Tomorrow is July 4th — Independence Day in the United States. A big day of celebration for us here. Every year it raises questions for Christians about nationalism and what’s a healthy level of patriotism. Matt, a podcast listener, writes in to ask this: “Pastor John, hello! Obviously, as Christians we are to live as strangers, exiles, aliens, and pilgrims on this earth. Is there an appropriate place in the Christian life to be patriotic? If so, what is it? And at what point does our patriotism go too far?”
Yes, I think there is, and I think it’s right, or at least it can be right and good. It is true, and we need to stress it at the beginning and maybe stress it at the end: We are pilgrims here. We are exiles, refugees, sojourners. Peter says, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Paul says, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). That’s number one. That’s foundational. That’s relativizing to all human allegiances.
Citizen of Heaven, Exile on Earth
So, the question is framed rightly: we are citizens of heaven; we are sojourners and pilgrims on the earth, but that’s owing to the fact that the world is fallen, not to the fact that the world is created. We are going to spend eternity in a created world — in fact, this created world renewed and cleansed. But Satan won’t be the god of that world anymore like the New Testament says he is now (2 Corinthians 4:4).
“You don’t have to be negative about another country because you love your own.”
That’s what makes us feel so alien here: the god of this world is Satan. He holds such extensive sway. The world is permeated with sin. It makes us feel like we’re not at home‚ and we’re not, in a very real sense, while that kind of sinfulness permeates the world. We are just aching to be done with sin, mainly our sin, not just the grossness and godlessness that we see in the world. We long to be holy and to be in the presence of Holiness himself.
So, when I say we are aliens and exiles and sojourners and pilgrims, I don’t mean that the earth itself or everything in it is despised. I mean that the structures we find ourselves in — this rebellious body of John Piper, family, work, education, entertainment, politics, media, even church, all of it — are so permeated with sin that we long for something new and clean and pure and holy and Christ-exalting.
However, God means for us to be enmeshed in this world. We’re “not of the world,” Jesus says in John 17:16, but we are in the world, and we are supposed to be in it (John 17:18). I just read in my devotions yesterday 2 Corinthians 10:3: “Though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.” That’s just another way of saying, “in the world, but not of the world.”
Love for the Fatherland
We may be in a city, a state, a country, and if I ask, “What is patriotism in this enmeshment?” my answer is that patriotism is a kind of love for fatherland — and I mean fatherland in a very general sense. It could be a city (Minneapolis), or a state (Minnesota), or a country (US, Brazil, China, Nigeria), or a tribe (Ojibwe, Navajo, Fulani, Kachin). And that love for these enmeshments, these belongings, is different from the general love that Christians have for everybody or for the whole earth.
The reason I think it’s good to have special affections for these particular attachments is that the Bible seems to point in that direction in several ways. For example, Paul says in Galatians 6:10, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” So, it’s as though there is this specialness about those who are close to you and like you. There is a kind of affection for them that’s different.
“Keeping Christ supreme in our affections makes all our lesser loves better, not worse.”
Or consider 1 Timothy 5:8: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” So, it seems like it’s right not just to have a general love spread over the whole world for people, as if everybody will receive from us exactly the same affections. But rather, there is a specialness, a peculiarity, about the affections for certain affinity groups — not at the expense of others, but even for the sake of others.
Paul seems to point in this direction in Romans 9:3 when he says, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” What’s that? There’s something about this “kinship according to the flesh.” He means Jewishness. It’s being bound together in a family way or a cultural way with a group that makes him have a special affection and longing for them that’s different from the love he has for everybody.
Affection for What Fits
As I was thinking about this, C.S. Lewis gave me some help, because in his book The Four Loves — which, by the way, Tony, 45 minutes ago I realized I’ve got this book on file in my computer in the voice of C.S. Lewis himself. I went there and listened to this section about 45 minutes ago. I’ve got Lewis talking in my mind about storgē. Okay, I wasn’t going to say that, but I did that this morning, and I’m so excited that I’ve been listening to C.S. Lewis in his own voice!
