There is a great deal of unease in our nation and in our churches at this time. With the declining economy, wars overseas and radical changes in Washington, it is easy for many Christians to feel uneasy. But Christians in other times and in other countries today have not been as affected by situations like this. Why? One answer is because they realize that this world is not their home and that here, they can expect difficulty. Jesus said: "In this world you will have tribulation..." (John 16:33).
But for many American Christians, this is a hard lesson to learn because comparatively speaking the world has been a more comfortable place for us. Consequently, we often live as though this world is our home and fail to have our true home in view to bring perspective to our temporary hardships here.
In this article and another one to follow, I would like to look at two biblical truths that are easily neglected during "good" economic times but which are critical for the Church to embrace during trials: (1) This world is not our home since our true citizenship is in heaven, which should free us to give to and serve others far more than when this world is our focus; and (2) God uses hardship for our good and his glory, and no hardship we experience is beyond his control. This article concentrates on the first topic.
Seeing Ourselves as Citizens of Heaven
The concept of heavenly citizenship was expressed by the Apostle Paul when he wrote to Christians in Philippi, which was a Roman colony whose citizens, like Paul, were also Roman citizens. He told the Philippians that first and foremost, they were citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). If we see ourselves as emissaries from another world, here now but headed to a far better place, what happens here won't define us or our long-term futures.
Think about this example: suppose you were sent by a perfectly secure, stable country to serve in an unstable one. You know that you are headed back to that secure homeland but right now you have a tour of duty in a difficult place. Would you buy a home? Perhaps, but probably not a mansion. Would you be upset if you lost that home? Probably, but since you are only there temporarily, it would not be a permanent loss. You would have to surrender that property before leaving anyway. And the permanent provision waiting for you is beyond comprehension.
That is the attitude we should have here. I don't use this example to make light of any believer going through foreclosure. There is nothing easy about that. But having a heaven-bound view of life should put our earthly circumstances in perspective.
At a practical level, having our hope fixed on heaven should free us to do more good here. Paul had this view when he wrote to the Philippians: "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things . . ." (Philippians 3:7-8).
Christian history has many other examples. Some of the wealthy Christians who worked with William Wilberforce to free slaves in England spent their entire fortunes on that task. Christians who cared for plague victims in the early fourth century led many non-Christians to glorify God because of this selfless act of service to others. C.S. Lewis said accurately in Mere Christianity that many of the saints who have made the greatest difference in this world are the ones who have their hope set on the next.
But getting to that place is hard when we have been able to amass so many things and become addicted to the Idol of Comfort. Having the willingness to surrender earthly things will be particularly important for American Christians as our economic crisis worsens, so we can share with others inside and outside the Church. We also have to resist the temptation to hoard and instead give out of love and in faith as the Macedonian Christians gave out of their "extreme poverty" in Paul's day (2 Corinthains 8:2).
I hope that in retrospect Christians will look back on these tough economic times as a blessing. Perhaps having less money for cable television and trips to the mall will help us turn to God, each other and our neighbors in badly needed ways. In that sense, the hardships we are encountering could be a blessing in disguise if we have the heart and eyes to see.
Having a Kingdom Perspective: It's About His Plans and Glory
Understanding that our true citizenship is in heaven and that we, like Paul, are Christ's ambassadors here (2 Corinthians 5:20), also carries responsibilities. One critical responsibility for any ambassador is to understand the relationship between his home country and the one where he is stationed. For us, that includes understanding that God holds groups (including nations) accountable for what they have been given materially and spiritually.
The judgments pronounced on Israel and other nations through the Old Testament prophets and the judgments described in the Book of Revelation make it clear that God holds nations accountable for their actions. But part of that is determined by the degree of revelation he has given them. In Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus warned two Jewish towns that it would be worse for them on the day of judgment than for two pagan cities that perished centuries earlier. The reason: the Jewish cities were given greater exposure to the truth but still did not repent. Luke 12:47-48 reinforces this point: "That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."
Applying this to our circumstances, America's exposure to the Gospel and unparalleled wealth make it far more culpable in God's eyes for its sins and excesses. Rather than nostalgically harkening back to a "Christian" past, we need to plead for mercy for our country now (cf. Jeremiah 29:7). But doing this work of prayer takes time, and I'm afraid that many churches still work at a frenetic pace more than they make time to pray. An honest look at our calendars may be a good indicator of just how much we depend, or don't, on the Lord.
Having this broader perspective of serving God's Kingdom should also help us see that God is at work far beyond our time and shores. His Kingdom is the point, not our comfort. If he allowed Rome to fall a century after it was "Christianized," God could allow America to decline while other nations rise. Our ever-increasing national debt, soon to be made worse by entitlement spending and further bailouts, makes possible a long-term decline for America. Daniel 2 chronicles God's orchestration of the rise and fall of several earthly empires. But the earthly nations are not the point of the story. God's Kingdom is.
If America does decline, we should give thanks that the Church in China is growing rapidly in what could one day be the next world superpower. We don't know. But keeping Kingdom priorities in mind should put our own nation's ills--and our own--in proper perspective.
Steve Hall is the Executive Director of Joseph's Way (www.josephsway.org), a ministry designed to prepare Christians for social, economic, and physical challenges that are ahead. He is an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and is a licensed attorney. He and his wife live in Richmond, Virginia.