A strand of thought in Holy Scripture seems to harbour a certain wariness about the city. It appears to be the place of nefarious intrigue, danger, and ungodliness. And sure enough, every city has its shadowy haunts of the sinister and criminal, and its ugly dens of wickedness. The city can be a jungle of violence and lurking threat and pose its residents with moral and physical peril. Wariness is well practiced in an urban environment. Companions have to be carefully chosen. Personal security is imperative. Naivety and innocence are not apt for city life. Wherever humans congregate there is menace and misery. The word of God holds out the prospect of the Eternal City in complete contrast to the earthly city where the people of God, dwelling in the Lord as our environment, enjoy safety, peace, provision, and fulfilment under his gentle reign of love forever. In heaven the city is cleansed of all evil and harm. Its citizens live in perfect mutual affection and harmony and night will not cast its gloom over the redeemed community, loneliness will no longer bring its pain to the human breast. The Scottish theologian D.M. Baillie writes movingly of his periods of languor and loneliness. It is a human hangover from the Fall, our occasional and lingering discomfort due to our breach with God. It will prevail until he dwells fully within us and we in him.
Augustine of Hippo writes endearingly of his mother, Monica. He admires and is indebted to her piety and prayer. He observes that as a believer she has experienced spiritual deliverance from Babylon, the symbol of the city of man where sin, deceit, and every species of corruption has captured the heart of every inhabitant. She, through conversion, has made that decisive move from the heart of Babylon, but as a sinner still the influences of Babylon remain in her heart. Like all Christians awaiting our sinless perfection in heaven her son describes her as “lingering in the suburbs of Babylon”.
Our original citizenship and character still clings to us throughout our pilgrimage to the City of God. The king has given us our entitlement to admission and we are sure of our entry because he has written our permit, but old habits will haunt us and harass us until we stand on the threshold of the Beautiful Gate. Then the gruesome traits of our fallen nature will be finally torn away and we will make glad steps into the Kingdom of Righteousness.
Until then we must realize that indwelling sin wreaks its baneful effect in the life of every child of God. We discover the depths of evil within us that were never suspected, and the awful potential of our insecurity, selfishness, and lack of love, and while the Holy Spirit checks these tendencies as much as he reveals them, they do disturb and distress us to the degree that they continue to prompt our attitudes and action. Sin is subtle and pervasive. Unknowingly it still moves us in various ways and we are gradually educated in the reality of our plight and the welcome excessiveness of divine mercy that swamps our depravity with healing grace. The magnitude of our sinfulness and helplessness gives opportunity for the exercise of magnificent compassion. Our moral deficit attracts his infinite generosity. The debts of our reckless past, and the accrual of debits in our present, are remitted by the keeper of accounts himself. Every payment is made by him and charged to his wealth. He smiles over every entry and cancels the default of every broke Babylonian who appeals to him for favour.
Given that we still linger in the suburbs of Babylon we must be wary of the remnant traces of its influence. The city is filled with greed, rivalry, envy, cruelty, and sinful gratification. Babylon’s urges and appetites remain even if they seem latent for a time. They are like sprites that leap upon us without warning. Babylon as our hometown has accustomed us to its mores and ways to such a degree that we regard them as normal and yield to them unquestioningly and even instinctively. Until awakened by divine conviction we do not even account them as wrong. We do not perceive that nature has been radically perverted and that what is now “natural” is in opposition to the nature and will of God (Romans 8:5-8). At a depth beyond conscious detection affections, desires, reactions are operative. Used to our “normal” selves we do not identify ourselves as fundamentally flawed. Self examination only comes in the process of sanctification, when utterly dissatisfied with self we turn to our Healer and Deliverer and cry urgently for rescue from self in earnest repudiation of our treacherous ego and its death dealing drives.
Sin is our twisted and inordinate self love. One of its manifestations is the craving for fame and grandeur – or a piece of the glory that is rightfully God’s alone. The desire is explicit so often in the candid enunciation of personal ambition. Celebrity is the preoccupation and false god of our spiritually impoverished era. The souls of the Pharisees were in peril because of their yearning for human praise and the admiration of their fellows. The trait is ineradicable, humanly speaking, until rooted out by a pure adoration of God. The Babylonian instinct that Augustine saw in his mother was her craving for his academic success as the priority of his life and perhaps as a sure way to God. The essence of Babylon’s evil was false worship – worship of the self, the creature, and creaturely accomplishments. The Biblical warnings against idolatry remain pertinent, especially for believers.