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None of Them is Lost: Read a Book Excerpt
Such intimations may be the impetus we need to examine our behavior and its consequences, in order to change, to align ourselves with principles of happiness, "the object and design" of our existence. We cannot ourselves transcend the consequences of our own past choices, or suddenly acquire a new human nature unshaped by our own history. The inevitability of sin means the inevitability of sinful habits and consequent alienation from God and His heaven. In His infinite love and compassion, however, God wills the reintegration of every individual into the Heavenly Family. The human freedom to sin thus collides with God's desire to exalt and bless. The problem of how to reconcile this tragic collision is the problem of atonement, by which we mean, full and harmonious reconciliation. Any solution, any version of at-one-ment or reconciliation to God, must bring all who sojourn on earth back to God's presence, but must do so without violating human agency.
Genuine moral agency entails necessary consequences. Choice is always choice of something. In John Stuart Mill's classic treatment of the subject, human liberty requires the freedom "of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow." Those consequences may look like punishment or reward from our perspective, but they were chosen. That is how freedom operates, ideally at least. Consequences are chosen at the time actions are freely committed. To choose to indulge a desire is to choose its fruit—bitter or sweet—assuming, and this is a crucial caveat—that "men are instructed sufficiently" to understand what they are choosing.
Clearly, instruction is never perfect, the playing field is never entirely even, and a host of mitigating circumstances complicate and constrain the agency that humans exercise. We never operate on the basis of perfect understanding; we are never entirely free of social, cultural, and biological influences. Secondhand smoke of a thousand types complicates and compromises the degree of freedom and accountability behind human choice.
The underlying principle, however, does not vary: we are becoming what we love and desire. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. . . What we are worshipping we are becoming." Every moment of every day our choices enact our loves, our desires, and our aspirations. And we are molding ourselves into the God or gods we thereby worship.
That is why all talk about punishment and rewards, about justice and merit and deserts, can be wrongheaded and misleading. We are not in some contest to rack up points. We will not someday wait with bated breath to see what prize or pain is meted out by a great dispenser of trophies. We cannot so trivialize life that we make of it a coliseum where we wage moral combat like spiritual gladiators, for a presiding Authority on high to save or damn according to our performance. Where would be the purpose in all that? He might take the measure of our souls at any moment and deal with us accordingly, saving Himself, not to mention us, a great deal of trouble.
How much more meaningful is a life designed for spiritual formation, rather than spiritual evaluation. All tests evaluate, and life is no exception. But the most meaningful and productive tests are those that assess with an eye to improvement, that measure in order to remedy, and that improve and prepare us for the next stage in an upward process of advancement. For these reasons, all talk of heaven that operates in terms of earning rather than becoming is misguided. Such ideas misconstrue the nature of God, His grace, and the salvation He offers.