John Ruskin, a philosopher, naturalist, and artist wrote in the 19th century, “One can’t be angry when one looks at a penguin.”
I spontaneously smiled as soon as I read that sentence this week.
In a day when there are many opinionated and angry people, perhaps we need to look at more penguin pictures. Or maybe we need to look at and remember something even more grand than a waddling, tuxedo-wearing bird.
In the past week, I have observed more political unrest and contentiousness than I have ever seen at any one point in my lifetime. On both sides of the political aisle, people are angry, hostile, bitter, mistrusting, accusing, and (or) scared. What should we make of such days and how should we think of them biblically?
The COVID vaccine has arrived and the calendar has turned to 2021, but most things are still operating as they were in 2020. When will the virus go away and when will our lives return to what they were 12 months ago? Or will they? Will we always have the possibility of pandemics hanging over our heads? Will the economics ever return to what they were? Will broken relationships be restored? And how should we think of illness, death, loss, and financial reversal in biblical terms?
This week our church is revealing some initial plans for both short-term (this year) and long-term facility changes (read this week’s newsletter for more details). Are those plans fiscally prudent given the political and pandemic influences? And should we even be thinking about parking lots? What about the spiritually dead and lost — shouldn’t they be our goal? Shouldn’t we be concerned about caring for our own church people? Does Scripture guide our thinking about church buildings and parking lots?
As I have meditated on all these questions, I have been drawn repeatedly to Philippians 3:20-21:
“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”
Several key principles arise from this passage.
Our lives not only will terminate in Heaven eventually, but Heaven is our life now. That was Paul’s point in Philippians 1:21-26. As he explains in the first chapter of this letter, that doesn’t mean that we do nothing on earth in our roles here, but everything we do is with the goal of Heaven. We recognize that while the Lord might give us influence on earth for 70, 80, or perhaps even 90 years, our eternal life in Heaven will just barely have begun when we’ve been there 100,000 years. Because that eternal life has already begun (if we are in Christ, we will never die spiritually), then we live for the heavenly King. We honor earthly kings and follow leaders on earth — we do have roles to play on earth — but we are only ultimately concerned about honoring God in Heaven. We aren’t concerned about the changing of earthly kings and rulers because our heavenly King never changes and can never be overthrown.
In conjunction with living for Heaven, we eagerly wait for the return of our Savior. We don’t wait for the next political regime that is bound to change in 2, 4, or 6 years. We don’t wait for the next political “savior” who will be in his own grave site in 10, 20, or 30 years. Those regimes and leaders are servants of the Savior; they are not the Savior. What we want is Christ the King, not a new king like other nations (a problem the Israelites had from early in its history, 1 Sam. 8, especially v. 7).
Further our longing is not for someone who can change our financial status; we want the One who will change our souls so that we will live out the righteousness that has been imputed to us through faith so that we can glorify Him. We want conformity to Christ, not ease on earth. We want conformity to Christ even if it means loss of ease and the initiation of hardship on earth. We want Christ more than anything else.
Finally, we want Christ because He is powerful and sovereign over all things and all people. Nothing — NOTHING — subverts and undermines the power of God in Christ. There is no rebel that can stand before Him (cf. Job 38-41; Ps. 1:4-6; Rev. 21 as just a very few examples). We never have to be anxious about anyone in authority over us, because Christ is in authority over everyone, including us. And He will speak a word and make all things right (Rev. 19:11-16).
What are the implications of these truths for pandemics, politics, and parking lots?
Regarding COVID (and every other physical ill), because life is about Heaven, we aren’t worried about illness and death. Because life is about Christ, we are more concerned to be transformed to Christ in our illnesses than rescued from our illness. Because life is about Heaven, we are concerned to preserve relationships and communicate the gospel and offer the hope of forgiveness, Christ, and Heaven to those who are not saved.
Regarding politics, we engage in the political process as much as we are able (voting, lobbying, and at times advocating) while never placing our hope in those processes. Earthly governments will always fail. They must always ultimately fail because they are led by fallible, fallen people. So we labor to influence them for good as much as we can, but we recognize that only Christ will rule with justice, equity, and wisdom. So we don’t despair, become angry, or take vengeance ourselves. And we always submit to every governmental authority, with joy (Titus 3:1-2), because we are confident in Christ the King and we have no confidence in any earthly authority.
Regarding parking lots, we build them and we build buildings not because we want to invest in structures that will ultimately decay and be torn down, but we invest in parking lots for gospel purposes. We expand buildings (and the attendant parking lots) so that we have places and venues to accommodate the people and ministry that we are seeking to reach and train with the gospel. Our goal is not parking lots; our goal is to have a venue where we can effectively accommodate as many people as we can so that some will be rescued from their advance towards Hell and they and others will be trained to delight in Christ and equipped to serve others with the gospel that saved them.
These are challenging and difficult days. These are also days with unprecedented opportunities. Because we believe that our citizenship is in Heaven, we don’t despair, we keep laboring, and we plan for future expansion of ministry because we want to honor Christ above all else. And while looking at penguins might provide momentary relief from our discouragement, remembering our eternal citizenship and our sovereign King gives lasting hope.