The City of God: Standing Strong When the World Crumbles
It's no secret that for the past several months, Americans have felt immense fear and anxiety when it comes to our economy. Our nation—perhaps even our world—is coming into perhaps some of the most difficult times since the Great Depression. We face a financial crisis of almost unparalleled proportions that will possibly, if not addressed properly and thoughtfully, affect each of us in some fashion, perhaps small, perhaps great.
It can be tempting to feel, as Israel did in the time of the Exile, that God simply doesn't care about humanity anymore. If God could fix things then why doesn't God? If God can't fix things, then what kind of God is it we believe in? Mediocre? Incompetent, not omnipotent?
Perhaps the problem isn't that God doesn't care about humanity, but that humanity doesn't care about God. In times like these, maybe we should ask if we really believe the ultimate truth printed on our money: “In God We Trust.” We have gradually replaced the God of our fathers and mothers, of our grandparents and ancestors with the god we can spend.
The City of Iniquity
It is said that children will have to pay for the sins of their parents. Most of the time this is twisted with pathetic theology that implies that if father or mother was guilty of something, then the child is automatically guilty of the same thing. But what that passage really means is that the consequences of parents' actions will fall heavily upon the shoulders of the children, who don't deserve to have to clean up the mess of a whole generation. But they have to.
The prophet Habakkuk asked God about this very thing. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear? …You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (Hab. 1:1, 13). Why do the people have to pay for the sins of the king? More to the point, why does a large group of people have to pay for the sins of a few? Even more to the point, why do the people have to pay for the short-sighted, selfishness of those in power? And when will God do something?
This was the cry then, and this I believe will be the cry that comes more and more to the lips of the people who have placed their trust in men and women who have proven to be dishonorable at the post of power that we have given them and that they have taken and run with.
Habakkuk takes his watch on the tower and waits for God to answer his cry. Finally, the Lord speaks, saying that the suffering of the nation begins with the corruption of a single heart, which contaminates the soul.
“Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—
for how long?—
and loads himself with pledges!”
Will not your debtors suddenly arise,
and those awake who will make you tremble?
Then you will be spoil for them. …
Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house,
to set his nest on high,
to be safe from the reach of harm!
Woe to him who builds a town with blood
and founds a city on iniquity!”
(Hab. 2:6-7, 9, 12, ESV)
How much has been taken by those too shortsighted to see what they are doing? How many have made decisions that have not helped the community but have profited only the individual?
It is no wonder that the over-zealous and theologically inept cry out that this is the end of the world. The end is near. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is merely the end of a society, or if we are truly strong of heart and soul, we could hope that this might be the end of a mentality—a mentality that only trusts in God when things get bad, but places no stock in the Lord when the market rallies. After the crisis of 9/11, many repented of their repentance and left penance for profit once again. Idols that were torn down on that beautiful September morning were rebuilt as things seemed to go back to the way they were. The churches were full, but our faith was shallow.
The City that Remains
In the middle of the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo, the great North African bishop and theologian, wrote a powerful book called The City of God. He wrote this work in response to the dread and psychological strain that the people of the Roman Empire were enduring. Their empire was falling apart around them. In the year 410, Rome was attacked and breached by an outside invader—the first time in the 800-year history of the empire. As Jerome would write, “The city which has taken the whole world is itself taken!” It was not a crushing invasion, but it was the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.
The people asked how and why and all the questions that people ask when things begin to unravel. St. Augustine answered with the book. In it he wrote that within the Roman Empire, two 'cities' existed: the City of Man, which was society following its own desires and seeking material gain and the City of God, which was the community of Christians living according to their faith.
The two cities could only come to a disastrous end, but to Christians, the citizens of the City of God, the sack of Rome was not a catastrophe, even though they suffered greatly. This was because the loss of material goods can deprive Christians of nothing, since their hearts are set on things above. The City of Man is temporary, the City of God is eternal.
And herein lies the good news, the hope, perhaps the only hope that we can cling to. Though the cities fall around us, and the mountains start to crumble. Though hurricanes hammer away like the fist of an angry deity, and those pieces of fiber we confidently call money might lose their value, we belong to the City of God. We can stand on the watchtower and see the end of an era, an age, a mentality, even the end of the world. But we ultimately have nothing to fear. If it all falls apart tomorrow, next week, next month, next year the city that shakes at its foundation will not be the City of God.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells those who would follow him that they are the “light of the world.” As the Body of Christ, we are standing on what might prove to be a very dark time. The only city that is set on a hill is the City of God, of which we claim to be inhabitants. If that is the case, then we have to make sure that in the darkness that the light we have in our hearts, the light of God, shines out as a beacon of hope. We cannot panic, and we cannot give in to fear. We must be faithful that our light might shine before others so they will know the Kingdom of God is ever at hand.
Charles Ensminger is pastor of Niota United Methodist Church and Cedar Springs United Methodist Church in the Holston Annual Conference. This article originally appeared in Circuit Rider.