Can a person be so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good?

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. is credited with saying, "Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good." He was making an observation that some Christians were so distracted by their religion, focusing their attention on finer points of theology, awaiting the next life, that they no longer engaged in this life or in bringing good to this world. Johnny Cash popularized the saying in his song "No Earthly Good" (Album: The Rambler 1977) where he criticized religious people for not sharing the blessing and good news they had found. These men were pointing out a temptation of religious folk that has been present since biblical times, and the Bible warns against the attitudes and behaviors they criticized.

Indeed, it is possible to be so distracted with seemingly pious endeavors as to be of no earthly good. But being truly heavenly minded, loving God, and devoting oneself to His service will actually lead to seeking the earthly good of those around you. Let us explain.

In the sense that "heavenly minded" speaks of religiosity or self-righteous piety, it is certainly of no earthly good, nor is it of eternal good. Pharisees of Jesus' day would piously set aside so much of their money as an offering that there remained insufficient funds to care for their aging parents. In Mark 7:6–13 He explained that this practice did not please God because God had commanded them to "Honor your father and your mother" and by this practice "you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down" (Mark 7:10, 12–13). In being religiously minded, these men neglected the earthly need of their family members.

Another way in which Jesus warned against this mindset was in the parable of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:30–37. He told a story of a Jew who was attacked by robbers and left half dead on the side of the road. First a priest came along. One might expect that a man who works in the presence of God would surely stop to help, but he passed by without aiding the injured man. Then a Levite who also works in the temple came along and passed by without helping. Presumably, the men were too busy with temple duties to take the time necessary to aid this man in need. Or perhaps the priest and Levite were concerned with ceremonial cleanliness. "But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him" (Luke 10:33–34). It was the man without a religious title who brought about the physical good of which the injured man was in need. The Samaritan saw the need, felt compassion, and acted in the other man's best interest to bring about his physical good in this world. In reference to the Samaritan's choice to help the man along the side of the road, Jesus told His followers, "You go, and do likewise" (Luke 10:37).

James linked heavenly-mindedness and the importance of being of earthly good in his letter to the church. He wrote, "If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (James 2:15–17). He made the claim that true faith is exemplified in caring for people's physical needs in this world. He also wrote that, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27). Meeting the physical needs of those who are suffering is part of what Christians are called to do.

Similarly, John wrote to believers, "But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:17–18). John showed that loving God would result in helping others by our actions using the "world's goods" (material possessions).

Believers are to be "heavenly minded" in the sense that our entire lives are to be shaped by God. Colossians 3:1–3 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." The passage goes on to remind believers that Jesus is returning. It instructs them to "put to death therefore what is earthly in you," referring to various sinful behaviors and attitudes. Believers are not to walk in these patterns. Instead, they are to "put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Colossians 3:12–14). They are to let Christ's peace rule in their hearts, be thankful, let God's Word dwell in them, "and whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Colossians 3:17). Christians are to be focused on God and living for His glory as citizens of His kingdom (Philippians 3:20).

It is precisely this "heavenly mindedness" that compels believers to live in this world with love and on mission (Matthew 28:19–20; Acts 1:8; 2 Corinthians 5:17–21; 1 Peter 3:13–17). When believers understand who God is, recognize the reality that humans are made in His image, and grasp the weight of the gospel, they will be invested in the lives of those around them (John 13:34–35). Galatians 6:9–10 says, "And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith." Jesus' high priestly prayer is instructive. In part, He prayed for His followers, "I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. … As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world" (John 17:15–18). For future believers, He prayed, in part, "that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21, 23). Believers are sent into the world as beacons of God's truth and love (Matthew 5:13–16).

It can be tempting to withdraw from society to devote our lives to singing praises, praying, and studying God's Word—to give all our time, attention, and money to purely religious or spiritual endeavors. Jesus' followers felt this pull when they witnessed His ascension. They were gazing into the sky and angels asked them, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). They were to return to the city and live out Jesus' commands to "love one another" (John 13:34), to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19–20), to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the needy, nurse the sick, and visit the prisoner (Matthew 25:35–46).

Those who study Scripture will find a focus on bringing about earthly good as a way of being heavenly minded. They will find that loving God and being devoted to Him necessarily includes seeking the good of those around them. When the Israelites were sent into exile in Babylon, God instructed them to "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:7). God has always desired that His people be a blessing to others as a way of revealing His character to those who don't yet know Him (Deuteronomy 4:6–8; Matthew 5:13–16).

Clearly being "heavenly minded" in the sense that we are God-focused implies active engagement in the world. In that sense, being "heavenly minded" should be of much "earthly good."

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