When Strivings Cease - Thoughts on Death, Heaven, and Toil
You step onto the stage. The actor next to you finishes their line. They look at you as if they are expecting a response. The audience subtly shifts their attention toward you, and you're left speechless. You don't know your next line. You don't know any of your lines. Will you fumble through a horrible improvisation? Maybe you could try to concoct a sneaky way to procure a script? If you're lucky, something about the scenario you're in will begin to feel oddly familiar, and you'll recognize that you're having the actor's nightmare. All you have to do to end the agony is wake up.
If you've never been in a play, you have undoubtedly experienced some other version of this nightmare. Have you had the dream where it's exam day for a college course that you forgot you were taking and missed all the classes for? As a first time waitress, I used to have nightmares about waiting tables all night. In my dreams, I made horrible mistakes for every table I served, and I could never find a manager to comp any meals or fix anything on the computer for me. My husband is a programmer. He has nightmares about bugs in his code that he can never get to the bottom of. I don't exactly know what those dreams are like because asking him to explain his programming, real or imagined, would be a waking nightmare for me. The point is we've all had some version of this horrible nightmare.
The actor's nightmare I had last night took a new direction. Usually, I'm back in one of my high school plays with a highlighted script I've hidden in the wings so I can try desperately to memorize each scene before it begins. Last night, I was trying to make last-minute changes to a program for a show I was directing. Of course, I knew no one's names or even what roles they had, so this horribly administratively focused actor's nightmare lived up to its name.
I was beginning to panic. I had no idea how to begin to find the information I needed to get the program finished in time, and then I woke up. The whole problem was irrelevant. The work wasn't real. All the struggle and fear ended.
The bible tells us that after Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden our labor here on earth became toil. It's hard for us to think through this particular ramification of original sin because we've never known work without toil. Everything we strive to accomplish feels so important. We persist. We endure. We hustle. If our goals are difficult to achieve, we take pride in the challenge in order to motivate ourselves to work even harder.
But a day is coming for each of us when our work on this earth will end. And I have a strong suspicion that when I step into God's presence, it will feel a lot like waking up from the actor's nightmare. All the great works I struggled so hard to complete will fade away like so much dreamed nonsense. The tasks I've left undone, the fear and insecurity wrapped up in the problems of my life that I haven't managed to solve yet will seem insignificant and perhaps even silly. I will step away from my toil.
I had a dream a few weeks ago that I knew I would be dying in two weeks. (Those two weeks have come and gone, so no worries friends.) In my dream, I was ridiculously excited about the prospect of stepping into eternity and having all my questions answered. I could not wait to be on the other side of all my favorite mysteries. But I paused for a moment in my dream. I looked at my children and saw their broken hearts. I knew that despite my aching for heaven, I had to take all the time I could to love them, help them understand, and soothe their heartache. Then I thought of my toil. I should try to finish a book or two that I had started. I should consider what else I wanted to say about God. And what a funny idea really, to feebly try to put my words together about a God who is still so utterly unfathomable to me. I would toil to scrape together my small picture of God, knowing how much I could never know, when in two weeks I'd step into heaven, see the full picture in all its glory and laugh at all our best descriptions of God and how much we all toil to maintain a relationship with Him.
We get glimpses here on earth of what it will be like for our toil to become all at once irrelevant. When my son was first diagnosed with cancer, nothing else mattered. My husband's work projects, my commitments, anything anyone was counting on us for, none of it mattered one bit. I didn't even have to make excuses. Everyone around us knew that our world would stop for a while.
I have a good friend whose father died last week unexpectedly. I've watched as their toil slips away. They don't need to decide how or when anything in their lives will get done. They can simply sit together and remember their father, honoring him well as they grieve together. For a while, anyway. Eventually, someone must have asked them to make arrangements for the memorial service, so a little toil slipped back in. And now, I suspect they are beginning to consider their full returns to work and life.
But it is remarkable that our toil can pause, that we can, if only for a few weeks at a time, and only when tragedy strikes, step away from our efforts and see them as insignificant for awhile. It points to a rest that is coming. It reminds us that our toil can not be our God because it will end, eventually. The bible says that "the last enemy to be destroyed is death" and with it the workings of death, our toil. I think we will have things to do in heaven. I think we will partner with God in incredible ways. I suspect some part of it will remind us vaguely of work, but without the toil in it. We will have all of the fulfillment with none of the futility. Our best approximation on earth may be a hobby we take on simply for the joy it gives us. Still, we'd have to imagine that hobby without our striving and frustration, without expense and consequences, some of them so subtle we barely recognize them anymore, but to endeavor with God in a work completely free of that strife and encumberment is a glory none of us have tasted yet.
But the problem with death is that we can't usually plan for it. We don't know when it's coming. I think that's why the world is so captivated this week by the news of Kobe Bryant's death. A young, healthy man with a young, beautiful family whose death was completely unexpected. It shocks us, and it makes us reflect for a few moments on the hard truth that we aren't guaranteed any more days on this earth than he was. No one owes us any notice. We can't see our deaths coming and thoughtfully put aside our toil, prioritizing eternal things and living for heaven just in time to see it approaching. Most of us won't see our deaths coming. We won't get two weeks to tie things up nicely like I was given in my dream.
So, we must do the harder work of always keeping the end in mind. We have to choose to live for heaven every day. We have to remember that toil is not our God, and it will one day be put to death like the dying of a dream, how quickly its oppression will seem irrelevant. We do not get to step away from our toil. We might have fifty years left here or five, but either way, we will need to eat. So we will dance our dance with toil because we live in the world, for now. But as we circle the dance floor, we can choose to keep our hearts set on heaven and not on the toil we will one day awaken from.
Amy Noel Green is a Ted Speaker, author, and video game designer. She received international press attention for her work on the video game "That Dragon, Cancer." The video game tells the story of her son Joel who died from cancer at the age of five.
She is the author of the upcoming book, "Dear God, How Could You?" (When Joel died of cancer after years of miracles, Amy questioned God. She shouted her betrayed, angry questions at the God she no longer understood. She buried many miracles with Joel. She buried her relationship with God too, but God’s love for her refused to stay in the grave.) Subscribe for updates on the bottom of her about page, to be notified when her book is published.