December 18, 2008
by Patrick Lafferty
Therefore encourage one another with these words.
1 Thessalonians 4:18
The following quote is trotted out perennially to respond to the advance (or decline) of religious faith:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Karl Marx made his famous diatribe against religion a century and a half ago, decrying what he thought was its detrimental effect on society. He surmised that the alleged encouragement and contentment found in looking to the next life—its promises of relief and abundance—dampened any interest in seeking the improvement of this life with all its oppressiveness and injustice.
To be fair, there is a kind of looking forward that can unwittingly obscure a true look at what is. Since redressing wrongs is very difficult, the temptation is strong to defer acting against what needs change. Yielding to that temptation opens us up to Marx’s charge, in so many words, of being “so heavenly-minded that you’re no earthly good.” But must a glance toward heaven and His return necessarily tranquilize us into docility?
Sunday we heard how a preview of gifts yet to come in no way diminishes our anticipation of them. Just as an early peek at a Christmas present heightens our expectancy of enjoying it later, so consideration of any good gift in advance has a salutary effect. And in the case of anticipating Christ’s return, the effect extends beyond mere pleasant feelings. Contrary to Marx’s claim, such anticipation, far from lulling us into complacency, compels us to an orientation towards life that benefits our souls and our societies.
Of the many benefits of making it our discipline to remember His return, three stand out.
It’s a check against the instinctual desire for vengeance. The superabundance of wickedness in this world inevitably provokes the most bloodthirsty responses. Miroslav Volf, a Croatian deeply acquainted with the savagery of a nation enmired in war, said, “the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance...if God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end of violence, that God would not be worthy of our worship.” Jesus’ unabashed description of the tumult accompanying His return in Matthew 24:29-31 promises a full and final reckoning. No matter how exasperated we are by injustice—and no matter how unsettled by our fears of continued injustice—knowledge of that final reckoning brings us the consolation that compels restraint against escalating retaliation.
It’s a check against the burdensome weight of despair. Paul certainly had a category for mourning. Whatever losses we bear, those losses are real and substantial. But he also had a category for a mourning as those “not without hope.” An eye toward Christ’s return tempers mourning—it faces it but does not succumb to it, it concedes the pain but does not relinquish the hope assuaging that pain.
It’s a check against the inertial force of indolence. Whether C. S. Lewis had Marx in mind or not, his comment certainly serves both as a retort and a reminder:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.
Remembering the Lord Jesus’ work of bringing reconciliation to the earth and His promise to make all things new when He comes again is perhaps the only sufficient catalyst for heart changing, justice seeking, and society building.
Is it your practice to consider perennially the wonders of His return—wonders that have discernible impact on this side of that glorious moment? Might you this week, as you prepare for worship, ask the Lord how Christ’s return is meant to impact whatever you’re engaged in? Then you’ll be really anticipating that return.