This evening we had a Bible Study to begin the Northwest Family Weekend here in sunny Portland, Oregon, and the theme this year is “Steadfast To The End,” which was also (not coincidentally) the subject of the Bible Study tonight. One of the stories from the Bible study, which furnished the unwieldy title of this particular entry came from a Tanzanian Olympian marathon runner named John Steven Akwari, who was the last of 57 runners to finish the marathon in the 1968 Olympics after being hobbled by cramps due to the altitude as well as a dislocated knee. Despite having been the last placed runner at that particular Olympics among those who finished, he was in reality a world class runner for some time who once won the African marathon championship and was a high-ranked runner at the Commonwealth Games in both the marathon and 10,000m race, and he has remained an inspirational figure, lending his name to a foundation that supports other Tanzanian athletes.
When a speaker uses a point like that, though, it is a pretty obvious conclusion that there is going to be a tough sort of message, and that is exactly what we got. My feelings about the message were mixed, as they usually are about this sort of thing. I generally have little problem being tough-minded with regards to myself, but I tend to dislike other people being tough with me. As we know ourselves and we know our struggles and issues and capabilities and excuses, we are well-equipped to be tough on ourselves without any risk of cruelty. When we turn our tough-minded approach to others, though, we can do great violence as we are not aware of the internal life of those we are trying to toughen up, and the results can be immensely tragic. One reason why God is able to test us effectively is because He promises not to give us more than we are able to take, which is not a promise that we can deliver on when it comes to seeking to test and try others and toughen them up. God is more than qualified to give us whatever trials and struggles we need to strengthen our moral conduct and make us more tender-hearted and gracious to others. He doesn’t need our help.
Nevertheless, this got me thinking about some of the conundrums and tensions that are involved in the matter that our country is the Kingdom of heaven. The Bible speaks on several occasions about the citizenship we have as believers in the Kingdom of God. Psalm 87 tells us, for example, that citizenship is not a matter of ethnicity, nor has it ever been, but is a matter of one’s faith. Our commitment to God makes us a citizen of the Jerusalem that is above. Paul, as a Roman citizen, was particularly sensitive about the question of citizenship in the kingdom of God. As it is written in Philippians 3:17-21: “Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” Likewise, it is written in Hebrews 11:13-16 tells us: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”
There are several different angles we can approach these passages with. How we approach these passages, and the Bible in general, reveals much about ourselves. It is one thing to be told by someone else that one is a stranger and a pilgrim on the earth, that one does not belong, is not part of the in-crowd, and does not have rights that others must respect or dignity and honor that one must take into account. This is an act of violence, a crime worthy of punishment towards beings created in the image and likeness of God. It is an entirely different thing to embrace the identity of a pilgrim and stranger for oneself because one is so consumed with the identity one has as a citizen of, indeed a member of the royal family of, the kingdom of God that one’s earthy identity politics cease to carry the same degree of importance. Accepting the identity of a future child of God to be formed and shaped into the image and likeness of God for oneself is an act of faith, but having one’s identity limited and defined by others who are tough-minded and ungracious is an act of violence.
It is also worth noting something else here. When other people set upon themselves the task of trying to push others and encourage others to burn their bridges with the outside world, there is often the tendency to glory in their own strength of will and their own ability to handle the difficulties of life. John 8:32 tells us that when we know the truth, the truth sets us free, but it sets us free in ambiguous ways. If we are committed to God’s ways, that commitment will make us aliens and strangers on this earth. It will make us considerate of others when to do so is viewed as mawkish sentimentality rather than the appropriate toughness of mind. It will make us honest where it is more polite to shade the truth and tell a little white lie, but it will not make us honest in a way that is cruel, nor will the toughness of mind that comes from godly experience make us unkind to others. After all, of those who offend little ones and make them stumble on their way to the kingdom it is said that it is better that they have a millstone tied to their neck and be drowned in the bottom of the ocean (Matthew 18:6-7) but of those that enter into his kingdom it is said that they show kindness and generosity to the destitute and prisoners and homeless, for in doing kindness to the least of these that they do kindness to God. Jesus Christ and the mere act of living in a cruel world as we do will toughen us up enough; what we need more help in is overcoming our own toughness of mind so that we remain kindhearted even when we are tough-minded, by no means an easy task. It is not merely enough that we toughen ourselves so that we may finish the marathon, however we are hobbled, but sometimes we are called upon to give water and aid to others who are running the race as well, so that they may finish with no unnecessary suffering. There will be necessary suffering enough without our help in the matter.