The Church and the world have always had a complex relationship. The tension is evident throughout Scripture. For example, when “the world” refers to that which God freely willed into existence, including human beings, in and through the Logos of Christ (John 1:1), then “the world” is good, and it is right and just to promote its flourishing. If, on the other hand, “the world” refers to human artifices that run contrary to God’s purposes—think, paradigmatically, of the Tower of Babel and Sodom and Gomorrah—then it is to be opposed at all costs (cf. Rom. 12:2). So how, then, can we discern the difference between the two? How do we know if we are inhabiting the dark world that hates Christ and his disciples (John 15:18) or the luminous world that abides in God’s salvific mercy (John 3:17)?
Part of the challenge in marking the distinction is that sin has so corrupted our minds and hearts that we consistently mistake one world for the other. It is perennially tempting, for example, to conflate the side of the angels with what’s most popular. However, Scripture consistently warns that popularity has no intrinsic relationship with God’s will; indeed, the popular will is frequently the vehicle of madness and destruction—just call to mind Jesus’ public “trial” before his Passion and Crucifixion. Moreover, despite the Prosperity Gospel’s siren songs, the Cross of Christ also definitely repels the idea that truth and goodness necessarily inhabit the same place as wealth and comfort.
An equally dangerous temptation is believing that following God’s will is tantamount to declaring oneself to be on the side of Christ. Jesus specifically warns against this form of self-righteousness in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” It’s not so simple, however, to know exactly what constitutes “doing the will of the Father.” It certainly means abiding by the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, which includes a blessing for those who are peacemakers (Matt. 5:9); however, the same Lord also declares that following him will inexorably lead to conflict and division (Matt. 10:34-36). Doing the will of the Father also entails caring for the poor, as we see in Matthew 26:40: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” However, we can never assume that performing charitable works guarantees one’s good moral standing before God, a fact we see not only in Christ’s condemnation of those who give to the poor for the wrong reasons (Matt. 6:2), but also in Christ’s chastisement of his disciples for insisting that it would have been better to sell the oil used to anoint him and donate the proceeds to the poor (Matt. 26:6–13).
So if neither popularity, nor declarations of fidelity, nor even performing charitable works are sure signs of being on “God’s side” in the world, where can we turn—what signs can we look for—to have any assurance?
One biblical answer is fruitfulness. The metaphor captures not only growth but sustained growth over time—both in numerical expansion and inter-generational reproduction. As Bishop Barron has often remarked, the Bible is acutely concerned with numbers, which we see, for example, in the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 (Matt. 14:13), the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1), and the frequent new-convert headcounts St. Luke provides in Acts of the Apostles (e.g., Acts 4:4). A sign of being aligned with God’s will is thus belonging and contributing to a community that is bearing fruit: people are joining, staying, creating new life, and raising their children to do the same. Conversely, a reliable sign that one is inhabiting a false world—residing in a religious or secular society that is opposed to God’s will—is that the community is dying both in space (it’s getting smaller) and intergenerationally (it’s not reproducing).
It’s crucial to note that a moribund community’s demise can be difficult to detect in the short term; such societies often possess prodigious wealth and wield great power. In addition to employing fear, they incentivize submission by offering access to physical and psychological pleasures. Likewise, a growing community that abides in God’s favor can also be hard to spot. Jesus employs the parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31) to emphasize this point: like children in the womb, the tree that gives life starts small and is thus easy to miss. Yet unlike its worldly counterparts, Christ assures that it will grow larger than all others because it has put down robust roots in good soil (Matt. 13:3-9)
Where, then, do we see new and durable growth in our world? Where do we see a desire to give, sustain, and nurture new life, especially when it entails individual and communal sacrifice? Alternatively, where do we see desiccation and obsoletion, even if affluence and technology are concealing the decay? Where are the parishes flourishing even amidst economic hardship and persecution? Where are they dwindling even amidst material plenty? Where, regionally, is the Church growing? And where is it contracting? Politically, which societies live for the future, and which live only for the present?
Scripture teaches that the answers to these questions not only have sociological significance. They are revelatory of a theological and moral reality: the world that is opposed to God is parasitic. Feeding off the fruit of the good, it can expand for a time, even a long time. But because it is morally and ontologically futile, it ultimately cannot reproduce. It eventually depletes what it has colonized from the garden of life and either dramatically collapses or slowly dies of starvation. This is true in both the Church and the world: movements that contradict God’s will are always on borrowed (or, better put, stolen) time. They rise and die out. The good, on the other hand, is inexhaustibly productive because it is grounded in the infinitely self-giving God. As such, its nature is to grow, expanding by both attraction and propagation. It will perdure and, when necessary, regenerate.
So where is God in the world today? Be on the lookout for where people are not only saying the right things and doing the right things, but where there is also a palpable sense of growth, or the possibility of regrowth, even (or especially) in the face of opposition. There, you will find the Spirit building and rebuilding the true kingdom in the world amidst and atop the sterile ruins of human conceit.