Peter Attia is a medical doctor with an impressive resume: Stanford, Johns Hopkins, NIH, and the rest. He also wrote one of the bestselling books (so far) of 2023: Outlive. Attia is the figurehead of the longevity movement—a movement dedicated to preventative medicine, as I understand it, to enable maximum flourishing for the maximum amount of time. Among other things, Attia has designed a “centenarian decathlon”—a list of tasks he wants to be able to complete to the very end of his life. And he trains for that now. It’s a compelling vision for life: harness all that is available to you, so that you can be the person you want to be to the very end.
The longevity movement has truth in it—it is good to steward your body well. But as a vision for life? If, like me, you know people who have realigned their lives along these lines, may I suggest that it becomes quickly clear that longevity, in and of itself, is lacking. It’s turned inward, even obsessive. Longevity blindly re-appropriates the youthful delusion of invincibility at an age when maturity and empathy should have taken care of it. For all the talk of being able to serve others, it’s too small a vision. Longevity isn’t an answer in itself; it’s an extended exercise in prolonging the question.
But perhaps instead we are more compelled by the vision articulated by Marcus Aurelius, prince among Stoics, who supplied the pulsating line uttered by Maximus Aurelius in the movie Gladiator: “What we do today echoes in eternity.” If longevity is an initially attractive but ultimately truncated vision, Aurelius offers a different vision: a vision of legacy, a vision in which our works, our commitments, our dedication and our sacrifice, however much or little they are remembered, leave an imprint on the world. Legacy is the preoccupation of souls who have seen the limitations of even the grandest of their actions. Leave something. And, as with longevity, the desire to leave a legacy has some goodness in it—a desire to effect change in a broken world, to orient our lives toward the benefit of others.
But how will that legacy be judged? Will our lives be worthless if we are quietly good, only vindicated if we achieve influence? Is the life of the mother of successful children now more valuable than her sister who isn’t given children? Legacy is too vague to live for.
And some of us couldn’t care less about either longevity or legacy. When looking at life from the vantage point of struggling to find a job, involuntary downsizing, relational breakdown, illogical illness, longevity becomes a hobby and legacy vanity. We can nod politely to longevity and legacy but hold inside a resigned anger that those are not options in our own lives. And so, lethargy can set in—weariness of the constant goading to be more, to produce, to prove, to take control. Let me rest. Let me be, and let it pass until the day comes. All is vanity; let it be. Our vision for life is, honestly, weariness and lethargy.
Longevity. Legacy. Lethargy. Each taps into some measure of truth, whether an encouraging or depressing truth. But the images Jesus gives of the kingdom of heaven in two short parables provide a different way to live; a new vision for understanding our lives and work:
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:31–33, ESV)
Through the images of the tiny mustard seed and the deeply ordinary leaven, Jesus gives us a vision of life in the kingdom of heaven where tiny actions have disproportionately significant consequences. It is a paradoxically grand and humble vision, all at once.
Consider these two images. The first, the mustard seed, is a tiny, ordinary thing. It’s not a microchip; it’s a common condiment. The seed of the mustard tree is so little and ordinary that you don’t look at it twice. But in Jesus’ hands, it’s a promise. It’s a promise baked into creation: that the maker can make miracles out of nothing much more than mud. Drop this in the mud by the side of the road and give it some time, and something completely irrational will happen: it will grow exponentially, taller than a grown man and wide as you like. Birds will flock to it, to this thing that started as almost invisible, easily missed. Now it will house, feed, and beautify. The growth is exponential.
In case we missed the point, Jesus drives it in with another micro-parable. The leaven is the bit kept back from last week’s dough, with the live yeast in it. Nothing beautiful about it. Deeply ordinary. You didn’t have little sealed packs of yeast back in the day, so this was the best way to stock a kitchen. It’s a deliberately ordinary image. And what does this leaven do? It gets all mixed in with a great bunch of flour, and the little bit of leaven changes the whole lot.
That, according to Jesus, is the kingdom of heaven—deeply ordinary, yet profoundly powerful. Little actions with disproportionate, irrational outcomes. The supernatural baked into creation, showing a truth that the maker wrote in: that when he scatters the seed, the leaven, of his kingdom into his creation, ordinary things are blessed with miraculous impact. Little, unremarkable things expand into unreasonably large outcomes, and these things provide for all around them: nests for the birds, food for the house. The nature of the kingdom, Jesus is teaching us, is exponential. Small, ordinary things in the hands of the king become huge, beautiful, and pour out blessing around them. This is what will be.
But it has never been easy to believe. In the parables that surround these two, Jesus reminds us that these truths of the kingdom will be mixed up with the brokenness of our world at every step until a time he calls the end of the age—the final day of judgement.
But don’t miss this: even in this age, the Kingdom has come. We are not waiting to go, wasting our time here until we are whipped off to paradise. Jesus has come; the king has come; and he has brought the kingdom with him. So, we should ask: where is he? Where is this kingdom? Where is this holy Midas touch that turns my little obedience into righteousness and beauty and provision?
