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An American Passport Won’t Get You Into Heaven

Way back in 2011, a Facebook friend (let’s call him Ray) updated his status. Ray is a Christian Nigerian acquaintance. We’d attended the same business school, some ten years earlier. He had written a paragraph-length status praising God for his provision in the way of an American Green Card; a ticket to heaven!

Alright. Okay. Yes. That is a praiseworthy item. But what turned my stomach – and still irks me today – was the abundance of comments under that update, many coming from professing Christians. They profusely congratulated Ray with the theme of, ‘You’ve finally made it in life.’ Ray was now something special, something slightly more than Christian. He was – cue fanfare – an American Christian.

A Sobering Homecoming

When I returned to Lagos at the beginning of the lockdown last year, I had spent 27 years living outside Nigeria. Coming back I was vehemently convinced that Nigerians – yes, all of them – needed to be told off about their idolatrous attitude towards foreign citizenship. I had my soapbox ready, with loudspeaker in hand. My eyes were ready to roll at every mention of how it was better to live in any country outside the Nigerian borders.

In matters of citizenship, the prize for Nigerians is very often seen as a passport from a developed country

But after 11 months in Lagos – 11 months of irregular electricity supply, hours spent in avoidable traffic, cronyism and nepotism in the workplace – I think I understand a little bit better why Nigerians prize foreign citizenship.

The Nigerian Dream: Living Abroad

In matters of citizenship, the prize for Nigerians – as in many other countries in the Global South – is very often seen as a passport, or naturalised status, from a developed country. Indeed, in the same way that the American Dream has something to do with baseball and apple pies, “the Nigerian Dream is to miss home from abroad,” as someone keenly surmised.

Such an aspiration makes sense when living in a country like Nigeria. For Nigeria’s infamous corruption along with its unfair economic practices make financial security a significant challenge. They also undermine human dignity. Throw in the poor infrastructure and lack of trust between people, and you’ve got a recipe for deep discontentment.

The Nigerian Dream is to miss home from abroad.

Nigerians are no strangers to wanting to relocate. International movement is as common as the air we breath. Indeed, people across the globe have been moving for economic opportunities and missionary activities since at least the 14th century.

Going even further back, in the Old Testament, Abraham made a big move when called to do so by the one true God (Genesis 12:1–9). He left behind his personal, historical, and geographical ties to head towards the promised land.

Idolatry and ‘Ideal’ Countries

A wonderful Nigerian character trait is curiosity about international locales, which manifests itself in the desire to travel. More recently, this has turned into a longing to emigrate. Emigration is one of the ways in which the deep discontentment is managed. However, as with all good things, desire can sometimes be corrupted.

There is often a sinful or idolatrous pragmatism at play when Nigerians embark on a journey towards foreign citizenship. I noted this, to my consternation, while outside Nigeria. This is what I initially wanted to address on my return.

There is often a sinful or idolatrous pragmatism at play when Nigerians embark on a journey towards foreign citizenship

But having spent 11 short months here, I get it: West is best. The common grace of God shows itself in the presence of ideal nations on this earth. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to improve your circumstances by using what God has freely given. Having said that, though, no matter the circumstances, it is important for Christians to grow where we are planted.

When discontent had me by the throat in 2015, I learned to make Jeremiah 29:7 a mainstay. For I was not where I wanted to be. But meditating on that verse put me in a better position: intent on honouring God wholeheartedly regardless of the circumstances or location.

No matter the circumstances, it is important for Christians to grow where we are planted.

Making Idols Out of Emigration and Opportunities

In a chat about motherhood, and the lengths mothers are willing to go to for their children, an aunt of mine painted a vivid, unforgettable picture of herself holding up her kids’ passports above her head. Her eyes were closed as she repeated the prayers of the pastor who had made the altar call for those seeking opportunities abroad.

Currently, two of her three children are based in Europe. My aunt tells this story with evangelistic fervour, “there’s nothing prayer can’t achieve, my dear.” Her children’s futures are now secure.

Foreign citizenship is among the things that are not gods.

Going to such lengths for ideals is entirely normal to some. But isn’t it oddly eery how similar ‘ideal’ and ‘idol’ are? The existence of ideal nations should not draw our eyes away from God (Deuteronomy 4:19). Nor should the improvement of our circumstances through emigration lead us to boast in anything but God (Jeremiah 9:24). We must not value earthly citizenship to such a slavish extent.

Heavenly Citizenship Matters Most

Galatians 4:8 describes our past relationship to idols. Using the language of that verse, let us remember that foreign citizenship is among the things that are not gods. Furthermore, Christians are citizens of a new country (Philippians 3:20). Unfortunately, heavenly citizenship has become so familiar that it appears as a platitude. It seems this promise doesn’t really tide us over while we’re down here waiting for God to make all things new (2 Peter 3:13).

We must not value earthly citizenship to such a slavish extent

Personally, I know I would benefit from thinking more highly of heaven. But when more mature sisters pepper their speech with longings for heaven, I am nonplussed. I wonder if maybe it’s an age thing. But heaven isn’t only for old folks. And there’s no guarantee I’ll get to be as old as my more mature friends. So how do I long for heaven now?

The Puritans have been very helpful in that regard.

Meditating On Heaven With The Puritans

The Valley of Vision prayers which compare the abundance of heaven to the famine on earth are immediately arresting. The puffs of breath we live on here are contrasted to the “sweet and fresh gales” we’ll have in heaven. It’s been a heartwarming reminder that heaven is “the end of believing, fasting, praying, mourning, humbling, watching, fearing, repining.”

Our heavenly citizenship trumps any other earthly citizenship. The kingdom of heaven is infinitely better than the United Kingdom

There will be no more mourning the state of the nation; no vigils regarding passports, visas and the like; no fear of tomorrow, for our day has come; and no more pleading for our wants – for our desires will be perfectly and completely fulfilled. None of that will be present because none of that will be necessary!

That does so much more for me than visions of lions chilling with lambs.

Aiming Higher!

I’m not denying the ability to have a good life here on this earth. Travel, emigration, and foreign citizenship are all good if you can have them. Paul proves that citizenship from the country of your ideals can be useful (see Acts 16:37; 22:25–29). But he also shows us that he was willing to bin it – along with the rest of his earthly accomplishments – because he’d found something of greater worth (Philippians 3:7–10). Paul is a good example for us to follow (1 Corinthians 11:1). For our heavenly citizenship trumps any other earthly citizenship. The kingdom of heaven is infinitely better than the United Kingdom.

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