Does it matter if we see life as temporary or eternal? Is this eschatological question even worth delving into, or does it just lead us on a nice little philosophical rabbit trail? I believe the answer is a resounding “yes, it matters.”
Colossians 3:1-4 [ESV] says:
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.
“If then…” What an incredible framing—these two little words carry grammatical and theological significance. This is about how our position in Christ changes how we look at life, how we interact with life, and how we live life. The Apostle Paul here points out that whether or not one is “raised with Christ” drastically changes one’s focus and identity. The phrase ‘If then’ implies that there is a contrast; if it is not true, then the statements that follow are inapplicable. The side of the “if” that people fall on can become the most important thing about them because it alters their goals and motivations.
Those who are in Christ have an eternal perspective. This means their focus changes from the temporal to the forever. They are to “set their minds” on things beyond this life. In fact, they already see themselves as dead to the things of this world.
What are the “things that are on earth” that grip human attention so strongly—that humans seek instead of “things that are above?” Living in a research university town, I have observed that the vast majority of students see success as bound up in getting good grades, going to a good grad school, getting a good job, and being able to live a comfortable life making good money. For some, it is even more—they feel the need to distinguish themselves as better than others by adding recognition through getting published, moving up the corporate/social/political ladder, and generally becoming known and respected. Those things are not inherently bad. But when people “set their minds” on those things to the exclusion of all else—making them ultimate goals—it fundamentally changes how they live and how they view other people. If the seventy to ninety years that we get in this life (if we are given that long) are all there is, then it makes sense to want to distinguish ourselves in these ways. But what if they are not all there is?
I believe humans are built with a “beyond themselves” orientation; this is evident even in those who reject God as having significance for their lives. It is common for people, including atheists, to speak of wanting to leave “something behind” or to have “a legacy.” They have a sense that it is not enough to just live for themselves in the here and now. I believe that is because they are made by God and in his image.
God, however, invites those of us whose identity is in Christ into the freedom of living not for ourselves, but for the hope of His glory. He invites us to be part of that forever glorious life and impact that Christ has. It is meaningful to see our impact as tied to eternal things. The implications of setting our minds “on things that are above” is not that we are then aloof and uncaring about the things on this earth, but rather that we care about what God cares about. We can act in ways that bring blessing to the earth, yet live free from the pressure of having to make our lives look ‘significant’ from a me-centered temporal perspective. God gives us a different calculus for determining significance—be part of what He is doing! The rest of Colossians 3 then teases this out as Paul moves into a profoundly relational description of life on earth.
If people are what is eternal, then it is indeed relationships that have the greatest impact. We get to use this time on earth to learn to love people, love learning, and to practice living with God’s values in mind. This life is an opportunity to touch and impact other eternal beings with love, hope and meaning.
So what can we do to orient our hearts to this eternal perspective? Lets remember a couple things. First, remember what is temporary. For example, John reminds us that the things of the world are passing away (I John 2:15-18). Paul reminds us that our bodies are mortal and breaking down, but God gives us hope for eternity with Him (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:8). Second, remember we are secure in Christ Jesus. In him I am a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), presented as blameless because of Christ’s finished work (Colossians 1:22), and with no need to prove myself because I am accepted by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9), able to do good out of love and joy, not to earn favor (Eph 2:10; Col 3:12-14).
The social and cultural waters we swim in can make it difficult to remember these things. We have to regularly remind ourselves of the truth of who we are in Christ. It helps me to periodically self-examine: “What is consuming my thinking time and emotional energy?” And “What is the ‘why’ behind my striving?” I can then ask God to help transform my mind and root my identity in him, so that I might “no longer live for [myself], but for him who for [my] sake died and was raised.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). I long to be free from fear and stress, so that I can do my work for His glory—not to justify my existence. My significance is not based on a worldly standard, but on the fullness of significance that Jesus has accomplished and has invited me to be part of. Therefore, as I face the ebbs and flows of frustration and discouragement when my nearsightedness gets the best of me, I can lift my eyes once again to things above, where Christ is and where true life is found.