“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” So wrote St. Paul to the Colossians, reminding them that if they have been raised with Christ, then they should direct their minds and their lives toward him.
As I sat in the pew on Easter Sunday and listened to that passage for Colossians, I found myself wondering: Do I set my mind and life too much on things that are on earth?
Some of the temptations are not easy to identify. Jesus tells us to lay up our treasure in heaven, and that seems to rule out thinking about bank accounts. But is that always true? My children are in college and tuitions bills need to be paid. It’s irresponsible for me never to think about my bank account. “Sorry, Rachel, meant to pay last semester’s tuition, but I laid up my treasure in heaven instead.” No, that won’t do. Whatever Jesus meant when he said that we must be ready to hate our mother and father, brother and sister, he wasn’t giving us an excuse to neglect our responsibilities to our families.
The same holds for our duties as citizens. There is something very wrong about investing politics with ultimate significance. As Jesus taught us, his kingdom is not of this world. He reigns from above, not in the halls of congress. But by the same token, elections matter, and not just a little. Deciding who sits on the United States Supreme Court makes a life and death difference for the unborn. It makes a difference for the future of marriage. Our solvency as a nation may very well turn on who gets elected to public office. The moral character of society is shaped by those in positions of public influence. There are many, many things on earth that rightly engage our minds. It would be irresponsible for us never to think about how to best serve the common good.
Which is why we publish First Things. The journal has an important goal: to help us think more deeply and responsibly about public life, not just about politics and policies, but also, and to my mind more importantly, about culture and the moral character of society.
Thus the spiritual difficulty that I often feel. How are we to think about our real worldly responsibilities without becoming worldly, without fixing our minds on the things that are on earth? As editor of First Things, do I set my mind too much on the things that are on earth?
I’m sure I do, but I’ve come to see that my failures do not stem from what I think about but from how I’m thinking. There is a worldly way of thinking—and there is a heavenly way.
The worldly way treats worldly powers as the ultimate judges of what is right, good, and possible. Wealth provides happiness. Your worth turns on your standing in society. Whoever controls the levers of government shapes the future. To think in a worldly way involves turning our concerns and problems over to these and other similar judgments—principalities and powers, to use the biblical terms. I do this often, and usually with the best of intentions. What investments should I make to ensure that I’m a good father who can pay for his children’s college tuitions? How should I frame the marriage debate in light of the upcoming elections so that First Things can play an effective role in restoring a culture of marriage? And so on, and so on. In each instance I’m trying to be responsible—something the Christian faith certainly encourages—but I’m going the temples of this world to supplicate it’s powers. I approach the altar of the marketplace, or I try to read the omens of electoral politics.
Death is the ultimate power of this world. No amount of wealth can turn it away, and even the most absolute despot is subject to its dominion. On Easter Sunday we say that Jesus Christ has risen, and in so doing we are announcing our freedom from death, the commanding general of all the worldly powers. That’s why St. Paul tells the Colossians to direct their thoughts to things above. “Your life,” he writes, “is hid with Christ in God.” In him we find our future, not in the powers of this world.
I often find myself humiliated at Mass by the awareness that my mind is preoccupied. Many, many times during the prayers of consecration I’ve caught myself thinking about how I’ve got to solve this or that problem. Money, reputation, politics: I’m in the temples of the gods of this world, propitiating them, negotiating with them, raging at them.
Then, suddenly, everyone around me is saying “Amen” and starting to rise for the Lord’s Prayer. I’m jarred out of my distracted preoccupations, my mental list-making, my ardent problem-solving. As I said, it’s a humiliating moment. The mystery of Christ made present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist is in front of me, and I’m off in my mind worshipping the gods of this world whom I tacitly presume control my future.
In that painful moment I try to follow St. Paul’s advice. I don’t stop thinking about my responsibilities. Instead, I refer them to Christ, asking him for guidance. And who better to know the answer? “He is before all things,” St. Paul writes earlier in Colossians, “and in him all things hold together.”
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.