“Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
I read this quote when I was in my early twenties and it really struck a chord with me. Growing up, I had always struggled with pat answers like – “It’ll be ok when we get to heaven” – almost like it was a band-aid over someone’s sorrow, questions, doubts, and fears. It was effective in silencing folk who were “earthly-minded” – care-worn, suffering, and doubtful. Nevertheless, to me (and I’m sure them), it seemed like too easy an answer. I never doubted that there was heaven; rather it just seemed like a dull place if all I got to do was stand around in a white dress and sing. So when I read this quote, it brought all my dissatisfaction with “Church” and “Christianity” to the fore. I’m not saying I became so earthly minded that I was no heavenly good, but in effect, I minimised heaven. It didn’t really fill me with joy, so I ignored it.
Yet, over time, I began realising that one cannot ignore something that is so intrinsically a part of oneself. After all, "...He has put eternity in their hearts..." (Ecclesiastes 3:11). It was like trying to live half a life – only focusing on the things of earth. Before you brand me a heretic, let me clarify. When I talk about focusing on earthly things, I mean all “good” things – being involved in church, building Christ-centred friendships, raising my children in God’s ways, loving and respecting my husband as the Bible says, doing Bible studies, organising prayer meetings, fasting, praying, and so on. Not one of these is “evil” or “wrong”, yet I began to have a sneaky feeling that they weren’t cutting it. I wasn’t cutting it.
As I mulled over what being a responsible citizen of God’s heavenly kingdom and my earthly nation entailed, two things struck me.
God’s will: I know, I know. It sounds like another overly spiritual treatise on doing the will of God, etc. etc. We’ve heard it all several times before. Let me stop you before you consign me to that heap. In Mathew 7:21 – 23, Jesus says:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’
So what does the will of our Father in heaven look like?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18; see also Isaiah 61:1)
Essentially His will beautifully balances the physical and the spiritual – preaching the gospel and binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom and releasing the oppressed from darkness.
There is being and there is doing. It is not one or the other, but both together. And knowing when to do what is where seeking His will comes into play. So while one day it might involve organising a youth camp at church, another day it might be cooking a hot meal for a friend who is ill, or having an hour-long theological discussion over the phone, or talking to the municipal corporation guys to pick up the garbage regularly from the street, or lay the road that's riddled with potholes. The point is, each day, God shows me what He wants me to do – there is no heavenly or earthly distinction – His will encompasses all.
Obedience: Of course I still have free will. So I can choose to disobey. Again, the disobedience could be cloaked in spiritual sounding terms (we humans are adept at deceiving ourselves!). So for instance, if God is correcting me about my attitude towards someone, I can pretend that everything is okay and say I’ve repented about it.
But being a responsible citizen implies that I follow through, which means obeying. So if I have to go and ask someone’s forgiveness, I have to actually go and say the words out loud to the person. I can’t say I’ve prayed about it and now things are good. Once I know His will, I am called to obey.
“So Samuel said: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.” (1 Samuel 15:22, 23)
To obey is better than sacrifice. That puts things in perspective doesn’t it. And choosing not to obey or, in other words, rebelling and being stubborn, are as opposed to worshipping God as can be.
This side of eternity we will live with the tension of living one foot in the physical and one foot in the spiritual. It is not easy. But Jesus never said it was going to be. As a conscientious citizen of heaven and earth, my responsibility is to seek to know what God wants me to do each day and then follow through. This enables me to be of both heavenly and earthly good.