Not long ago, a parishioner came into my office and asked, “When is this going to get any better?” Over the previous few months, he had faced a series of substantial setbacks. His were the kind of challenges that would make most of us wonder the same thing. As I listened to him describe one disappointment after another, I wanted desperately to be able to tell him that things were going to turn around any moment, but I knew that was unlikely. Sometimes we find ourselves in a funk that does not have a foreseeable end.
In those moments, which happen to me fairly often, my instincts are to pull the ejection handle and try to escape the real suffering by pointing to God’s promise of ultimate redemption, which waits for us beyond this earthly life. In other words, it is easier for me to encourage someone with the Christian teaching that suffering does not follow us beyond the grave than it is to sit with that person in this life of pain. But I have come to believe that that instinct is neither particularly helpful nor particularly Christian.
I am guilty of the modern heresy of believing that the kingdom of God is something that waits for us in “the next life.” In fact, I find it difficult to talk about the hope of the resurrection without using misleading phrases like that one—“the next life.” But our hope in Jesus Christ is not founded on an escape plan as if this life were something to be quickly and completely abandoned. We believe that this life is transformed, not evaded. In the prayer that Jesus taught us, we do not ask to be taken to that place in heaven where God’s will is done but that his will might be done “on earth as in heaven.” And that is where and how the kingdom comes.
In one of his most famous parables about God’s kingdom, Jesus tells a story of three servants who were given money to manage while their master had gone away (Matt. 25:14-30). One took the five talents that he was given and used them to make five more. Likewise, a second servant used his two talents to make two more. The third servant, however, was paralyzed by the fear that his master would punish him for any loss, so he dug a hole and hid his talent in the ground. When the master returned and discovered what had happened during his absence, he rewarded the first two servants but punished the third for his foolishness. The parable concludes with the master’s haunting words, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
This parable teaches us that the kingdom of God is something that we must participate in while we are still waiting for the master to return. God’s reign on earth is not only made manifest when Jesus returns at the last day. As disciples of Christ, we are called to help make the kingdom a reality in this life. We are called to be vessels by which God uses us to “build for the kingdom,” as N. T. Wright puts it in his book Simply Jesus. We cannot sit idly by and hope that, when the kingdom comes, things will get better. It is our job to be participants in God’s work of making this world the place where God’s will is done.
I sense that I am not alone in my heretical dreaming of the one-day, far-off kingdom. It is far easier for us to sit and wait and watch than to help make the kingdom come. That does not mean that we believe in a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” gospel. The grace of God reminds us that we are not responsible for saving ourselves. But as the church—the body of Christ—we are responsible for letting God use us to transform this world into a place where God’s will is done. When I hear someone speak of the sufferings of this life, I am supposed to respond by asking myself what God is calling me and the church to do to help all suffering end. Simply patting someone on the back and saying, “At least heaven is a place where there is no pain,” misses the point completely.