Wednesday, May 14, 2008

This is not the Kingdom

The setting was sometime in the spring of 2007. I sat on the back porch of my urban home with my eleven housemates gathered around, drinking bottled root-beer, ginger-ale and cream-soda that we could pretend were drinks in our dry household. We were gathered to discuss whether or not I would continue living in the house when I started my master’s program in the fall.

“I don’t want to leave the neighborhood,” I explained. “I don’t want to be that transient person in the kids’ lives who makes them feel important for a year and disappears. I don’t want my life to consist in my own educated middle-class world and become disconnected with the work of the Kingdom in the lives of the poor.”

I was fighting a losing battle, and I knew it. Everyone, including me, knew I needed to allow myself to be simply a student for a while without trying to save the world in my spare time. In an earlier lunch conversation with an old college friend, I had insinuated that it would be my housemates who would urge me stay in the city for the sake of the Kingdom; by now it was clear that the only things holding me there were my own grandiose dreams of serving God.

“I actually understand where you’re coming from,” one of my housemates interjected. “I was always very passionate about wanting to be a part of the Kingdom as well. But there was a time when my similar efforts actually landed me in a mental institution, and I remember looking around there and suddenly realizing, ‘This is not the Kingdom!’ I wasn’t sure exactly where I went wrong, and I had had good Kingdom-focused reasons for doing everything I had done, but it was clear that something had gone off course. That was not the Kingdom.”

* * *

A year later, after I have let go of most of the battles I had once thought were most important, after accepting that if I ever move back into a similar urban setting it may be around the large detours of PhD and tenure, I found myself in a Bible study last night studying II Samuel 7, where David dreams of starting off his reign by building God a glorious temple. Israel is established, the Promised Land is secure, the Lord’s anointed is on the throne, and it is time for God’s glory to have a permanent resting place in the city. David, the passionate man who just made a fool of himself dancing in front of the returning Ark of the Covenant, is ready to build it.

But David is no Saul; he does not assume the ability to call for God’s blessing without submitting himself to the prophets. And the prophet Nathan, who begins by giving the obvious go-ahead to the king after God’s own heart, comes back with a surprise “No.” As much as a temple makes sense, God’s glory does not need a place to rest. God will raise up his own instrument to build his temple out of David’s offspring (and I wonder if David’s assumption that it was Solomon was misguided; Christ, after all, raised the temple of his body, and Hebrews quotes this very passage when God says ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son’ as referring to Christ).

What God tells David here is striking. David wants to build God a house, and God turns around and says he will build David a house. The Kingdom will not come by David’s well-intentioned, passionate efforts to build God’s house, even if David is the king; the Kingdom will come by God’s own building of David’s house. It is good that David is the kind of man who wants to do things for God, but the Kingdom is ultimately something God will do for/through/from/to David.

“Is this your usual way of dealing with man?” David asks in the NIV. I had always assumed the question was a rhetorical question with an implied “No,” but the more literal ESV gives the opposite answer in its translation: “This is instruction for mankind.” Maybe this is God’s usual way of dealing with man after all. Maybe it is how he is dealing with me.

What am I hearing from this? Maybe it tells me to feel free to passionately dream of furthering God’s glory, but to submit those dreams to God and to his instruments of authority. It certainly seems to tell me that the Kingdom will not be something I build for God, but something that he builds. He may even choose to build it by building me.


Benjamin said...

Hi Emily - nice post!

I'm curious what you think about the idea that the kingdom doesn't come primarily through our efforts, but through our righteousness.

Em the luddite said...

My take on that statement would depend on the definition of "our righteousness." I would say that I am being misguided when I think that righteousness involves being the best I can possibly be for God... and here I'd say Protestants are in more danger than Catholics, because we've so fearfully fled "works" and asserted that our faith is what saves us, so now we pursue righteousness by our efforts to be the best we can possibly be for God in our faith and inner-virtue... a never-ending struggle.

I suppose if this passage tells us that the Kingdom comes not by David building God's house but by God building David's house, then it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that the kingdom comes through God's sanctification of David (David's "house" can apply to his legacy, which certainly involves his sanctification). If that's how we want to define righteousness--in the passive voice of being made holy, rather than the active voice of being holy--the I'd certainly agree.

Does this answer your question, or am I evading it?

Benjamin said...

Hi Emily,

I think I meant something more like the second one!

Again, very nice post. It is interesting to hear something about some of the different worlds you have lived in.