But anyway, he wrote this book The Four Loves, and he distinguishes philia, friendship; erōs, sex; agapē, the love of God; and the one that I think is relevant right here: storgē.
Now, storgē is a kind of affection. It’s what you feel for a pair of slippers that your wife thinks you should have thrown away a long time ago, but they fit just right; they feel just right. Storgē is the affection that a child feels for an old raggedy doll that everybody looks at and says, “That’s good for nothing.” Well, no, it’s really good for that child; that child has a very special affection for that doll.
Or I can think of a sweater. I just tossed a ten-year-old sweater away the other day, and I took a picture of it, sent it to my kids, and I put a text on it: “Rest in peace.” I should’ve said, “Rest in pieces” because it was so torn up and Noël was saying, “You don’t need to wear that anymore.” I said, “Well, I just like it.” So, it’s the sweater, it’s the tree where you carved your initials as a couple at Wheaton College (and they took that tree down, the rascals, just a few years ago). You love to be near that tree. That tree means more than other trees. Or it’s the lagoon where Noël and I were engaged. That’s a real special place that we can go back to.
Created for Culture
So, there is a kind of affection for a tree, a sweater, a city, a language, a culture, a fatherland. Why? Because it fits you. When you leave it, get on a plane to go to another country, there may be excitement and challenge and stimulation, and you get real worked up with new cultures. They might even be superior in some ways to your own culture. In other words, we’re not talking here, when we talk about special love for your own family or ethnicity or city or state or fatherland, about superiority and inferiority here anymore than your love for your husband or your wife is because they’re the smartest or the handsomest person in the world. That’s not what’s going on here. That’s not the point in this special kind of affection that we’re talking about.
The point is this: when you come home from those travels, even from so-called “superior” cultures, the fatherland fits like the slippers fit or the sweater or the smells or the sound; it’s just full of good associations, like the tree where you carved your initials.
“Never feel more attached to your fatherland or your tribe or your family than you do to the people of Christ.”
So, it seems to me that this is good, and that the goodness is implied in the Bible, and God created us to be in skin, in languages, in families, in cultures. He doesn’t mean for us to despise our skin or our language or our culture, but rather to be at home in them, and to feel good about them — of course, we have to add — up to a point. They’re all sinful, and so we never give them absolute allegiance. We never cease to be exiles and sojourners, even in our families and tribes and ethnicities — indeed, in our own bodies.
Bound Together for Good
Now, Romans 13 seems to me to take this point of the special affection to the level of countries when it says that a state has the right to use the sword to maintain order and to defend itself against aggression. When it says that, it seems to me to be saying, in effect, that this fatherland has the right to exist. And if it has the right to exist, it would seem that the people who live there can be glad that it exists. They can say, “We’re glad that this fatherland exists. We like it here.”
They can say that without putting down other nations or cultures. You don’t have to be negative about another country because you love your own. That’s a lesson, by the way, we need to learn today at every level. In fact, I would argue that in globally connected nations, like we have today — this interdependent world of ours — you probably will fail to love your country if you fail to work for the good of other countries as well; we’re just too interdependent for that not to be true.
Now, let me end on this note for Christians especially: never feel — never feel — more attached to your fatherland or your tribe or your family or your ethnicity than you do to the people of Christ. Everyone who is in Christ is more closely and permanently united to others in Christ, no matter the other associations, than we are to our nearest fellow citizen or party member or brother or sister or spouse. Oh, how many horrible indignities, injustices, contradictions of Christianity have been perpetrated because believers have failed to realize this: we are more bound together with other believers — no matter their ethnicity or their political alignments or their nationality — than we are to anybody in our own fatherland.
In the end, Christ has relativized all human allegiances, all human loves. Keeping Christ supreme in our affections makes all our lesser loves better, not worse. Under his flag, it is right to be thankful to God that we have a fatherland, a tribe, a family, an old pair of slippers that just fit right.