Living in Hope of the Future
In Colossians 3:1-3 the Apostle Paul writes,
If then you have been raised with Christ seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Christians often talk about how we should set our minds on heaven rather than on earth, but frequently you get the sense that they are thinking more like Neo-Platonists than like Christians. It is as if material things, indeed, even life itself, are irrelevant to the kingdom. To set our minds on things above, they seem to think, is to focus on ethereal things like piety, worship, and a beatific vision of God.
That is not what Paul is talking about at all. The contrast Paul is drawing is not between what is immaterial and what is material. Rather, the contrast he is drawing is between the concrete, physical future, which exists in Jesus’ body, and the physical yet fragile present, which is passing away. The reason why we are to set our minds on Jesus is because nothing has any genuine existence apart from him (Col 1:15-20). He has reconciled all things, and whatever is not found in him will be destroyed. Those who set their minds on things on earth think they are being realistic but in reality they are dwelling on a mirage, or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it, an abstraction. Paul is focused on the hope that the future of all things, including life itself, is tied up with Christ. We fix our minds on him in the hope that he will one day appear, transforming the entire cosmos.
What all of this means is that to set our minds on Christ is not to be uncaring or unconcerned about human beings, or about justice, mercy, or peace. Indeed, these form the essence of the kingdom itself. Rather, to be focused on Christ is to be able to see through the lies and the illusions that lead us to think that salvation from injustice, conflict, misery, and death can be found in things that are passing away. We testify to the gospel by embracing the virtues of Christ, demonstrating that we know in whom is our future and in whom is our salvation.
As Paul puts it,
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body… And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:12-15, 17)
To set our minds on Christ, or on things above, rather than things on earth, is not to retreat into a monastery or into exercises of piety at the expense of the real people and circumstances around us. On the contrary, it is to concentrate on bearing witness to our future in Christ by being compassionate, humble, forgiving, and loving. It is to do everything as Christians, even in our secular vocations, as Paul goes on to show in the following verses. To be sure, our hope and salvation are not tied up these vocations, or with secular institutions and possessions (1 Corinthians 7). We cannot turn these things into the kingdom of God. But when we love one another in Christ, treating people in light of their hope in him, rather than in light of what perishes, we do the best thing we can do in this life. And that is to give people genuine hope. It is to give people a future.