“Where do you stay?” If you know any South Africans, you’re likely familiar with this question. It’s the form of words they use to ask where your home is, and it has always tickled my linguistic sensitivities (OK, geekiness, if you prefer). Although the word indicates permanence and lack of movement, in this phrase it tends to imply impermanence. In the UK we use it to ask about temporary accommodation – “Where do you stay when you visit X?” – a place you inhabit for a short while before returning, or progressing, to your real home.
I recently wrote a guest post on a friend’s blog about singleness. My central thesis, born out of personal experience, was that all too often we consider singleness as a phase to be passed through before real life – married life – starts, and thus don’t really engage with it.
Assuming that, like my parents, I would marry young and spend my 20s and 30s raising a family, I drifted through the first decade after Uni as though it was one long gap year. I had fun, I worked hard, I saw a lot of the world and made a lot of friends, but somewhere in the back of my mind I maintained a sense that it was all just a prelude. It was a warm up for my real life, wasn’t it?
In my post I said that it wasn’t. This is my real life. I have to engage with it properly or I’m in danger of missing it – or wasting it.
But I’m wondering if I was wrong. After all, as the old song says, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” This lifeis the only one I’ve got, and I shouldn’t waste it, but at the same time, it really is just a prelude for my real life, isn’t it?
This is one of those (many) tensions of the Christian life. The fact that God created us and created this world for us to live in, filling it with marvellous sights and sounds, textures and tastes, making us relational and giving us relationships, designing us to feel hunger and providing food to satisfy that hunger suggests that he wants us to engage fully with this world. Yet the fact that human relationships can never meet our deepest needs, nor food end our hunger, nor a month of stunning sunsets satisfy our desire for beauty, leads serious thinkers to deduce that there must be something more.
CS Lewis imagined what this might be like in The Great Divorce, his narrator describing his fellow passengers to ‘the High Country’ like this:
Now that they were in the light, they were transparent… They were in fact ghosts: man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air… I noticed that the grass did not bend under their feet; even the dew drops were not disturbed.
Then some re-adjustment of the mind or some focussing of my eyes took place, and I saw the whole phenomenon the other way round. The men were as they had always been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps. It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.
Contrary to common understanding, heaven (or the new Earth) is not less substantial but more so. Not a place where desires and appetites and tastes and textures go away, but where they are more real, and more fully satisfied. The present earth is not more solid than the next one, but less.
We instinctively embrace this understanding when things are going wrong, invoking 2 Cor 4:17-18:
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
But when things are going well, when we’re pursuing our goals, achieving our ambitions or simply enjoying the delights of this world, it’s hard to remember that this isn’t it. We want our trials to be temporary, but not our joys – it’s just frustrating that our joys seem so determined to be fleeting.
The fact that several married people as well as singles have commented that my singleness post resonated with them suggests to me that many of us live with this sense of not quite being there yet. When we’ve paid off the mortgage, when the kids have left home, when we’ve got that next promotion, or achieved that next goal, then, we think, we will be able to really start living.
The challenge is to remember that there is nothing in the world that can make us feel fully engaged. Nothing except Jesus. When we’re focussed on living for him, serving him and feeling his pleasure, then we can be fully alive on this earth, while still filled with anticipation for the next. We can make the most of our stay, without mistaking it for our home.
This post originally appeared on WhatYouThinkMatters.