God has chosen to build His Kingdom slowly and gradually through families, so we need to lift our eyes above our current circumstances to perceive both the global and multigenerational scope of God’s work. This will not only redirect our focus to the Gospel and its application to our families but also greatly encourage us as we look past our own dire circumstances to what God has been working on since giving Adam and Eve the Cultural Mandate. God is building His Church, and He will be successful, so let’s throw ourselves into that work that He has invited us into.
The LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”
-Genesis 13:14-17, ESV
When I visited Prague years ago, I was struck by the abundance of beautiful old churches throughout the city—beautiful and empty. At the time I visited, 80% of Czechs were atheist or agnostic. It was sadly ironic that a place so central to the pre-Reformation would now be so devoid of the truth of the Gospel, that the church flanking a large statue of Jan Hus and the cathedral entombing the devout King Wenceslas had essentially been reduced to museums. I couldn’t help but think of a line from Nietzsche’s “The Parable of the Madman”: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”. That problem is not exclusive to Europe. During my commute, I drive by some lovely old New England churches, each marked as a tomb by such headstones as a Pride flag, Black Lives Matter banner, or some other indicator if inclusivity. Churches in America and Europe are dying, particularly the mainline denominations. Despite this (and in some ways because of it), we should not lose hope but should follow God’s direction to Abram in Genesis 13 and lift up our eyes. In doing so, we can avoid discouragement by looking above our own circumstances to see how God works both globally and generationally as well as how that applies to our lives today.
Look Up Across the Land
We can draw parallels between our own context and Abraham’s. In Genesis 12, God first made a promise to Abraham (Abram at the time) in the land of Haran. From Genesis 11 and 12, we see that after his brother Haran died, Abraham looked after Haran’s son Lot, so when God first speaks to Abraham, Lot was essentially part of his family:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
-Genesis 12:1-3, ESV
Here, God promises to give Abraham a heritage, land, descendants, and immense blessing. So Abraham and his nephew Lot journey from Haran to Canaan, but by Genesis 13, this promise seems further away. The limited land they occupied could not support them both, so they separated. Lot chose what was appealing by earthly wisdom but detrimental spiritually: the fertile yet evil land of Sodom. Thus, Abram’s family was getting smaller, not larger. It was in this context that God essentially repeated His promise. In Genesis 13:14-17, God tells Abram to look all around him because He would give him all of the land he could see. As Christendom seems to be failing in the West, it is tempting for us to conclude that the Kingdom of God is in retreat rather than advancing. But if we lift up our eyes and look past the West, we would see that nothing could be further from the truth. Far from a retreat, Christianity is not only advancing but exploding in Africa and Asia. F. Lionel Young III recently observed how the increasingly global and ethnically diverse nature of the Church today is so profound that it is making us rethink our paradigm of the “global north” as the spiritual haves and the “global south” as the spiritual have-nots. In fact, Dr. Gina A. Zurlo observed that in 2020: “A typical Christian today is a non-white woman living in the global South, with lower-than-average levels of societal safety and proper health care. This represents a vastly different typical Christian than that of 100 years ago, who was likely a white, affluent European”. Two thousand years ago, Jesus gave His disciples a mission to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:19-20). In that time, Christianity has expanded from 120 people in Jerusalem to the largest religion in the world. While there have been ups and downs, the Church has been growing and advancing steadily since then, so we have no reason to believe that trend that has lasted two millennia will reverse now.
But even in the West, there is reason for hope. When we look at the decline of many churches, particularly in mainline denominations, it is right to observe like Nietzsche that the empty churches are tombs and sepulchers, but we must disagree that God is entombed there. Instead, these empty churches are tombs of a dead religion, a false god that bears little resemblance to the God of the Bible. By replacing the Gospel with a watered-down version that elevated social change and the values of society above Christ, they lost their first love, so as He did with Ephesus, God has removed their lampstand (Revelation 2:4-5). Many evangelical churches have also replaced the true Gospel with a false one, emphasizing emotional experiences and watering down the Gospel to make it relevant and palatable for the culture. The result is a fake man-centered gospel that portrays God as weak and harmless, completely neglecting His sovereignty, justice, and righteousness. In conforming the church to the culture, they have given up their distinction and thus competitive advantage.
Businesses do the same thing when they abandon their competitive edge to chase the latest fad, as Blackberry did when faced with competition from the iPhone. As a result, the phone that at one time ruled the business world is no more, replaced by an app on business and government iPhones. Any business must persistently focus on what sets them apart from their competition, which Jim Collins referred to as “the hedgehog principle” in Good to Great. Business failure comes when that distinction is abandoned to chase after “shiny objects”. For the Church, the Gospel is what sets us apart, so sacrificing the Gospel to chase after fads can only be detrimental. The World will always outdo the Church in concerts, motivational speeches, political action, and everything else but the Gospel just Blackberry could never make a better iPhone than the iPhone. Only the Gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16), so the Church must focus on the Gospel.
Fortunately, while churches that have abandoned the Gospel to go after the fads of culture are predictably failing, there is steady growth in churches that have maintained their focus on the Gospel. I have noticed in my lifetime a significant increase in Reformed theology, hunger for depth of Scriptural understanding, and a seriousness to obey Scripture that I did not see in childhood. This is very positive, verifying that what lies entombed in dying churches is not the true Gospel, which is alive and well, even in the West. So when we lift up our eyes and look at the growth of true Christianity in the world around us, we have ample reason to hope as Abraham did.
Look Up to Future Generations
Along with the promise of land in Genesis 13:14-17, God also told Abram that He would give him enumerable descendants. Like the promise of land, this too seemed fleeting. It was something like two decades between the promise of Genesis 13 and the birth of Isaac in Genesis 21.