One of the most helpful quotes that I have encountered is from the Scottish Puritan Samuel Rutherford. He said, “Live in Christ, and you are in the suburbs of heaven.” The reason I have found this quote so helpful is because it addresses one of my greatest struggles, namely, the struggle for joy in the midst of the circumstances of life. This may be hard to see if we read Rutherford’s quote with twenty-first-century eyes. The word suburban has become freighted with a great deal of baggage in our day. Many think of the suburbs with utopic ideals. They want to escape the messy realities of city life, and they see the more manicured communities of suburbia as the answer. Others think of the suburbs more negatively. For missional reasons, perhaps, they look with suspicion at the suburbs and those who would choose to leave the “white-unto-harvest fields” of the city for the sake of convenience or space. While it is true that Rutherford’s quote conjures up any number of images in the minds of twenty-first-century readers, it is also true that Rutherford had none of these things in mind when he wrote about the “suburbs of heaven” in the seventeenth century. Heaven is not, for Rutherford, a messy place from which people need to escape. It is instead the “land of praises” and “the fairest of created paradises.” It is the one place where there is “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).
When Rutherford uses the phrase “the suburbs of heaven,” therefore, he is not speaking politically or even missionally; he is speaking geographically. He is talking about proximity. Those who live in the suburbs are those who live as close to the city as they can get without actually being in the city. That is Rutherford’s point. When you and I “live in Christ,” there is, as he next says, “but a thin wall between [us] and the land of praises.” When we “live in Christ,” we place ourselves just outside heaven’s gates. We are as close to heaven as we can get without actually being there. We are in the suburbs. And in the suburbs, we experience something of the “fullness of joy” and the “pleasures forevermore” that Psalm 16:11 talks about. To be sure, we do not experience them perfectly. That reality is reserved exclusively for heaven. But you and I can get close, and we can experience genuine joy and real and lasting pleasure in this life. And when we do, we are in the “suburbs of heaven.”
The Practices of Life in Christ
Over the years, as my children have grown, as my career has progressed, as my marriage has developed, as my body has aged, and as my bills have mounted, I have found that one of the greatest struggles I face in life is the struggle to find joy in Christ rather than in the particular circumstances I am experiencing at the moment. Rutherford’s quote reminds me that although the perfect joy of heaven is not available to me yet, the real joy and lasting pleasure of the “suburbs” is mine for the taking. All I need to do, according to Rutherford, is to “live in Christ.”
But what exactly does it mean to “live in Christ”? From what I know of Rutherford and of Scripture, I would say that two main practices are involved in trying to “live in Christ.” First, we need to remind ourselves that those of us who believe are “in Christ” and, as such, are “new creation[s]” or “new creature[s]” (2 Cor. 5:17) and recipients of all the blessings and benefits that Christ has procured (Eph. 1:4–14). We need to remind ourselves that when we have Christ, we have everything, and that when we do not have Christ, we have nothing. Jesus really is the “hidden treasure” and the “pearl of great value” of Matthew 13:44–46. Those who find Him know that they have found everything and are therefore willing to forsake all else in order to have Him. We need to remind ourselves of these things because we so quickly forget—maybe not so much intellectually as experientially. These things cease to have weight in our lives. They cease to affect us the way that they once did. Reminding ourselves of them is the first thing we need to do in order to “live in Christ.”
But we also need to apply these great truths to our lives. And that is the second practice for us to “live in Christ.” Reminding ourselves of the great and glorious truths of the gospel is only part of what we need to do. We also need to work them out in our everyday lives. We need to apply them to our thinking and to our doing. We need to let them affect the way we think about ourselves, our sin, and our relationships with God, with others, and with the world around us. If it is true, as Rutherford argues, that the gospel says that you and I are “at the worst a sinner, and but a sinner, and a sinner is nothing to Christ,” then how does this truth work itself out in our everyday lives? How does it inform the way we see ourselves and the world in which we live? How is it paradigm-shifting? The English Puritan John Owen used to say that there is a big difference between knowing the truth and knowing the power of the truth. When we focus on applying the verities of the gospel to our lives, we are getting closer to actually experiencing the truth, which is what Owen, and many other Puritans, had in mind. We need to wear ourselves out in meditating on the things about which we have been reminded and in thinking through how they apply in our lives.
Repentance and Our Joy
If it is true that we are “in Christ” and “new creations,” our practiced application of that truth to our lives will involve repentance. Ever since Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses and nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg, continual repentance has been distinctive of faith and practice in the Reformed community. Luther’s first thesis put it this way: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance” (Matt. 4:17). Luther recognized that at least part of what it means to “live in Christ” is that Christians will be continually engaged in the practice of repentance. This repentance is to be characterized by a turning away from our sins and a turning toward Christ, not only in terms of our behavior but also in terms of our affections. To repent, therefore, is not only to change our behavior but to change our heart allegiance, to tear our affections away from illicit things, striving to give them to those things that God has commanded us to give them to. And this is something that we are to do for the entirety of the Christian life.
To “live in Christ,” then, is to live in continual repentance, to keep our affections fixed upon Christ. This is the road that leads to real joy and lasting pleasure, as we can see in the following example taken from marriage. The pathway to my joy in marriage is for me to keep my heart and my affections fixed on my wife. The degree to which I allow them to run after other women or even other things is the degree to which I will lose the joy in my marriage (and, quite possibly, a whole lot more). So also in the Christian life, the pathway to joy is to keep my heart and my affections fixed on Christ. The degree to which I allow them to run after other “lovers” (idols such as material possessions, worldly success, reputation, self, etc.) is the degree to which I will lose my joy in life. To “live in Christ” is, therefore, to strive to keep my heart and my affections fixed upon Christ, to tear them away from “other lovers” when my heart goes astray—and my heart will go astray time and again. The degree to which I give myself to these two practices, especially to repentance and joy in Christ, is the degree to which I will find myself experiencing whatever “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” are possible this side of heaven. It is the degree to which I will find myself living in the “suburbs of heaven.”
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on April 2, 2018.