If you were to open a copy of the Hymnal 1982 and turn to hymn number 665 (“All my hope on God is founded”), you would find these lines:
Human pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray his trust;
what with care and toil he buildeth,
tower and temple, fall to dust.
But God's power,
hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.
Words like these have brought great comfort to Christians throughout the ages, but they’re often misunderstood. “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20) as St. Paul writes, and being a Christian means learning to live in the earthly city even as we await the heavenly city. But this has given some people reason to distrust Christians. We’re accused of being so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good.
Some Christians do live up to this stereotype. Since “tower and temple, fall to dust,” in the words of the hymn, there’s no point in working for justice and peace here on earth. We’re just waiting for Jesus to come and rescue us.
I think it’s more likely, however, in today’s post-Christian society, that we would fall into the trap of thinking that our faith is merely a resource for being a good person. Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor, and we try to follow his example by making the world a better place. On this understanding, ‘heaven’ is a quaint, outdated concept — it’s not real, but it serves as a nice metaphor.
But this is a false dichotomy. We don’t have to choose between longing for heaven and striving to make the world a better place. In fact, longing for heaven is ultimately what motivates us to work for justice and peace in the world.
Austin Farrer, the great 20th-century Anglican theologian (and C. S. Lewis’s confessor), once preached a sermon that brilliantly explains the relationship between heavenly longing and worldly striving:
A Christian believer has two levels of hope. There’s hope on the short view, hope within the world, that something can be made of it. But beyond that there’s hope in the long view; hope that what we do in this world is not all going to leak out of the pipe of history into the sands of oblivion. So there are two levels of hope; and how stupid, how perverse it is to set them against one another: to say, ‘Well, you must make up your mind; either fix your hope on this world, or fix it on a world to come. If you fix your hope on heaven, you’ll not care a pin about the world’s future; if you care about the world’s future, you won’t give a straw for heavenly bliss.’ Nonsense: we are confronted with no such choice. Heaven alone gives final meaning to any earthly hopes; and to take it the other way round, we have no way to grasp at heavenly hope, than by pursuing hopeful tasks here below.
“Heaven alone gives final meaning to any earthly hopes.” These words have lifted my spirits these last few days, amid the relentless stream of negative news. We’ve all been working hard and struggling to adapt to our changing reality, and it’s easy to grow weary. It’s tempting to feel as if all our efforts are futile. They would be, if everything were up to us and if God had not already reconciled the world to himself through his Son, Jesus Christ. To borrow Farrer’s language, we press on during this coronatide, grasping at heavenly hope by pursuing hopeful tasks here below.
With this in mind, we can sing with confidence, “God’s power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower.”