When Paul calls us to set our minds on things above, and not on the things of earth, it can feel unloving and unnatural. Isn’t a heavenly-minded posture simply the privilege of those with the resources to avoid worry about health, provision, and safety? Isn’t it counterproductive to call for deeper heavenly-mindedness when dealing with situations of want, oppression, trauma, or even abuse? Does such thinking perpetuate abuse? Is it the case that heavenly-mindedness is of no earthly good?
It’s important for Christians to think through these questions. We image God when we are concerned for the earthly welfare of our neighbors, so it’s important to understand how the Bible’s call to heavenly-mindedness fits with that concern.
I want to reflect briefly on two questions: first, is heavenly-mindedness a practice of the privileged? And, second, does heavenly-mindedness stifle activism and sustain the status quo?
Is Heavenly-Mindedness for the Privileged?
When we read the Bible we should pay attention not only to what it says but also where and when it broaches topics. Heavenly-mindedness doesn’t come up when everyone is safe and happy; it comes up precisely when God’s people suffer the deepest pangs of hurt.
When Christians have been scattered far from home and face the threat of mistreatment or persecution, the apostle Peter reminds them of their “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:3–4). Peter calls their attention heavenward in a moment pregnant with danger and pain.
Heavenly-mindedness doesn’t come up when everyone is safe and happy; it comes up precisely when God’s people suffer the deepest pangs of hurt.
Hebrews similarly points Christians heavenward in a situation of trauma and struggle. It seems as though some Christians were mistreated publicly—likely through imprisonment or other such civic penalties (10:32–33). The author encourages them to continue holding on to the promise of heaven: “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (10:34). The “better possession” has given comfort to their waylaid souls.
The author then reminds them of Old Testament saints who looked forward to a heavenly country:
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. (Heb. 11:13–16)
Then Jesus is identified as the “author and perfecter of faith” (12:2). He “endured the cross, despising its shame,” and did so “for the joy set before him” (12:2). The author commends Jesus for sojourning obediently and selflessly precisely because he is heavenly-minded.
Heavenly hope sustained the Old Testament saints and Jesus through seasons of difficulty, and it should sustain Christians as well.
Does Heavenly-Mindedness Simply Extend the Status Quo?
Not surprisingly, Christians in situations of oppression and struggle have cherished the heavenly-minded focus of the Bible. Negro spirituals display this Israel-like spirituality, instilling spiritual fortitude by vivid claims to living hope. Heaven wasn’t a privilege possessed only by the master class but a promise that sustained a people terrorized on earth. This heavenly-mindedness continued to mark the piety and preaching of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil-rights movements of the 1960s.
They knew that justice ultimately demands love as a motivating impulse, thus affection for the “better country” must be instilled and sustained to counteract the suffering produced by this country (Heb. 11:16). Far from distracting from concerns for justice and mercy in the earthly city, then, heavenly-mindedness can provide the oxygen and energy by which it proceeds.
Far from distracting from concerns for justice and mercy in the earthly city, heavenly-mindedness can provide the oxygen and energy by which it proceeds.
Heavenly-mindedness provokes a deeper sense of lament and anger at injustice, naming it not only as pernicious market forces, psychological disorder, breakdown in family systems, or political disquiet, but as sin or spiritual violence.
Heavenly-mindedness turns up the volume on our moral register, so we’re more alert to the pains of our sisters and brothers. It not only cues us up to observe and feel such juxtapositions between the blueprints of God’s kingdom and the experience of each day but also motivates us to sacrifice for the sake of the common good.
By fixing our affections and hopes on something deeper and more lasting, heavenly-mindedness frees us to give up what is ours for the sake of others.
This is an adapted excerpt from Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God (Eerdmans, 2018).