Reformed author Michael Horton has pointed out the paradox of two old Evangelical hymns, the one which says “This is my Father’s world,” and the other which says “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through.” Horton wondered, rightly I believe, “If this is my Father’s world, why am I just passing through?” Although a prominent strain of Christian spirituality holds that the only things which really matter are the things which are eternal, Christians are people who in fact have two distinguishable ends: a spiritual end and a temporal end.
We are, born by grace, indeed citizens of the heavenly kingdom who are passing through this world on our way to the place that Christ is preparing for us. But at the same time, born by nature, we are also citizens of the earthly kingdom. As Christians, we have two ends and two citizenships. It is not only the life to come, “when we’ve been there ten thousand years” (as the old hymn goes) that matters. This life, our life in the here-and-now, also matters.
It is certainly possible to be a “worldly” Christian in the sense of culpably forgetting one’s spiritual duties and becoming infected with the ideals and mode of living of “this present darkness.” As Christians we are, of course, to shun this sense of being “worldly.” But there is a sense of being a “worldly” Christian that is actually a good thing: the sense in which we care about this world in which God has placed us and strive to use the abilities He has given us to positively impact this world.
The fields are white unto harvest, and we must work in the fields – we must be concerned with the spiritual end of both ourselves and our fellow men (Luke 10:2). But at the same time, there is more to this life than working the fields: “Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works” (Ecc. 9:7).
True, indeed, is this: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.” (Mt. 6:19-20) But equally true, indeed, is this: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun” (Ecc. 8:15).
What all this means, I think, is that as Christians we are not just pilgrims. We are passing through, but we are not just passing through. “This world is not my home” does not mean this world is not our home in any sense at all; it means that this world is not our final home. Like the great heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, we look for the world to come. But like the great heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 we still have to live in this world. Like Abraham, we look for a city whose builder is God. But like the Jews in captivity, we should “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.” (Jer. 29:7)
Like a lot of things in Christianity – predestination and free will, Scripture and tradition, men as justified and sinful, the kingdom already here and not yet here, Jesus as God and man – the notions of who we are and what we are supposed to be doing are wrapped up in paradox. We are bound for the Promised Land, but until we arrive there we have to live here. The Kingdom of which we are a part is not of this world, but it is in this world. Thus, as Christians we are pilgrims but also residents.
Exploring what it means to be a “resident pilgrim” is what this website is about.