An exhortation floated through the halls of evangelicalism about a generation ago that stopped conversations in their tracks. It was a caustic charge that defied rejoinder. Once the words were uttered, it was time to change the subject. I know, because the phrase shut me up more than once. Maybe I was discussing a significant point of theology with some friends in college. Or perhaps after a church service we were reflecting on the pastor’s sermon. A good discussion was instantly silenced with the charge Don’t be so heavenly-minded that you are no earthly good! Bonk! Splodge! Done!
We don’t hear that phrase very often today, and the reason is clear: we are not very heavenly-minded! We used to argue about the timing of the rapture and whether or not we would enjoy a literal millennium. Not so much anymore. In the past four decades, evangelicals have gained prominence, garnered political influence, made money, invented the full-service megachurch, enthroned our own rock stars and preachers, and commercialized our religion. My point is not that all of this is bad, though the dangers are fairly obvious. My point is that evangelical success has shifted our focus from heaven to earth. As A. J. Conyers writes, the church today lives beneath the eclipse of heaven.
Again, our focus has shifted from what is coming to what is here right now. Heaven? Who needs heaven when you have good health care? Who needs heaven when you have a 48” high-definition TV with a cable service that gives you two channels for your favorite sport? The Second Coming of Jesus? Sure, someday, but right now I’m thinking about my trip to Europe, my kitchen remodel, my Roth-IRA, my short game, my backhand, my daughter’s college prospects, whether or not I like Haggen as well as Vons…
But the Bible tells us repeatedly to fix our gaze and to set our hearts on the future, on what is to come, on—well, I’ll say it—on heaven! Consider:
- The apostle Paul encouraged the Colossian church to set [their] minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth (3:2).
- In Romans 8, Paul spoke of our longing and groaning for heaven, for redemption, for the newness promised us.
- The Second Coming of Jesus is called the blessed hope (Titus 2:13).
- In 2 Corinthians 5:2, Paul looked at all of life through the lens of groaning and yearning for our heavenly dwelling.
- Hebrews 11, the great faith chapter, contains a short list of men and women who lived by faith; that is, they lived with an eye toward the future. At one point the author defined a faithful person as one who believes both God exists and that he rewards those who seek him (11:6). The promised reward for the faithful comes not in this life, but in the next.
- Abraham, the father of the faithful, is commended in Hebrews 11 because even when he was home, he was not really at home.
By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (11:9-10)
- Stephen, the church’s first martyr, was able to endure to the end because he had a vision of what was coming. As he was being stoned—yes, STONED!—Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God (Acts 7:55).
Have you ever visited Manzanar? It lies just south of Bishop in the Owens Valley. I have driven past Manzanar for decades, but finally Lisa and I stopped for a visit on our way to Mammoth Lakes. Our ninety minutes in Manzanar taught me a little bit about what it means to long for heaven.
It’s hard to know what to call this national historic site, and even the free literature visitors receive reflects this struggle. Officially, Manzanar was called a “War Relocation Center.” You see, during WWII, 100,000 Japanese – most of them American citizens – were “interned” in this hastily constructed camp. Yes, it was called a “War Relocation Center,” but the plaque near the entrance of the visitor center calls Manzanar a “concentration camp” that was built on “racism” and “prejudice.” And it looked like, and was run like, a concentration camp. Manzanar was surrounded by barbed wire, guard towers, and guns pointed toward the camp, not away from it. Manzanar and nine other relocation centers spread out across the West are a dark stain on the tapestry of our nation’s past: we treated our own people atrociously based on the color of their skin. Careers were destroyed, businesses lost, and families shattered when the U.S. government made the decision to relocate over a million Japanese Americans. There was nothing good about Manzanar. I learned, though, a lesson about heaven during my visit to this sad place.
Clearly the Japanese Americans who were interned (imprisoned?) at Manzanar lived with a view to the future. Yes, they built baseball fields. Yes, they built and planted beautiful Japanese gardens, the remnants of which we saw on our tour. They built a dojo where they could practice judo and a dance hall for Saturday evening entertainment. They brought their instruments and formed bands. They formed churches—Catholic, Protestant, and Buddhist. During the war, 541 children were born in Manzanar! Lisa and I were amazed at how much the people did in a mere three years to improve their lot. But not one of the residents of Manzanar mistook their surroundings for their real home. They survived because they had an eye toward the future. Every one of the 110,000 residents of Manzanar looked forward to a better country, to the end of the war, to a return to their freedom.
I want to live my life as if I were living in Manzanar: on the one hand, very locally-minded and, on the other, yearning for a better country, longing for a new heaven and a new earth.
Yes, I want to care deeply about politics—local, national, and international. Yes, I will cast my vote for a well-protected environment. I want our nation’s governors to pass legislation that will prohibit human trafficking and protect the unborn, tax fairly and promote policies that will protect the poor. I want to play my part in making the world a better place to live. But at the same time I want to live in the stunning truth that this life is not all there is. Christ is coming and with him, a new heavens and a new earth! I want to live like Stephen, with a vision of the glory of God.
This decision to look at the present and the future simultaneously—to improve Manzanar even as I long for my true home—allows me make sense of life’s experiences. Mark Buchanan said it well:
Heavenly-mindedness is sanity. It is the best regimen for keeping our hearts whole, our minds clear. It allows us to enjoy earth’s pleasures without debauchery. It allows us to endure life’s agonies without despair.
To live with our minds fixed on the things above is not a form of escapism, but rather the only perspective to have if we are to really make a difference in the here and now. Take a careful look at Western history and you see that hospitals, public schools, the abolition of slavery, the promotion of literacy, women’s rights, and a host of other good things that promoted human flourishing came from those who were very heavenly-minded. A line from C. S. Lewis comes to mind: Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.