God’s kingdom is real. It is within me and around me now, in this life and on this earth.
Reality is what is real
The material world is exceedingly powerful because it is tangible, and we are bodily creatures. We perceive it with all five physical senses (sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell), as well as our with our intellect and intuition. We experience physical hunger, pain, and pleasure. We are tempted by experiences that affect our emotions. We feel pressure and approval from other people. It is in this “kingdom of the world” that the most obvious parts of our daily life take place, and from here the “kingdom of the heavens” can look very far away.
Most people believe that the only show going, the only game in town, the only reality, is physical or natural reality…that as far as your practical life is concerned, the only thing you can really count on is physical, natural reality.
-Dallas Willard, The Allure of Gentleness
Do we believe the invisible kingdom is the really real one? If the kingdom of the heavens is the really real world, what does that mean about everything we go through in the material world?
Both material and invisible realities exist
Let’s be clear: both the material world and the invisible world exist and affect us right now. A central Buddhist belief is that the world of suffering and pain is maya: illusion. That’s not the Christian belief. There is nothing illusory about the material world. We really suffer. We really hunger and hurt. We also really enjoy chocolate and fresh spring days. That’s all reality. At the very same time, there is also a reality that we can know through experience and understanding that is not material. That is the kingdom of the heavens, and it is the one that persists beyond time and space.
Like Jesus, we can live in both
Make no mistake. It is all God’s world. Both the material and the invisible, both the sense-known and the faith-known, the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of the heavens: all of it is God’s world. That is the basic mystery of Jesus whom we call the Christ: son of Mary, son of God; human and divine. Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated the possibility of living in both the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of the heavens at the very same time. That is the life into which Jesus invited us: a life lived in both realities at once, in which you are fully present to the material reality and fully present to the invisible reality. Living in God’s world is living in both realities, much like Jesus did.
Here is the kicker: if you have received new life (the “life from above”) from the Holy Spirit, you already do live in God’s dual-kingdom world, because the Holy Spirit living within you lives in the kingdom of the heavens. Living like Jesus means, in part, to live aware of both realities, secure in the permanence of the kingdom of the heavens, in constant companionship with God. Our challenge is, with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, to train to live in the material but depend upon the spiritual. (See Finding God for more on training techniques.)
Spiritual disciplines are also spiritual disciplines, and not mere bodily behaviors … designed to help us withdraw from a total dependence on the merely human or natural … and to learn how to depend upon the ultimate reality, which is God and his kingdom…. Thus, for example, I fast from food to know that there is another food that sustains me. I memorize and meditate on scripture that the order of God’s kingdom would become the order and power of my mind and my life.
-Dallas Willard, “Living a Transformed Life Adequate to Our Calling”
Throughout the gospels we can watch Jesus navigating life in the material world while deepening his connection with the eternal world. His connection to his Father’s kingdom allowed him to bless the crucified thief and forgive his killers, even as he agonized on the cross: I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:32-33, NIV). The gospel of John is particularly thorough in its discussion of the theology of living in both kingdoms at once.
The challenge of living in two kingdoms
The apostle Paul wrote eloquently on the challenge and rewards of living in both kingdoms. In his letter to the Romans, Paul lamented the conflict between the physical and the spiritual when he wrote of doing “what I hate.” Later in the New Testament Paul speaks of rejoicing in suffering, and of joy even in the midst of his pain. It is his spiritual access to the joyous reality of the kingdom of the heavens that affords him safety in the midst of suffering.
The deepest parts of both Paul and Jesus were secure in joy and peace even as their bodies were tortured and killed, because they lived in the really real kingdom as well as in the material one. You do too. You live in God’s world, and that is a perfectly safe place to be.
The child dying in famine is ushered immediately into the full world of God in which it finds its existence good and its prospects incomprehensibly grand…. There is no tragedy for those who rely on this God.
-Dallas Willard, “God and the Problem of Evil”
This post is part of the God Ideas Series.