I don’t know what it is as children that makes us readily picture God as seated high above us. From childhood, we seem to nurture pictures of heaven and all its wonderment as that which spatially exists “above,” while we and all of our worries exist on earth “below.” While this may simply illustrate our need for metaphors as we learn to relate to the world around us, there is also biblical imagery that seems to attest the portrayal. Depicting the God who exists beyond all we know, the Scripture writers describe the divine throne as “high and lofty,” the name of the LORD as existing above all names.
Yet even metaphors can be misleading when they cease to point beyond themselves. Though the Scriptures use the language and imagery of loftiness, they also attest that God’s existence is far more than something “above” us. Author Steven Chase notes the danger in seeing God primarily above and our pilgrimage simply in terms of ascent. He writes, “[T]o construe the spiritual journey exclusively as a path from “below” to “above” tends to create chasms—often unbridgeable—between body and soul, the beginner and the adept, the active and the contemplative life, and the powerless and the powerful.”(1)
In the minds of many Christians, a chasm likewise exists between the kingdom of heaven and the world in which we now live. The kingdom of heaven is seen as the place we are journeying toward, the better country the writer of Hebrews describes. In contrast, our place on earth is seen as temporary; like Abraham, we are merely passing through. As a result, chasms stand between kingdom and earth, today and tomorrow, the physical and the spiritual. Whether intentionally or otherwise, the earth becomes something fleeting and irrelevant—one more commodity here for our use, like shampoo bottles in hotel bathrooms—while Christ is away preparing our permanent rooms. When the Christian pilgrimage is seen an ascent to another world, whether articulated or subconscious, this world soon becomes superfluous and God a distant caretaker.
This chasm not only belies a posture irresponsible for those called to love their neighbors and cultivate their surroundings, it betrays the identity and decree of a good creator, and negates the words of our most sacred prayer. What does it mean that we pray God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven? What does it mean that Christ repeatedly declared the kingdom of God is here and now among us? What does it mean that for lack of human praise the very rocks will cry out at the glory of their creator and the trees will clap their hands?
Wendell Barry attempts to answer these questions with applications for the Christian pilgrim. “All creatures live by God’s spirit, portioned out to them, and breathe his breath. To ‘lay up…treasures in heaven,’ then, cannot mean to be spiritual at the earth’s expense, or to despise or condemn the earth for the sake of heaven. It means exactly the opposite: do not desecrate or depreciate these gifts, which take part with us in the being of God, by turning them into worldly ‘treasure.’”(2) Far from being a non-spiritual, kingdom-irrelevant commodity, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. Far from a God concerned merely with the heavens, surely the Lord is in this place whether we are aware of it or not.
The Spirit of God is active not only among the church, or believers across the world—or even merely people throughout the earth. God is moving over the earth and all its life, creating and sustaining the natural world.(3) While we are indeed strangers looking to a heavenly kingdom, this does not mean we are estranged to the earth around us. While we long with the faithful for a better country, we are called to care and cultivate on earth the things we look toward in heaven. We are given eyes to see God’s kingdom all around us, even as we pray to see it more fully on earth as it is in heaven.
Moreover, that we are going to a better country does not necessarily mean we are going to an entirely different country. In the words of one author who bids us to see the cure of Christ as reaching tangibly here and now, as far as the curse is found, “To suggest that the sin of man so corrupted his creation that God cannot fix it but can only junk it in favor of some other world is to say that ultimately the kingdom of evil is more powerful than the kingdom of God. It makes sin more powerful than redemption, and Satan the victor over God. Reducing the gospel to a strictly spiritual dimension of human existence concedes everything outside of that dimension to the enemy.”(4) Like our lives, which show shadows of the fall even as we behold the light of redemption, all of creation groans along with us for that which we now see in part but will one day see in full. The Christian message testifies to the presence of the kingdom of God among the world. Thus the Christian life is one that does not turn its back on the world here and now, but tends to life as visionaries of God’s grace, cultivators of healing, and catalysts for transformation throughout all the earth. Indeed, a follower of Christ is one who testifies to the radical work of the Cross and the uniqueness of Christ Jesus who, unlike any other, came to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Steven Chase, The Tree of Life: Models of Christian Prayer (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 145.
(2) Wendell Barry, “God and Country,” Eds. Wayne G. Boulton, Thomas D. Kennedy, Allen Verhey, From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1994), 526.
(3) See Psalm 104, Psalm 148, Isaiah 55:9-13, Romans 8:19-22.
(4) Michael D. Williams, Far as the Curse is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2005), 21.