Civilization & Its Discontents

by

Sometimes the lofty are rather low. Paul in writing to the Corinthians enjoins them, and therefore us, to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.” Though the giddy optimism of our Enlightenment fathers has dimmed a bit with the passing of time, we yet are exiles in Babel-on. Though modernism has wrought the destruction of goodness, truth, and beauty, all in birthing its illegitimate son, postmodernism, most of us yet hold onto faith, hope, and love. That is, we have faith that paradise is just around the corner — we hope for the eradication of “evil” in our day, and we love the masters who promise these things. We have the technology; we can rebuild us.

Clarence Carson calls this “the flight from reality,” the earnest conviction that with the right exercise of governmental power, the right manipulation of the economy, the right harnessing of the magic elixir education, we will create a heaven on earth. Such is indeed a lofty pretension, as high a stronghold as the tower that God had to come down to see. The church, I pray, never falls for such folly. Indeed, we are so far removed from such enlightenment optimism that we have embraced eschatological pessimism. You won’t catch many in the church looking for a brighter tomorrow.

The same folly, however, does fly below our radar. We who won’t buy into grand utopian schemes, instead buy into small utopian schemes. We who refuse to accept the notion that the United Nations will lead us, once and for all, to get along, instead believe that if we buy the right toothpaste, everything will be all right. Marx’s schemes don’t appeal to us. Madison Avenue’s schemes do.

The two, however, the grand and the small, come from the same source. Naturally and supernaturally, we long for something better. Both those born of water and those born of Spirit long to get back to the garden. And both utopianism and advertising tap into this present truth, that we can’t get no satisfaction. We, however, do not long as those who are without hope. The paradise progress is taking us to is at best a gilded cage, and at worse a gulag. No, when we are wise, we look for a city whose builder and maker is God. We are utopian, for we long to see the reign of Christ manifest across the globe.

The reign of Christ, however, begins not by establishing universal health care, lower taxes, and sweet smelling breath. Instead our King begins His work like a farmer. He, through the Spirit, is cultivating fruit in us. He is teaching us patience, such that as we labor in His fields of the not yet, we remember the grace of the already. He is producing the fruit of love, such that here on the old earth we taste of the new earth in our loving relationships. He is, in the midst of the greatest and only battle, the war between the Seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, sowing peace, as we rest in confidence that even now, as always, He is with us.

Which in turn bears the fruit of patience. As we long for the consummation of the kingdom, as we meditate upon the promised new heavens and new earth, we do so from a posture of patience. If our King bids us to wait for His return, we will faithfully, patiently wait. We will live as befits citizens of His eternal kingdom, showing kindness to our fellow-citizens, exercising goodness, kindness, and gentleness toward those who are still outside the walls. We will not, like the brutal dreamers of the utopians, throw law to the wind in an attempt to move history forward. We will not usher in our paradise through the ministrations of Madame Guillotine. Instead, our zeal for the consummation of the kingdom will be tempered with self-control. In fact this zeal will be manifest in obedience to the king.

Against these things there is no law. But our end is not merely obedience. We seek not merely life, but abundant life. As such, our king bears in our hearts the very bridge between the already and the not yet — joy. As we rejoice in His grace, as we await the fullness of that grace in the new heavens and the new earth, our very joy makes it so. That is, our joy now in the reign of Christ now brings down high heaven upon our heads. Joy, because it is our future, seizes the future and makes it present. It is in our joy that we storm the very gates of heaven. It is in joy that we are seated in the heavenly places.

And it is joy that allows us in. What ultimately distinguishes us from the world around us isn’t that we seek joy while they do not. Rather it is where we seek the joy. We know that joy is not just the name of our dish soap. Instead it is the name of our King. Our joy, on earth as it is in heaven, is not through Christ. It is not because of Christ. It is not from Christ. It is Christ. The Lord is our Shepherd, and our cups runneth over. We are, even now, as Peter tells us, those who “have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:3).

What separates us from the new heavens and the new earth is not what we think. It is, of course, not better laundry detergent. But neither is it distance, for we sit in heaven while sojourning on earth. It is not victory, for behold He has already overcome the world. All that separates us is the darkness of our vision. For now we see through a glass darkly. If we would hasten that day, let us set our eyes upon Him, that we might see Him as He is, and rejoice.

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