the work. It was an impossible job for a mortal. But nothing is impossible for God (Mt 19:26). And in John, Jesus tells us:
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (Jn 14:12)
The Gospel is clear: God’s Spirit works in us and through us, empowering us to change that which mere mortals cannot change. The Kingdom of God is obviously not fully present, and suffering cannot be completely eliminated. But it can be reduced. That goal is what gives my life meaning, purpose, and connection with God, which in turn reduce my own suffering.
The burning question for me is not where I’ll spend eternity, but what to do about suffering, mine and others’. The Gospel answers these questions. In my opinion, any theology that doesn’t come to this conclusion not only misreads the Gospel, but is not very useful.