How would you fill in this blank? I am a citizen of __________________.
What was the first thing that came to mind? If you live in the United States, with all the differing state guidelines in these difficult days, it might have been your state you thought of. Or it may have been your country. Or perhaps something else.
Ok, let’s add a blank to that sentence: I am a(n) _____________ citizen of _______________.
What adjective would you put in that new blank? Proud? Frustrated? Weary? Confident? Anxious? Furious?
There is a sharp focus on citizenship right now. Our home, work, and other daily activities are very much dictated by where we live. Your country, state, city, or town government officials each have likely set different guidelines they have determined to be safe and beneficial. Then you and your fellow citizens have a wide spectrum of responses (perhaps reflected in that first blank) to those guidelines. Grateful obedience. Reluctant acquiescence. Apathetic compliance. Low-grade rebellion. Or flat-out revolt. And you don’t only know about your own reactions. You are probably more than aware of some of your neighbors’, co-workers’, and friends’ reactions too.
Several times in the past couple months, a few lines from the movie The American President have come to mind as I’ve read or listened to people’s responses and reactions. While there is much in that movie I would disagree with based on the Word and the ways of God, there is some tough truth in these words from a speech the fictitious president Andrew Shepherd makes near the end of the film:
America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, 'cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”
Certainly, being an American right now isn’t easy for a myriad of reasons. Being a citizen of any country right now brings unique, complex, and challenging realities. Our physical citizenship is affecting our daily lives. So how am I responding as a citizen? How are you responding? This is a time of advanced citizenship for most of us. I’m wondering, Am I living and responding as a citizen of my state or country? Or am I living and responding first as a Christian, as a citizen of the kingdom of God?
If you are a Christian too, the kingdom of God is ultimately what should go in that second blank. Before and above our allegiance to any earthly citizenship, our allegiance should be to King Jesus, His rule and reign. We should submit to His authority and live in grateful humility to His design, will, and plan. We are His people living in the world He created with a confident hope that we will one day live with Him for eternity (Titus 3:7). We are His people, His kingdom citizens, living temporarily in countries and states and cities.
Kingdom citizens are given some pretty clear instructions about how to live in temporary locations in Romans 13:1–7. I am grateful and astounded by the providence of God that my pastor taught on this passage this past January, shortly before the realities and ramifications of the pandemic hit. He emphasized that Paul says “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (v. 1) at a time when there were no followers of Jesus serving in those positions. While there have been and are now some governmental authorities who do follow Jesus, we know many do not. Yet Paul still gives this instruction to submit.
Jesus Himself was our example of this when said to Pontius Pilate, “You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above” (John 19:11). Our Savior understood what it meant to live under the leadership of someone who was against God but still given authority by God. So regardless of the rightness or wrongness of a leader, all legitimate authority comes from God. That source should determine the attitude in which we relate to them. This attitude is detailed at the end of Romans 13:7, when Paul instructs us to give “respect to those you owe respect and honor to those you owe honor.”
In our current earthly citizenships, we are to be people living under the control of the Spirit (Rom. 8:1–11), showing respect and honor in the ways we submit to and speak about governing authorities, so that God may be glorified and His kingdom strengthened and expanded.
So what does it look like to live as kingdom citizens controlled by the Holy Spirit and submitted to our earthly citizenships? I’d like to suggest some responses and cautions based on God’s Word, with a tiny nod to the movie speech from President Shepherd. These responses and cautions could apply to any time period, but they are especially essential in our current culture and circumstances.
- Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
The Greatest Commandment is always a sure starting place for the Christian life. Regardless of any circumstance or human condition, all-in love for God and neighbors should form and fuel our actions, responses, thoughts, and feelings. And when one of those areas—be it your heart, mind, soul, or strength—are weak in faith or action, the others are there to help. This is the design and mercy of the Lord your God.
- Learn that you need people and people need you.
Whether you’re an introvert, an extrovert, or some combination of the two, you are most likely realizing the truth of that statement more than ever. God designed us for relationship, community, and real-life interaction. (Case in point: that “neighbor” in the commandment above.) As we’re either super close together or all alone in our houses and distanced from regular interaction with those outside our homes, we’re noticing and understanding our need for people and hopefully others’ needs as well. So respond to that need—both now and in the future—from what you’re noticing and experiencing. This is one of many ways this time can build us as individuals and as community.
- Know that your words matter. But so does your tone, attitude, and intent.
I promise you that I do not share this point lightly. There has never been a day when all the words I’ve spoken or written have brought life and honor to those who have heard or read them. Sometimes it’s the actual words I use, but more often it’s my tone, attitude, or intent that is wrong. Selfish. Prideful. Rude. Careless. Why? Because words matter, and so does tone, attitude, and intent.
Why does how we say things matter? Because of our instruction in Romans 13:7. Because those receiving those words, tones, and attitudes are people. Every single human being made in the image of God should be valued in our speech and any other ways we share thoughts and opinions. The ones we love and the ones we loathe. Those who care and serve and those who harm and dishonor. Even the image-bearer who might be “standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”
You do not have to agree with someone to honor them. You can address and respond to what Christ calls injustice or evil in a way that displays Him. You can, by allowing the Holy Spirit to control your responses, know when silence is best. Or when saying something is needed, you can do so in a way that is like Christ. When you honor the image-bearer, you honor the image-Giver. Speak, write, share, and respond as a kingdom citizen to the world of image-bearers around you in a way that honors and displays your King. Then God’s kingdom will grow and be strengthened.
- Respond from trust in your Savior.
The greatest need of every human ever is salvation from sin, not circumstances. The only true Savior is Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God who made a way for those who believe to have a relationship with His Father. We cannot and will not receive that ultimate salvation from any human or human institution, though both may be instruments that God uses for our good and His glory. As Christians, that salvation should be our focus in any and all circumstances, in any and all times. Then with that focus, we respond to the circumstances of life. Is the hope you have in Christ your focus? Are you responding to your current circumstances with a focus on your ultimate salvation? While circumstances and relationships are often complex, wearying, painful, and even dangerous, if you are a follower of Jesus, you have the promise of eternity with Him.
- Sure, lasting, and true hope is in God and eternity with Him.
The circumstances of life include joy, pain, peace, conflict, blessing, and struggle every day. As we deal with and respond to all of that, we have the offer of hope of eternity with God. I find confidence and a challenge to refocus on that eternal hope in 1 Peter 1:3–9:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Go back to those blanks: I am a(n) _____________ citizen of _______________. Answer honestly, this time with a focus on your King. Then live in response. This is advanced citizenship, not just because it’s hard, but because we, as kingdom citizens, are part of a kingdom that is both already here and still to come. Advance the kingdom.