“If you knew Jesus was coming back at the end of this week, how would you live your life? Okay, so, why aren’t you living your life like that? He might come back at the end of this week!”
I’d ask you to raise your hands if you’ve heard a variation on this theme from a pulpit in your lifetime, but I’m blogging, so I couldn’t see your hands. It doesn’t matter: they’d all be up. We’ve all heard a variation on this theme. It’s a good theme, in a way: the people who preach this way usually have a strong sense of the urgency of the Great Commission and a real grasp on the doctrine of Christ’s imminent return – both good things. But as with many good things, they can become bad things when carried too far, or carried thoughtlessly without regard to other good things.
The answer is simple: I’m not living that way because I don’t know that Jesus is coming back on Friday, and accordingly I have to bear the responsibilities with which he has entrusted me. This is, I suspect, at least part of the point for God’s choice not to reveal this information to us. He knows our tendencies, sinful through and through. He knows that if we had this information available, we would wait until the last possible minute and then go about in a mad frenzy, or simply slack off on our other responsibilities at the end. We would not, unlike the servants commended in the many relevant parables, simply be found to have been faithful all along the way so that whenever our master returns he will find us ready.
You see, Jesus has not given me only the responsibility of evangelizing. He has also given me the responsibility of working to earn the food that pays for our family’s food, clothing, housing, medical care, and so forth. He has given me the responsibility of working to create value for my employer, and to provide genuine cultural goods that benefit the world. He has given me the responsibility of teaching and writing to encourage others. He has given me the responsibility of taking care of my body so that I will continue to be able to do all those things – and yes, evangelize! – for the decades to come, unless he should take me home or return himself.
In other words, I have many vocations, many callings, and all of them involve many responsibilities. Were Jesus coming back this Friday – for certain, that we all knew – then most or all of those other responsibilities could be set aside. I would not need to worry about financial provision for my family, nor about teaching responsibilities I have coming up at Wildwood, nor about ongoing writing projects, nor about anything at all save that my neighbors and coworkers and friends all hear the gospel. Indeed, this should sound familiar in light of the many people who responded to Harold Camping’s misguided predictions last year. But I do not know that, and therefore I must continue to fulfill those responsibilities.
Nor is this a bad thing. One of evangelicalism’s major problems is its tendency to reduce everything to simple slogans, approaches, or creeds. This is of course its great strength as well, because it allows us to find common ground across significant denominational and doctrinal differences to cooperate for the advance of the gospel. But because we are so quick to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator, we can miss other important aspects of life. Life is not, as it turns out, easily reduced. To borrow a term from the algebra classes we all took (and most of us loathed; I was always the weird one in that regard as in so many others), there are too many variables to reduce the equation successfully.
Nor should we want to reduce the equation: there are legitimate goods, goods crucial to human flourishing as God intended it, that extend beyond evangelism and discipleship. These ends have an urgency that others do not, but they are not themselves the only valid ends, and we should be careful not to see them thus.
There is much more to say on this, and indeed I am working on a piece to expand on these thoughts significantly. For now, however, I will content myself with saying: If I knew Jesus was coming back in three days, yes I would live differently. But that’s precisely why he didn’t tell us when he’s coming back: so that we would be found faithful in the spheres to which he has called us. All of them.