‘All that is not eternal is eternally out of date,’ said C. S. Lewis. It is one of those fresh and startling comments that Lewis was prone to make. We live in a world which is imprisoned within itself, yet full of geniuses telling us how to respond to it, and who are intolerant of anyone who might suggest that he has a better idea. The worst thing is that we are all like that; we are part of that dysfunctional world. Thankfully, God reverses the wisdom of the world – He tells us of another world, and calls on the humble to become members of it.
It is God’s bigger picture which enables us to live better in our own little picture. We are told that ‘the present form of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor.7:31), yet the smallest act – almost the most trivial act – is eternally significant. Jesus promises that ‘whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward’ (Matt.10:42).
The world has always been in a state of rebellion and dislocation. Utopian dreams that somehow a Thousand Year Reich or a classless society will be established come to nought, or worse, to bloodshed, tyranny, falsehood, and oppression. Augustine of Hippo described unbelievers as those who are left to ‘wander in a circuitous maze finding neither entrance nor exit.’ To the lost unbeliever, Utopia might be just one act of parliament away, achieved by one more educational programme, ushered in by one more shift in public opinion, or one more achievement on the part of the enlightened. Yet it is always elusive – one problem is replaced by another. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse seem to just keep coming.
We live in this world, but in the light of eternity. John Bunyan’s complete works come to over 2,300 dense pages yet there is only one reference to the English Civil War which broke out in 1642 and lasted until the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Bunyan served in the Parliamentary Army for three years from 1644, having been called up when he was just sixteen years of age. What fills the history books barely rates a mention in Bunyan’s work, the exception being when his life was spared when another soldier took his place on sentry duty at Leicester, and was shot dead. No doubt it prompted the young Bunyan to ponder more deeply the issues of providence and eternity.
In many places there is near-panic about Covid-19 and the possibility of death. It will not do to minimise the threat to life, to ignore it, and seek to survive on distractions such as Sportsbet and ‘The Farmer Wants a Wife’. That which is debased will pass away, and even that which might seem to have more substance will also pass away. As early as March 1739 John Wesley was calling the world his parish: ‘I seek another country, and therefore am content to be a wanderer upon earth.’ More graphically, he wrote: ‘I desire to have both heaven and hell ever in my eye, while I stand on this isthmus of life, between these two boundless oceans’.
Getting through covid is a goal, and getting through with a minimum of pain is not to be despised. Yet there is something far greater. The book of Lamentations gives us a prayer to use when God has afflicted us: ‘Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord! Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven’ (Lam.3:41-42). Here there can be no error or contention; here there is a sorrow which drives us to Him who is the source of joy.
Rev. Dr Peter Barnes, Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia