Perhaps we’re becoming too earthly minded for heavenly good.
When I was a kid, I was generally made to feel like the stuff of this world was relatively insignificant in God’s eyes. In my youth group I was taught that any form of work done in this world that didn’t involve evangelism was like rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. I had friends who spoke of a “rapture” that would lift believers out of this world into a better, heavenly reality. In church I would sing, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of the earth will grow strangely dim.” When, in one of my classes at Wheaton College, students were asked if they believed that their bodies would be resurrected on the last day, only a few hands were raised. The physical, the body, this earth were all generally viewed as unimportant.
The past few decades have seen a course correction to this understanding within the church. Writers such as N. T. Wright have correctly drawn our attention to the biblical emphasis of this world being restored, with all of its physicality, of our bodies being raised, and thus of how there is eternal significance to much of what we value in this world, such as beauty, creativity, work, societal justice, and loving human relationships. Their point is a needed one: God’s work of redemption involves all things and not just our souls.
But, according to theologian Michael Allen in his new book Grounded in Heaven, something important has been missing from this correction: the centrality of God as our ultimate goal. The Psalmist expresses his longing to God in singing “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” Jesus declares that the glorious blessing for the “pure in heart” is that they shall see God. And as Revelation gives us a vision for the world to come, its climactic statement is that the sunshine will not be needed, because God will be visibly, gloriously present. Many recent writers under emphasize, or even omit, how this is the very center of the Christian hope.
Consequently, God has unintentionally been moved from the place of being our greatest love and hope to the role of the person who helps us get those things that we want. God is the one we rely on to get us fulfilling human relationships, a better world, and so on. Until our hearts become re-calibrated, until we realize again that our greatest longing is for God (and not just for God helping us), we will always be entrapped by a subtle form of idolatry.
The solution here is not to return to the hyper-spirituality of the recent past. God has designed us to be physical creatures, and we’re not meant to escape our bodies. Instead, through worship (both personal and especially corporate) and even through self-denial, we must learn to savor and delight in God as the center of all good things. We must teach our hearts that our deepest longings will not be satisfied until “the dwelling place of God is with humanity.” It is only with this kind of heavenly mindedness that we will learn how to be of earthly good.