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Please explain: Can Christians be so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good?

Can Christians be so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good?

In his song “No Earthly Good,” Johnny Cash croons a warning in his signature baritone marked by a tinge of country vibrato. He encourages those who are “holding heaven” to “spread it around,” not ignoring those in need on earth.

While the melody makes you feel like you are sitting around a campfire in the mountains, the lyrics issue a strong warning: Don’t be “so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good.”

Centuries before Johnny Cash, St. Augustine offered a similar warning when he said, “We ought not want to live ahead of time with only the saints and angels.” In other words, be careful that you are not thinking so much about your future in heaven that you don’t do good on earth right now.

Is this really possible? During Advent we pray that our heavenly Father would direct our eyes not only to the manger but also to the skies, where we will see Jesus coming again not as a lowly child but as the Lord of lords. But are there really Christians who are so heavenly minded that they fail to live useful lives here on earth?

Hearts on things above

Well, there were such Christians in the apostle Paul’s day. In the first century, believers living in the city of Thessalonica were so confident that Jesus was returning soon that they gave up working and relied on others in the church to take care of them. Paul wrote to address their misguided lifestyle by reminding them that “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) and encouraging them to “never tire of doing what is good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13). It didn’t take these first-century Christians long to realize that God’s timetable was not their timetable and maybe Jesus was not returning as soon as they thought.

Scripture often encourages believer to live as aliens and strangers here on earth. Heaven is our home. In his letter to the Colossians the apostle Paul says, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (3:1-3).

But setting our hearts on things above does not mean we don’t care about the things in front of us. God “has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (Colossians 1:22). It was the earthly life and physical body of Christ in history that redeemed us from sin, and now God calls us to love our neighbors here on earth and care for our physical bodies and theirs.

Doing good on Earth

The criticism that Christians are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good sets up an either/or scenario. That doesn’t have to be the case. If people are heavenly minded, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be of no earthly good. In fact, as C. S. Lewis argues in Mere Christianity, if you take a careful look at history, you will find that those who have done the most for this present world are those who have thought most of the next.

It makes sense. If people are only concerned about this life and the things of the earth, they will be less likely to sacrifice these things, when necessary, to accomplish a higher good. But those who are focused on heavenly things and hold on more loosely to the things of this world (like their money, their reputation, or their time) are free to use these things to help the poor, speak out against injustice, or sit with the sick and suffering. Again, if you look at the track record of history, Christians often have started hospitals, opened food pantries, and helped to abolish slavery. Christians are freed by the gospel to invest heavily in improving this world.

Next time you read the New Testament, notice how often God’s Word drives us into the reality of our everyday earthly lives immediately after directing us to things above. For example, in Colossians, after encouraging us to set our minds on things above, the apostle exhorts his readers to “put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (3:5) and to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (3:12,13) and to “let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (3:16). Instead of sitting around and staring at the clouds, we are encouraged actively to put to death our sinful flesh, put on love and compassion, bear with others, and teach and admonish one another.

At the very beginning of time God created the first man and woman in his image and called them to manage and care for his creation. The fall into sin made the work God gave them more difficult, but it didn’t cancel the task. After Adam was banished from the garden, he was to work the ground from which he had been taken (Genesis 3:23).

When the second Adam, Jesus Christ, came into this world, he didn’t head out to a monastery in the desert to be all alone or distance himself from the world. Instead, he came to be with us.

That is what we celebrate this Christmas season. Jesus, our heavenly Lord, came to live with us on this earth. He drew near to the sick and suffering. He comforted the poor and lonely. He preached and taught the filthy crowds. He touched and healed the sick and suffering. He walked, he worked, he ate and drank. He lived and loved in this world because it mattered and still does. Jesus entered human history, the nitty-gritty of our existence, to change the very fabric of earthly reality for all. The babe of Bethlehem lived and walked among us to give himself for us. His life fills our lives with meaning and significance. He is our source of joy and hope and our motivation for doing good here on earth.

Author: Justin Cloute
Volume 109, Number 12
Issue: December 2022

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