Some engage in the wishful thinking that humans can suddenly and dramatically become converted and wholly different. To be sure, there are what are sometimes called “sudden conversions” of individuals. But what this usually means is that the person’s disposition against God and/or the faith is transformed into an openness to the truth and grace of God. It does not usually mean (barring a miracle) that the person is instantly possessed of all virtue and is suddenly free of all sinful inclinations. In order for fundamental change to take deep and lasting root in a person, he or she must work hard at it and must cooperate with God’s grace.
People change and grow slowly, incrementally, often in fits and starts. What we call our character is formed gradually over time. Thoughts and decisions produce deeds; deeds produce habits; habits produce character; and character ushers in our destiny. It is the steady march and repetition of virtue (or vice) that produces our character. True and lasting conversion takes time. It takes repeated good decisions to yield the fruit of a good character.
There are seldom any shortcuts. Expecting there to be a shortcut to good character would be like expecting a person with a newfound interest in classical piano, merely on account of this new interest, to be able to play Mozart Sonatas or Chopin Etudes immediately; it just doesn’t work that way. Rather, he must begin with scales and arpeggios, practice every day, master simple pieces, and then gradually progress to the full vision of classical piano.
The moral life is this way, too. A virtue is defined as a good habit. But habits are not acquired by doing something once. Habits, by definition, are repeated actions. Repeated (good) actions are the basis for virtue. Even if grace comes from God and can spur and enable virtue, virtue does not fall out of the sky. Grace builds on and cooperates with our nature, which is to grow and change slowly by habitual, repeated actions in response to grace. Over time, accumulated good actions become the good habits we call virtues and help to form the more lasting aspect of us that we call our character.
Sadly, the opposite is also true. Vices also build strongholds in our life and our character. Repeated sinful acts engender vice, which has a negative effect on our character. Character is rightly defined as the collection of moral qualities that define a person. And while qualities may change over time, it is wishful thinking to presume they can change quickly, dramatically, or substantially. Our character is largely the summation of our repeated decisions.
Among the more dangerous versions of this wishful thinking (that people can easily and fundamentally change in a moment) is the notion that upon death, those who have stubbornly indulged in sin and/or values opposed to God and His Kingdom will suddenly have a change of heart at the judgment seat of Christ. It is fancifully imagined that they will suddenly want what (until now) they had resisted, disliked, or outright rejected. The human heart seldom, if ever, changes on a dime. This is true even when we suddenly discover that we were wrong about something. We human beings are not even swayed by clear facts if we don’t want to accept certain truths. Instead, we will often grow angry and defensive rather than make a wholehearted change. And in those cases in which we do change our view, it is usually done slowly and in fits and starts, especially when it comes to deep-seated views such as those related to politics or religion.
Imagine a person who has, throughout his life, opposed or resisted essential aspects of the Kingdom of God such as forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, chastity, generosity, and the worship that is due to God. Values such as these are not simply hoops to jump through on the way to a magical kingdom or a personal resort of one’s own design. These are actual parameters of the Kingdom of God and the perfection of that Kingdom we call Heaven.
And herein lies the crucial point: by our repeated choices in life, we are either deepening our desire for God and His Kingdom or eroding it. Our character is either being configured to God and what He is offering through virtue, or disfigured and disinclined to what God is offering through vice.
It is foolish to think that a person who scoffed at chastity and God’s teaching on sexuality will suddenly esteem them when he dies, or that one who did not want to forgive his enemy will suddenly wish to do so. It is unlikely that one who spurned going to Mass and worshiping God in the Holy Liturgy will suddenly want to enter the great liturgy of Heaven, which is described consistently as featuring hymns (Rev 4:8-11; 5:8-14; 7:9-12), candles (Rev 4:5), priests in robes and miters (Rev 4:4), delight in the proclaimed words of a book (Rev 5:1-5), praise of the Lamb on the altar (Rev 5:8ff), incense (Rev 8:3ff), and so forth. How likely is it that one will go from considering these things boring, pointless, unnecessary, and not worthy of attendance, to suddenly considering them glorious and heavenly? How attractive will one find the worship and praise of a heavenly multitude of saints in Heaven if he was never attracted to worship with God’s people on Earth?
God will not force us to want what He offers or to obey His vision for us as portrayed in His Law. Heaven is the fulfillment of all that He offers; it is not our personally designed paradise.
The greatest tragedy of all is that the souls in Hell would be even less happy in Heaven, where the things that they rejected in this life are esteemed and are fully and perfectly present, where many whom they did not care for in this life are honored and in the highest places.
It is wishful thinking, therefore, to think that many who are disinclined to God or are outright hostile to Him and/or what He teaches and offers will experience a sudden conversion as they are escorted to judgment. Scripture says, Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie (Eccles 11:3). In other words, when we die, our character will be forever fixed. It is like a piece of pottery which, having been molded into any number of shapes while on the potter’s wheel, has its shape forever fixed when it is placed in the fire of the kiln. It is like the rich man in the parable of Lazarus who, though lamenting his awful state, shows no desire for Heaven and does not ask to be brought there. Rather, he asks to have Lazarus bring water to him in Hell.
Yes, it is a dangerously wishful thinking and presumption to think that an unrepentant sinner will suddenly want to repent, or that one averse to significant aspects of God’s Kingdom will suddenly wish to seek entrance or will suddenly rejoice in what moments before he found irrelevant or even odious. Instances of such sudden “changing of stripes” are exceedingly rare.
In this life there are certainly wonderful moments of conversion. But they must be followed by perseverance and reparative grace to undue the many lingering effects of years of bad choices. In the case of authentic deathbed conversions, purgatory seems a strong necessity.
A proper antidote to this wishful thinking is to have a sober urgency to summon sinners away from those things that deepen their aversion to the Kingdom. Repeated and unrepented sin hardens the heart and darkens the intellect. A sober reverence for this truth is both necessary and salutary. Wishful thinking is not only unhelpful, it is harmful; it detracts from the urgency that motivates us to work for the salvation of souls, beginning with our own.
Judgment day is but the final recognition and solidification of what has been a long series of decisions. Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.
Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie (Eccles 11:3).