Death and Glory on the Mountaintop
If I’m perfectly honest, I want glory. I want my gifts to be reflected far and wide. I want my accomplishments to be honored by many people. I want to be known and praised for doing great things.
These desires have a natural and appropriate root. Human beings are social creatures. Part of what that means is that we want to be acknowledged by others, and being honored for good things we’ve done is an important part of that acknowledgement. If I wash the dishes, it is good and right for my family to thank and perhaps even praise me. If my friend accomplishes something extraordinary, it is good and right to celebrate the accomplishment and shine a light on it for others to see.
The trouble is, despite this honest root, my desire for glory tends to bloom in distorted ways. Fertilized by a culture that worships celebrity, my desire grows into a longing for a kind of fame that isn’t important. And when I fail to achieve this fame, I feel restless, discontent, and worthless. Worse, I can become bitter toward a God who has drawn my boundaries in such lowly ways.
Yesterday, I was helpfully reminded that this longing for earthly fame is misplaced for the Christian. I’ve spent the past few days in the mountains of North Carolina hiking and talking theology with two old friends from seminary. (There are few things I enjoy more!) Yesterday, we hiked to the top of Lookout Mountain behind Montreat College and listened to a “Pray as You Go” devotion including Colossians 3:2-4:
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
The earthly path for me is one of death. What does a dead person care for earthly gain? Nothing. But, how can I die, even while I continue to live this earthly life? I can yield to the humble constraints that God has put on my life and attend gratefully to the good things God has given me. Through this grace-infused discipline I slowly become a dead man, content with what I have, caring not for earthly glory.
For all this, perhaps there is yet a kind of glory that the dead person should seek here and now. In the Summa Theologica (I-II, Question 3), Thomas Aquinas approvingly cites Ambrose’s definition of “glory”: “being well known and praised.” Then, he claims, human happiness “depends, as on its cause, on the glory which a human has with God.” The thought here seems to be that our deepest happiness—which may be realized in part now and completely in the next life—is caused by being “well known and praised” by God.
The glory we should seek here and now, then—the fame and praise we should seek even as we renounce the pursuit of earthly glory—is a kind of fame and praise before God. We ought to aim to be well-known by God and praised by God for the way we live.
Of course, this glory will, in general, be a hidden glory, a fame in the eyes of only One. Our life of death will also be hidden, Paul tells us in Colossians. But, they both come with a peace and contentment that makes this earthly road satisfying in its own way. And Paul tells us they both anticipate the revelation of a glory that will slake my thirst, once and for all.