Last December’s issue of the magazine First Things opened with a piece from editor-in-chief R. R. Reno titled “How to Limit Government.” You might wonder why I’m mentioning it, but here’s his thesis:
Government will remain in bounds only to the degree that it meets resistance, and the historic sources of resistance—faith and family—are in decline.
As he goes on to say, these have historically been most people’s two primary loyalties, their two primary sources of guidance, and their two primary forms of support in times of need. As such, they have long been the two major restrictors on the growth of government, and thus the two primary things which metastasizing regimes of whatever type have sought to control, subvert, or supplant.
Dr. Reno’s comments on religion and religious institutions are particularly insightful. He writes,
Faith makes a claim—the claim—on our loyalty. As an institution that nurtures and expresses faith, the church or synagogue or mosque is a sacred community with a law of its own. When Caesar’s laws contradict the laws of God, divine authority trumps.
[The French philosopher] Rousseau saw how Christian faith divides our loyalties. We can be citizens, yes, but we must be disciples first. Our highest loyalty is to the City of God, not the city of man. He rejected this divided loyalty as a threat to genuine freedom, which to his way of thinking requires an integral and all-powerful government . . . Therefore, he insisted, true religion is a natural and ennobling piety that has no creed or church and, consequently, does not involve a system of authority to rival the state.
Rousseau’s vision has gained ground. Atheism is rare, but many who believe in God don’t like “organized religion.” They describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.” Disorganized religiosity cannot limit government.
Now, let me take Dr. Reno’s argument one step further. What he says is true of religion in general, but Christianity does more: it teaches us to call God Father and to understand ourselves as his beloved children—and thus to understand one another as our brothers and sisters in Christ. It unites these two loyalties in a way that nothing else on earth does. Christian faith is apolitical and resistant to government in a way that politics and government can’t control.
Am I off on a tangent here? No, I’m not. Look at verse 17: “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as resident aliens here in reverent fear.” This is a different word from the one the NIV translates “strangers” in verse 1; this one was only used of foreigners who had lived in the same place long enough to gain a certain degree of legal protection. It acknowledges that most of us live in this world long enough that we think of it as our home, but calls us to see past that to the deeper reality of our lives. This isn’tour home, because we are children of the Father. He is our home.
Calling God our Father isn’t just about him comforting and protecting us; that aspect of his relationship to us is real and important and worth celebrating, as in the hymn we sang a few minutes ago, but it’s only part of the picture. Allegiance and obedience are at least as important, and they’re critical to understanding who we are in Christ. If we live as children of the Father, we will live as resident aliens in this world; we will see ourselves as strangers living in strange lands.
Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, has said that exiles are people who know where home is—they just don’t live there. The German mystic Meister Eckhardt wrote, “God is at home. We are in the far country.” Put the two statements together, and you see our position. We are exiles in the far country, living under a foreign government—one which we can influence, but which isn’t ultimately ours—holding to a different allegiance than the world around us, obeying a different authority.
Now, am I saying we shouldn’t love this country or live as good citizens here? No. Our model is Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29, which we’ll look at a bit more closely in a month or two. The key verse for our purposes is 29:7: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” We bear witness to the goodness of God by working for the good of the community and nation to which he sent us; but that’s not the same as working for what this community or this nation think is good for it. We bear witness to the character of God by defining that good differently than the world around us does. Sometimes that means taking stands which are deeply unpopular, and telling people the truths they’re most determined not to hear.
This also means not putting our hope and our trust in the things of this world. Rather, as Peter says, “set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” The world values perishable goods like money and power, pleasure and status, reputation and security; it has made them idols, things which people pursue above all else, on which they build their lives. That way of life is slavery to sin. Christ bought our freedom from that slavery, and the price he paid was none of the ephemeral treasures of this world, but the infinite, eternal treasure of his own life. He freed us from the fleeting hopes of this passing age, and gave us a greater hope than all of them put together: the assurance that we are saved by the grace of God.
To this end, Peter says, we’re to prepare our minds for action. If you were here the last few months, you may remember me talking about the long robes the Jews wore. If you were going to do any serious activity, you had to gird your loins—to put on a belt, gather your robe up, and tuck it into the belt to free up your legs. What Peter says here, literally, is, “Gird up the loins of your mind.” Get yourself ready to move, to run, to work, in order that you may be self-controlled. That’s bigger than you may realize. Most people aren’t truly self-controlled—they’re controlled by their desires, their fears, their habits, their instinctive reactions. Apart from Christ, sin controls all of us. In him, we have been set free to be our proper selves, and to choose not to be ruled by these things. To do that, though, we need to gird up our minds for action, and intentionally set our hope beyond the walls of this world, on our Father in heaven.
Peter instructs his readers to set their hope on the grace that will be theirs when Jesus returns by being fully able to think and act on the basis of their true nature in Christ, despite whatever hostility such a lifestyle might provoke from their society.
We cannot resolve to stand against worldly opposition unless, as she says, we “have [our] minds fixed on the final outcome of that resolve.” That final outcome is the only reason it makes sense to buck this world now; doing so is what it means to live as obedient children of God the Father. God calls us to holiness—to be set apart from the world and conformed to his character in our thinking and our behavior—nothing less.
This doesn’t just mean not doing stuff we know is sinful, either. For instance, it’s not enough to say, “Well, I don’t spend money on illegal things, so I’m fine.” When you look at the decisions you make with your money, do they show that you’re putting your trust in your money, or in God? Being holy as the Father is holy is about our entire lives being set apart for him. It means seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness in everything we do and with everything we have—even things like our operating budget and what we do for fun—and not keeping anything back for ourselves, trusting him to provide for all our needs.