A Lifetime of Improvement

Silent path by the waterHow good do we need to be to get to Heaven? It was a question I had while reflecting upon today’s readings. In the Gospel selection from Luke, Jesus is asked by someone, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Christ’s answer – which I will ruminate on – led me to think about my own skills and abilities.

I didn’t learn how to drive a car until I was in my late 20s, over a decade after my peers traditionally acquired that skill. I did so almost on a whim; the time between when I got behind the wheel of a car for the first time and took the test for my driver’s license was less than a week. Obviously, I learned a lot during that first week . . . and, even after being licensed, I spent the next several years honing my skills, figuring out how to drive through snow, up and down hills, through blinding rain, etc. However, today I think my skills have pretty much plateaued; it’s possible I continue to learn new tricks or hone my abilities, but the greater likelihood is that I’m about as good a driver as I’m ever going to be . . . and, perhaps more importantly, as good a driver as I want or need to be. I’ve never gotten in an accident while driving, I tend to be safe and courteous, and my passengers don’t claw at the dashboard whimpering in panic when I drive.

Conversely, I’ve been cooking in some form or another since I was 12. I’m nowhere near an expert – or even a terribly fervent beginner – but I can make most basic dishes, follow recipes, and understand directions. I challenge myself to hone these abilities, trying new techniques, researching beloved dishes to see if I can do something different, or even – in recent years – attempting to improvise meals. I see no reason to think that these skills won’t continue to improve, provided I keep practicing them. Yet it’s also a skill that I think I’ve mastered enough that I could stop if I needed to; I keep myself and my family fed when I put my mind to it, and there isn’t any particular aspect I need to improve.

So, at several points throughout the Gospels – including today – Jesus is asked how difficult is it to get into Heaven, what exactly do we need to do to get into Heaven, or (like today) how many people will be saved. In all cases, Jesus refrains from giving a direct answer. Jesus doesn’t always do this; there are lots of times he gives direct, concrete, quantifiable answers. Who should we baptize? “Go . . . and make disciples of all nations.” How should we pray? “This is how you are to pray: Our Father in Heaven . . .” And so on.

But Jesus always refrains from making specific proclamations about who, exactly, is guaranteed to be saved, or what – exactly – is the bare minimum we need to do to get into Heaven. For example, in today’s Gospel he says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Instead of spelling out specifics, he warns us “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

So what’s going on here?

The skills and mindset that are needed to get into Heaven are not like most other skill sets. From my point of view, perhaps the most paradoxical thing about thinking about what’s required to ensure entry into the Kingdom of Heaven is that, if you ever reach the point where you feel like you’re 100% certain that you don’t need to do anything more to be assured of salvation, that’s probably a good sign that you should not rest easy yet. I’ve always gotten the impression that the road to Heaven is a path we walk along; the destination is eternal life with God, and it’s the forward progress that means the most, not a checklist of “have I met the criteria”?

There’s certainly evidence I’m wrong. Our Protestant brothers and sisters who believe that by faith alone they are saved have scriptural evidence they point to; they’ve reduced salvation to a checklist with one item: “Believe? [ ]”. But – as in today’s Gospel selection – there’s also plenty of evidence of Jesus noting how difficult it is to get into Heaven, how he expects us to act a certain way to bring about the Kingdom on Earth, how the last will be first and the first will be last. This lack of a clear-cut “you’ve done everything you need to do” checklist item leads me to think that Jesus really wants us to remain on the path, doing his will, our entire lives.

There are certain talents that I’m pretty sure I can coast by at my current level, like my driving ability. There are other gifts that I continue to hone as I’m interested, but I also believe I can stop at any point, like my cooking skills. But my desire to be one of those saved, to do what is needed to ever constantly grow in love and compassion, to do my small part to bring about the Kingdom on Earth? That’s a road I hope to be on for a lifetime.

Today’s Readings: Eph 6:1-9; Ps 145:10-11, 12-13AB, 13CD-14; 2 Thess 2:14; Lk 13:22-30

About the Author

Despite being a professional writer and editor for over 15 years, Steven Marsh is more-or-less winging it when it comes to writing about matters of faith. Steven entered the church in 2005, and since then he's been involved with various ministries, including Pre-Cana marriage prep for engaged couples, religious education for kindergarteners, and Stephen Ministry's one-on-one caregiving. Steven lives in Indiana with his wife and son. Despite having read the entirety of the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he's still surprised at elements he rediscovers or reflects upon in new ways. The more Steven learns about the faith, the less he feels he knows; he's keen to emphasize that any mistakes are his own.

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  1. Nice one Steven. We need to keep at it. Why is it we continue to pursue all other activities/skills, while taking it easy on the one important thing that we are put on earth to do.. be true followers of Christ (in our thought, word & deed)

  2. Mr steve, i am overwhelm with the way you break things to my understaning.
    May God grant you more efforts… thanks

  3. Who exactly will be saved? What exactly we need to do to go to heaven? How much degree of good deeds do I need to do to be saved? Only our good Lord knows. But, is our peace of mind enough to think we are in the right path of going to heaven?
    My dear Lord, I always wanted to be saved, to be with you in heaven. Bless me, to be in the right path, for only you knows. Amen.

  4. Hey Steven,

    I also would wonder about the same question, “what exactly do we need to do to get into Heaven?” Or maybe flipping it around, what exactly do we need to do to get into Hell?

    I agree, I don’t think it has to do with faith or acts (yes, I know what everyone is thinking right now). I look to Mt 25, specifically vs 32. What does it say? We will be allowed into Heaven by what we’ve become, a sheep or a goat (symbolic).

    God gave us the gift of free will. Through out life we will define (in our thoughts and in our words, what we have done and what we have failed to do) ourselves. We will become either a sheep or a goat.

    So, it’s not whether you lie one too many times or helped one person across the street or say you believe. A good person can do bad things and a bad person can do good things.

    I guess the question would be, if you were God, would you allow someone like yourself in Heaven?


  5. Thank you! I really enjoyed your insight on this topic, one that many consider controversial. Most days, I believe I am a sheep and then so quickly, my sinful nature shows up. I ask for forgiveness and strength to stay on the right path because it truly is a narrow one leading to that narrow gate.

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