An old man rests in bed, coughing, spitting up blood. His children and grandchildren are huddled around him. In the midst of the group, another man stands donned in a Roman collar. The priest urges the old man to make amends with God—to repent for his sins, receive the Eucharist, and make peace with his maker. After a life lived according to his own will—a life that kept God tangentially in the background, if present at all—the old man realizes he won’t ever get up again from his bed. And so, just as he intended in his youth, he opens himself up to God’s love, asks for pardon for his past life of sinfulness, and waits peacefully to be ushered into God’s kingdom.
This is commonly referred to as a “deathbed conversion”—a situation where someone has put God off for his entire life only to convert right before the lights turn off, the signing of a last-minute eternal insurance policy. That’s not to say there isn’t great joy in heaven over anyone who turns his or her life over to God—even at the last hour—allowing God’s mercy to sweep him or her into eternity with the rest of the blessed. Like with the Good Thief, we can—and must—rejoice in this soul’s turning to God in this life. However, God obviously doesn’t prefer that we live a life of sin and separation from him, harboring only the vague intent of reconciling our souls with him at the very last minute, when it’s convenient, or, just in case.
Such a way of life is often indicative of a muddied understanding of God and his love for us. Not only are we, in effect, telling God we don’t love him now (and might love him eventually on some undefined day in the far-off future), but we are depriving ourselves of a life of grace—one that offers joy, peace, and meaning, even through suffering and difficulty.
We think we can reconcile ourselves to God when we will; as if nothing were required in the case of men in general, but some temporary attention, more than ordinary, to our religious duties,—some strictness, during our last sickness, in the services of the Church, as men of business arrange their letters and papers on taking a journey or balancing an account. (Blessed John Henry Newman)
And then there’s this from another great and holy thinker from our Catholic faith:
Lord make me chaste, but not yet. (Saint Augustine)
This is one of Augustine’s most famous, and equally comical, lines. We laugh because we completely understand the sentiment—save me Lord, but after I’ve had my fill of fun and pleasure. Yet, if we know God as the lover of our souls—the one who brings rest, peace and joy into our lives—then why would we want to delay him? Does a man deeply in love with a woman wait until the end of his life to wed her? What kind of God do we believe in if we would rather wait until the twilight of our lives to love him? I think this mindset stems from the unfortunate widespread belief that God is only a judge—that essentially we have been created to follow rules only, and at the end of our lives he will review the resume of our deeds, tally up the results, and assign us to where we belong for eternity. This is not the type of circumscribed God the Church professes, and it’s often this God that is rejected by secularist and atheists (for good reason), while begrudgingly accepted by obedient Christians whose whole spiritual life primarily flowers from obligation as opposed to love.
We cannot pretend that turning our lives over to God isn’t difficult, glossing over the thorny aspects of the faith. Our reservations are not completely unfounded. We are called to give up certain pleasures, to put ourselves in the way of possible persecution, to live a life that may in some ways be much more difficult than we would otherwise have to live—or, as Christ tells us, to take up our cross and follow him. Plus, there is the temptation to focus excessively on doing or not doing certain acts—on a strict obedience to God’s laws and the avoidance of sin.
Although, some have sadly not heard enough about all of the blessings of the Christian life: being part of a community that enriches us, seeing ourselves as eternally loved and created with a purpose, knowing the joy of cooperating with God in bringing about his kingdom here on earth, witnessing a life of grace and its many miracles, fostering a friendship with Jesus Christ, and so on. Our life becomes more adventurous: we cast our nets out into the deep, setting forth to bring all nations and people back into the fold of the Eternal One. We are gifted with the knowledge that regardless of our circumstances, sins, and flaws, we are loved infinitely by God. It’s the message we are called to proclaim first and foremost.
On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen, and free you.’” (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel)
The above exclamation is referred to as the Kerygma, or the first proclamation of the Gospel. However, our first introduction to God may not have been that God came to free us, but that he came to inundate us with laws, rules and “thou shall nots.” The fear of hell was—and still can be—a powerful tool used to draw people into obedience. “Believe in God or you’ll go to hell! Don’t do [x] or [y] or you’ll be condemned!” With this type of spirituality, we either respond to him out of fear or obligation, refuse to believe in him altogether, or roll the dice and take our chances with the aim of converting at the end of our lives to a cold and stoic God that is only concerned about rules, law, and order.
When we look deeper than simply the “letter of the law,” we come to understand that God’s laws are always specific, non-abstract examples of how to love or not love. He doesn’t ask us not to sin because he is a neurotic, controlling arbiter of justice that needs our submission. He commands us not to sin because he loves us—because every sin, no matter how minor or grave, hurts others and us. It damages who we are created to be. And a God who loves us—and loves us perfectly—will not settle for even the slightest offense that wounds us or another one of his children. That’s why the idea of converting later on, or when it’s more convenient, reveals first and foremost unfamiliarity with the true Christian God.
There is a very human tendency to procrastinate, which we can be guilty of doing in several areas of our lives. It’s no surprise, then, that this seeps into our spiritual lives as well. An article from the Washington Post, “How to Put a Stop to Putting Things Off,” explores some of the common reasons we procrastinate:
For some, it is fear of failure [that causes them to procrastinate], which creates anxiety and a subconscious self-protective response. For others, it is fear of success. Such procrastinators worry that “if they do well, more demands will be placed on them,” Goldstein says. To be safe, they put it off.
I think the key words are “fear” and “worry.” What will God ask from us if we hand over our lives today instead of tomorrow? What type of suffering may he permit me? What difficult demands will he ask of me now? These questions are honest ones, and I know as I attempt to deepen my spiritual life, I struggle with the same fears. Even though we may have converted in a general sense, we are constantly being called to enter deeper into God’s heart. Yet, like I did when I was younger and not seriously practicing my faith, I can be guilty of taking comfort in the thought of doing it later—when it’s more convenient, easier, or when I absolutely have to. It’s during those moments that I have to ask myself—completely and honestly—what kind of God do I believe in and proclaim? And if he is the source of all goodness, love, and beauty, and if he loves me with an everlasting love that won’t ever sway or wane, then why do I fear drawing closer to him and allowing him to love me more fully? They are questions I must keep asking myself in prayer.
We know that God wants his children to be happy in this world too, even though they are called to fulfillment in eternity, for he has created all things “for our enjoyment”: (1 Tim 6:17), the enjoyment of everyone. (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel)
These are the words I have to remind myself of when I’m tempted to put off growing closer to God. We don’t conform our lives to God’s will only to enjoy eternity with him, but rather, we do it also to be “happy in this world too.” And so, let’s not wait to receive the happiness and joy God has in store for us later in life, but let’s taste and see the goodness of God starting this very moment.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. (Mt. 11:29-30)