Artwork by Jim Warren
For most of my life, I have perceived the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a stairway to heaven. Like it’s a ladder I’ve been commanded to climb, deed by stalwart deed, until I eventually earn the requisite altitude for the pearly gates.
I’ll tell myself, tough luck! Life wasn’t meant to be easy it was only supposed to be worth it! And along I go on the stairmaster of life, mostly happy but also miserable, because I’m viewing the Gospel in terms of ascension, when I think it is meant to be more about proximity.
It’s strange, because I have always known on a logical level that I am not going to save myself. The scriptures teach as much. But sometimes the message of grace feels obscured by the call for righteousness; sometimes faith feels less important than works. Somewhere along the way, I started viewing spiritual ascension the way one might a corporate ladder, where my actions determine my rank, and ground is gained or lost by my every good or bad deed.
I’m pretty sure this perception is a misunderstanding of the relationship between Godliness and Sin. I’ve been viewing it like this:A low-to-high scale, where sinning knocks you down a rung, while choosing the right earns you higher and higher ground.
What I really think it looks like is this:I think the negative effect of sin is simply that it pulls us away from God. Sin isn’t bad because it makes us bad, or lower, or lesser. It’s bad because it pulls us away, and life without God is hard.
I first started thinking about this when I was learning about yogic philosophy (eye-roll if you must). In yoga, the 8-limbed path could be considered a loose equivalent of the commandments; a set of principles and guidelines given to lead yogis to a happier, more balanced life. I once had it described to me that this 8-limbed path is not a numbered checklist, a spiritual listical of 8 things one needs to achieve and then yay, enlightenment! but rather should be thought of as a table with 8 legs. If you were to reach out and pull any one of the legs toward you, the whole table would move with it.
No matter where you start, when you reach out toward Christ, he comes closer. Because the Gospel is not about ascension, it’s about proximity.
I acknowledge that the word “ascension” is used commonly in scripture, and that the ultimate goal of all this is to return back to our heavenly home (presumably located in some skyward elevation). It’s just that I wonder whether by viewing the term as a literal low-to-high, we’ve shackled our ultimate hope for spiritual ascension with our earthly understanding of rank. We burden ourselves with the task of earning heaven-points, when the game has already been won.
Here I will add that I also don’t think the Gospel is an escalator to exaltation, where simply hopping on board means you’re bound for the Celestial. I think God requires our best effort, but the reward of that effort is not spiritual promotion, it’s a closer relationship with him.
It can be so very hard to give up this idea of spiritual ascension, because to be Mormon is to be trained from infancy to be always striving. We strive for knowledge, for goodness, for talents in all their varieties. And striving is mostly a good thing – but I wonder whether we miss the mark when we limit the definition of striving as upwardness, when it perhaps it could also mean toward.
In short, I submit the theory that all upward-moving contraptions are terrible ways to view the Gospel. Some evidence:
Stairway: my spiritual progress is not as simple as taking steps up or down.
Ladder: righteous behavior does not earn me a higher rung, because that would make it too easy to look down on others.
Stairmaster: God did not intend for me to exhaust myself striving for a perfection I will never reach. (Plus, have you tried these things? Pure torture. God would never invent this.)
Escalator: God’s grace is complete, but I think we are justly required to do more than simply hitch a ride to heaven.
I fully acknowledge that viewing the Gospel in terms of ascension will likely get you to good places. You might be mostly happy. Maybe you’ll be completely happy and it’s just me! But for my part, I’m sick of the endless striving on my spiritual stairmaster. I am trying to focus on a deeper motivation for following Christ, namely proximity to his guidance and love.
I am shifting my perspective of the gospel from this:
I don’t think the Gospel is meant to be a stairway by which we earn heaven. I think it is a means by which, through our best, imperfect efforts, we gain closeness with a loving Heavenly Father. And maybe that’s reward enough.