The Gift of the Unattainable

By Daniel H. Martins

Have you ever tried to do something that you know is theoretically possible — possible, that is, for you, not just for some hypothetical expert — but seems not actually possible for you? When Brenda and I moved into our apartment, the closet situation was terrible. I had to go to Ikea and buy a wardrobe “system.” I looked at the layout in the store, and, with some help, figured out the exact components I would need, and took it all home.

The instructions, you may know, have no words, but just a series of very simple pictorial depictions of each step. It was immensely frustrating, and I exercised my vocabulary in ways I am not proud of. The final result is workable, functional. I’m not completely embarrassed by it. But it’s not the way it was designed to be. There’s a basket drawer that will fall out if I pull it out too far. There’s a drawer that never got used; it’s sitting in my basement. And another basket that was supposed to be hanging sits on the bottom of the unit. If you were to look at it with the doors shut, you wouldn’t know anything is wrong. But I know it, and I bear my private shame over a completely attainable goal being unattainable for me.

There is, of course, a universally unattainable goal: peace with God, reconciliation with God, union with God, sharing the life of God. By our human nature — more to the point, as a result of our fallen human nature, our sinful human nature — we are cut off from life itself. Yes, we are alive, but the life we have is defective, incomplete. The obvious defect, of course, is that our life is mortal. The word mortal means “subject to death.” From the moment we draw our first breath as infants, we are on the road to our last one. We are under a death sentence.

More seriously than that, however, our life isn’t even ours. It’s derivative. Only the providential will of God allows us to exist from one moment to the next. Our lives are utterly contingent on God willing us to be alive. We have no life of our own; we are dependent creatures. God alone has life in himself, by virtue of his inherent nature, his basic being. The New Testament literature traditionally attributed to the Apostle John calls this sort of life eternal life.

You and I may tend to think of the word eternal as the same as everlasting — that is, going on and on and on infinitely, without end. In fact, we tend to use the two terms — eternal and everlasting — more or less interchangeably in our informal conversation. But the Greek word behind eternal is rather richer and more complex than just everlasting. It connotes something that is not so much of infinite duration in time, but something that exists completely outside the dimension of time.

That’s no more possible for us to imagine clearly than it is for a fish to contemplate ski-jumping. But this is God’s dimension, the dimension of his being, the dimension of his life. For us, everything is either in the past or the future, with a theoretical instant that we call the present, but by the time we can focus on that moment, it becomes a past moment. For God, though, there is no past and there is no future. There is only the present. The things that are “back then” for us are “now” to God. The things that are “not yet” for us are “now” to God. That is what it means to have “eternal life.”

While I was in the midst of my Ikea agony, it was my older daughter who finally came to my rescue. It’s not that Sarah is necessarily more mechanically adept than I am — although it’s pretty safe to say that most people are! It’s just that she had a good bit of prior experience assembling Ikea furniture. She understands the logic of how Ikea engineers think, and knows how to interpret their cryptic instruction illustrations. There were a couple of places where I was just plain stuck, at my wit’s end, and Sarah was able to show me the solution.

The nocturnal conversation that Jesus has with the Jewish leader Nicodemus, recorded for us in the third chapter of John’s gospel, is about achieving the goal that is made unattainable by human fallenness, the curse of sin, the contingent and dependent character of our incomplete lives. It’s about finding peace with God and sharing the life of God. It’s about the gift of eternal life. Jesus talks about being “born again,” or “born from above” — the underlying Greek actually means either and both; the expression is inherently ambiguous, so any decision by a translator about which way to go betrays the author’s intent. It’s a lose/lose proposition!

But it’s through this miraculous sort of birth experience — born again, born from above — that we are connected to God through Christ in a way that that enables us to share God’s deathless life, God’s immortal life, the sort of life that is not contingent, but which God has in himself, by his own nature, eternal life. The experience of new birth is rooted in faith, which is nothing other than the continuous act of the will by which we turn our whole selves over to Christ, putting our whole trust in his grace and love.

This faith is materialized sacramentally in baptism, in which we are visibly incorporated into the church, which is the very body of Christ, the Christ who was raised from the dead by the deathless life of God. Through baptism, we are made one with Christ in his death and one with Christ in his resurrection. We are connected, using Jesus’ words here — we are connected to the Son of Man as he is “lifted up” on the cross, stretching out his loving arms on behalf of a human race that is born under a sentence of death.

In the words of what is arguably the most quoted verse in all of Holy Scripture, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” By our own nature, eternal life is an unattainable goal, a puzzle we will never solve. But Jesus offers us by grace what we cannot attain by nature. He offers us himself.

Praised be Jesus Christ.

The Rt. Rev. Daniel H. Martins is bishop in residence at St. Paul’s By-the-Lake, Chicago.


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