Live the Life You Love

I saw a bumpersticker once that said, simply enough, “Live the Life you Love.” This reminds me of the quotation attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” One of my working definitions of mysticism is “the art of living in heaven here and now.” Bolstered by Biblical passages like Luke 17:21 and Romans 8:35-39, I believe that Christian mysticism is all about going to heaven before we die.

Growing up as a nice liberal protestant Lutheran in the 1970s, I was taught that “hell” is “a state of separation from God,” which of course is what you get when you strip all the mythology away from hell. But Psalm 139:8 pretty much blows that one out of the water. “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there,” as the King James Version so succinctly puts it. Other translations more squeamishly render this verse as talking about “Sheol” or even “the depths,” but I don’t see how we can avoid this fundamental syllogism:

A. God is everywhere
B. Hell (aka Sheol, or “the depths”) is somewhere
C. Therefore, God is present in hell

Hell is not the absence of God. Hell is experiencing the fires of God’s love as judgment. This, clearly, begins right here on earth. And it seems to me that there are only two responses to this experience. We can either do everything we can to make ourselves worthy of God’s esteem, i.e. we can try to earn God’s love… or we can humbly acknowledge that we can’t do it ourselves, and we can open ourselves up to simply receive the love, forgiveness, and grace which we cannot control and cannot earn.

Frankly, I believe the first option — trying to earn or engineer God’s love — just pushes us deeper into hell. I have yet to meet the person who, at least by midlife if not much sooner, hasn’t made an unmitigated disaster of their life, whether through addiction, self-involvement, environmental wastefulness, consumerism, sexual objectification, unconscious or willing participation in the unjust systems of our economy, violence, cruelty, self-hatred, obsession, spiritual pride, just plain normal pride, or cynicism and despair. And yes, many people’s problems are not necessarily entirely of their own making, but while such an observation might be an analgesic to alleviate feelings of guilt and/or foster feelings of self-righteous victimization, it hardly does much to actually transform suffering into healing.

So if our lives are disasters, what do we do about them? It seems to me that many people try to assert control over their sense of spiritual chaos by focusing on one manageable aspect of ethical living or morality. A widely-held caricature of conservative Christians holds that they obsess over sexual morality while ignoring questions of economic or environmental justice. But it seems to me that there is a similar one-dimensionality to folks who are crusading against war, or against white or male privilege, or against [insert your favorite sin here] and who seem to meanwhile just let all the other problems and injustices of life, whether individual or social, just kind of float on by. If we fight our favorite sin (both within ourselves and by crusading against it in society at large), are we then justified before God? I really don’t think so. And that’s because I’ve yet to meet a moral or ethical crusader who seems to be living joyously in heaven-here-and-now. I know that when I’ve gotten onto the crusader carousel, I wind up in the funhouse of judgment and condemnation. It’s hard to forgive those who perpetrate the one sin I’ve sworn to fight with all my heart.

So when we focus too hard on trying to earn our way into heaven, we end up playing God, which is hardly a heavenly place to be. Back to living the life you love, and being the change you want to see in the world: if, by contrast, we can actually, radically, unconditionally, joyously, faithfully, trustingly, simply, peacefully, just accept God’s love and grace and forgiveness, then all the beatific splendor of heaven is ours, right here and right now.

Then, of course, we chop wood and carry water. Living in heaven here and now doesn’t mean we forget about such things as fighting injustice or letting go of our addictions and compulsions. If anything, the urge to do such things only intensifies. But it is an urge borne of love, not fear. It is a joyous repentance. Instead of crusaders fighting the hell within us, we become ambassadors sharing the love the overflows through us and around us. Which kind of reminds me of another famous bumpersticker: “Make Love, Not War.”

In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Meet the Newest Doctor of the Church: Saint Gregory of Narek
Concerning Emergence, Contemplation, and the Faith of the Future
Why Is "Mysticism" A Dirty Word?
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Sue

    Ah, lovely :) There is so much freedom in this post, Carl. Freedom to rest and just be … which of course is nothing like being passive, and everything like living.

    God is amazing.

  • Beth

    Hi Carl–that is a lovely definition of Christian mysticism! One foot in both realms.. The bigger gift seems to be that those who clearly live ‘there’, while not doing so for the intention of helping the rest of us, do assist others to have the courage to do what it takes to live the life we’re all meant to live…inside the heart of God…with one foot on land/one in the sea; one foot driving a car/other foot dipping a toe in the boundless mysteries.
    Thanks so much, Carl, for your single-pointed focus on finding your way home.

  • Kasethen

    Interesting perspective. I think this touches upon some of the themes present in C.S. Lewis’s writings as well. How can love be distorted? How can a zealous love for God–in crusade form–be converted into a place of illusion, deception, and judgment? This happens quite easily, in my experience. I think your quote from Ghandi is appropriate. If you wouldn’t mind, could you clarify in what way you think that God is ‘with’ those in Hell–as your quote from Psalms places it?

  • Carl McColman

    Not sure how to answer your question, since the omnipresence of God and the experience of the presence of God are both profound mysteries. Here’s a thought: the universe is shot through with the fires of the love of God. Those in “hell” stand with their backs to God, and the fires of love burn. Those in “heaven” stand facing God, and the fires of love illuminate the beatific vision. Now, who chooses which way you stand? If you’re a Pelagian or an Arminian, you say “I do.” If you’re a Calvinist or an Augustinian, you say “God does.” :-)

  • Beth

    Ok–side trip here…
    Here’s a concept that has arisen in Buddhist/Christian dialogue about Jesus as bodhisattva–a being that does not have to be incarnated, but chooses to, for the good of the embodied universe.

    Carl, in that powerful image you gave, Jesus as bodhisattva, would embrace both the fire of love and our fear of it and would stand with one hand stretched towards God and one hand stretched away so that whichever direction we face his arms are available to us.

    That takes me out of the realm of Calvinism or Armininianism, doesn’t it? Oh well.
    Thanks ever so much for that beautiful imagery.

  • Jamie

    Thanks Carl for a wonderful post.
    It sums up the “mysticism of action” so beautifully exemplified by Catherine of Siena who experienced heaven on earth but was active in politics and charity.

  • Peter

    To tie this in with another post: John Crowder majors on “receiving God’s love” with joy, ecstatic joy; and his testimony is that this experience of fullness and satisfaction in Him leads to abandoned, loving service to those in need, the “action” part of mysticism. In other words, fufilling Great Commandment #1, to love God with all our heart-soul-strength, naturally leads us into fulfilling #2 to love our neighbor as ourselves.

    As Mike Morrell says, “I’ll drink to that!”


  • Sue

    I’ll drink to that too, Peter. A nice glass of cabernet merlot.