paradise on earth: Romans 1


read Romans 1 

“If this were a different story, I’d tell you about the sea.”  In this beautiful line from THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER, it’s as if Junot Diaz were saying: if this were a different story, I’d tell you about how all your dreams will come true.  If this were a different story, I’d tell you about how everyone will love you forever. If this were a different story, I’d tell you about how beautiful you and the world around you are.

But the stories Diaz writes are stories of how we lose people – through death, disappointment, grinding poverty, racial prejudice and our own dumb mistakes.

We describe paradise as the embodiment of all we long for and yet in the same breath, we paint it as something unattainable.  We make paradise sound separate from us.  We make it sound as different as earth is from sea.

But does it have to be?

Why would we long for paradise if it were truly unattainable?  How do we even have a concept of paradise if it were so separate from earth?  Perhaps they’re completely different and yet closer than we realize.  Perhaps a paradox has somehow come true.

We see earth and paradise as existing in tension like a seesaw.  We think when we’re “bad” we’re showing our clay feet, and when we’re “good” we’re flapping our angel wings.  But God doesn’t see us in that disunity.  He sees us in our unity.  He sees as fallen creatures made in His image, redeemed by the death of His Son.  As C.S. Lewis put it: “all that is earth was once sky.”  God sees our earth and our sky.  He sees our glory and our flaws.  But the interesting thing is that while God is the only one with absolutely clear vision, He is also the only one who truly and completely loves us just as we are.

In contrast, we humans have a constantly shifting and distorted view of our glory and our flaws, and yet we struggle with loving ourselves.  When most of us talk, we try to give others a telescopic vision of our weaknesses and a microscopic one of our strengths.   But when we listen inside ourselves, those lenses are all too often reversed.  We forget our victories and instead feel our weaknesses too keenly.  We magnify the sides of ourselves described here in Romans 1:29-32.  We kick ourselves over things that cause us shame, guilt and regret.  It’s as if we are doomed to live in some nightmarish eye doctor’s office with the doctor peering far too close and asking, “better? Or worse?” while giving us only dark lenses to peer through.  “Horrible and horribler,” is our only possible response.

That’s a seesaw way to live.  It’s a way of looking at earth, then paradise.  It’s a way of seeing ourselves as TERRIBLE then GREAT.  It’s a way of seeing our lives as meaningless then triumphant.  It’s a way of thinking we’re all alone in our misery and then all alone in our victories.

So how do we integrate the two?  How do we experience our emotions fully and yet not be crushed under the weight of them?  Is there a better way than just being “bad” then “good” then “bad” then “worse” then falling asleep until the cycle starts all over again?

Of course.

God invites us to get off the seesaw and live under grace.  He invites us into a paradise on earth.  He invites us to live in a world where we are loved as we really are.  He knows us better than we know ourselves and yet He calls us beautiful.  That’s because He looks at us and sees Christ’s perfection.  He promises to redeem the brokenness of our lives.  We find paradise not through our achievements but “from start to finish through faith” in Jesus and what He has done for us on the cross.  Romans 1:17. That’s the only way to get off the seesaw of good and bad.

And when we begin to see ourselves as God does, through the lens of grace, we no longer need distort our flaws and magnify our victories.  We can be honest about who we are, where we’ve failed, and where we long to go.  For we no longer exist to prove ourselves.  His love has proven everything that needs proving.  Instead, the moment we feel discouraged because we go down the “what’s the point of it all” road, we can remember that the point is to have a relationship with the God who loves us so much He died in order to make the relationship possible.  As Paul writes, we live and move and have our being in Him.  We were made for that.  We find our meaning through “belonging” to the one who invites us to belong to Him just as we are.   Romans 1:6.

Looked at through the lens of grace, our lives become a different story than the one we thought it needed to be.  It starts and end with God, and somehow in Him we find ourselves.   We’re not alone in that.  When we start to see with the eyes of God, we see how all of creation sings about Jesus.  Romans 1:20.  The whole universe is “speaking” about God. The stars, skies, rocks, snow, rivers and clouds delight in God.  Like creation, Paul says here that every human heart KNOWS God.  It’s an astounding and beautiful claim.  He says people can “suppress” their knowledge of God, but they see Him all around them.  Paul says God is “obvious” from the world God made.  Perhaps that’s why we hear people being defensive about their faults.  Romans 1:21.  They’re speaking out loud to defend themselves from an invisible judge and jury, but they don’t yet know that that judge has forgiven them.  There’s no call to be defensive.  God died to free us from all guilt and shame.

The good news is that we don’t have to find paradise on earth; paradise came down to earth to find us.  Our earth is not yet paradise, not by a long shot, as Diaz’ stories portray so poignantly, but in the meantime God offers to paradise each of us.  He wants to tabernacle us or home us – to come and live inside each of us.  He wants, in effect, to marry us.

This is a different story, and God tells us that He wants to sea us all.  Trusting in Him will make all our dreams come true.  He wants us to stop trying to do things our way, and instead go about enjoying our lives, enjoying other people, and wishing upon every star in heaven and earth because God made them all, just as He made us.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on February 20, 2013.  Photo taken of a random door in lower Manhattan (with abject apologies for whatever else it says – I don’t speak that language…)