The Bible is unembarrassed to say that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, that Christ rose truly and bodily from the dead having defeated death, and that same Christ is alive and reigns right now. The king is alive, and his kingdom is not a vague hope for the future. We must wrestle with this even as it seems unbelievable, because our whole hope stands or falls on this—1 Corinthians 15 says as much.
And if Jesus has risen from the dead, if our king is alive and reigning, the kingdom is a present reality.
We tend to expect kingdoms to come one after the other, like a line neatly segmented into sections. It’s not real life—as a native of London let me inform the Americans in our readership that the British Empire actually kept growing and peaked in its power long after 1776. Biblically, the present age and the age to come are not divided by a clean break: even as we live in the last days of the present age, the kingdom of heaven has already come. Both are true. We live in the fallen, broken mess of now even as the kingdom of heaven has broken in. And the kingdom of heaven is the one that will last. All this present age will come to an end, but all that is done in and for the kingdom of heaven will last. It will not all simply burn up, but instead it will be refined. What glorifies God, bringing justice and righteousness, beauty and provision—will last.
Imagine time on a graph. After all, thinking of time as linear is a distinctively Judeo-Christian concept, at least originally. The x-axis is time stretching off into eternity. The y-axis is the righteousness, beauty, and abundant provision of the kingdom of heaven. Do we not want to see a huge jump up the y-axis, an incredibly steep climb of the line of our graph, immediately stretching up to infinite goodness, justice, mercy, and peace? We can’t, only because, when considering eternity, we’re living super close to the old age. Someday, when we look back from eternity, the jump from the fallen world to the perfect world, the time of the overlap, it will be an exceptionally steep climb. It just never feels big enough when we’re living it now. We have an appetite for it to be way up there already, but we’re still in those early days of exponential growth, the first years of compounding interest. The kingdom doesn’t look like much, but Jesus tells us that’s only a trick of perspective.
Don’t miss the big picture. Christianity has spread over the whole earth. Yes, billions profess Christ and orient their lives around him right now. Yes, among all the bad, followers of Jesus have also pursued the kingdom of heaven and poured such righteousness and justice, beauty and abundance into the world that it would be unrecognizable without the impact of the maker’s seed scattered all over his earth.
But also, don’t get distracted by the big picture. As we live close to the y-axis, we can feel that the kingdom of heaven is a distant promise, that our lives are perhaps destined for that in the future, but today—perhaps not.
Charlie Drew, a pastor in New York City, talks about the concept of our “lifework”—not only our employment, but the orientation and intentionality of our life employed in pursuit of the kingdom of heaven. This is what I mean by not getting distracted by the big picture: here, living where it can be hard to see the reality of the kingdom of heaven at work, how will we prayerfully consider our lifework? If these promises are true, how will we labor as part of Christ’s kingdom? What are the ordinary acts of faithfulness he has called us to in our areas of gifting and opportunity? He has promised wonderful things.
Do you train people? Ask what it looks like to be seed and leaven in your training. Do you raise children? Ask what it means to be seed and leaven. Do you play soccer? Trade in commercial real estate? Work in a SCIF in a super niche area of cyber security? Clean houses? Study math? Teach ESOL? These are part of your lifework. Christ has put you in that batch of flour.
So, remember that work is a witness to the people around you. But it is also more than that—it is also a good in itself. It is a way that we, the body of Christ, bring righteousness, beauty, and provision into the world—disproportionately to our weak little efforts, because God relentlessly keeps his promises. Our work is deeply important, but not alone; it is part of a big, big thing the Lord is doing through his people. And because he does not call any one of us to do it all, we are each free to do our part.
Do you know how the early church spread? After the apostles, it wasn’t so much the preachers. They weren’t nothing. But it spread through ordinary workers, traveling around the world, working, worshiping, seeing God at work, and sharing what they saw. That’s the trendline. Not grand events with momentous speeches, but ordinary faithfulness used to miraculous, irrational effect by the God who calls you to glorify and enjoy him.
And so, your labor is not in vain. Your lifework likely feels long. At times it may feel like a calling. Other times it’s a burden, or survival, or just deeply ordinary. But for everyone who is called into the kingdom of heaven, every follower of Jesus, our labor is not in vain. As we labor and act in ordinary faith, pursuing the flourishing of God’s kingdom in little, ordinary actions, God reserves the right to do irrationally miraculous things with our work. Your kindness in a tense kitchen. Your repentance in an arrogant office. Your integrity in a broken system. But not only that: your creativity in creating beauty. Your devotion to creating dignifying jobs. Your dedication to telling true stories. Your work to put a roof over your children’s heads and a kind shoulder beneath those same small heads.
These little acts of ordinary obedience are not in vain but will last and grow like that seed or that leaven. Above all, your proclamation of why you live like this; why you live into the rich variety of your endlessly creative savior’s design; content to be a small part of something made of many strange people; your consistent testimony through suffering and success, through grief and good times, that Jesus is Lord and his kingdom is at hand; this will last. The kingdom of heaven is a better vision for life. Your labor is not in vain.
In the face of the vision of Longevity, the gospel tells us not to wait until the mustard seed grows, but to get to sowing it. We may die early. We will die eventually. Longevity is an empty target unless it serves purpose. No purpose is as dynamic and attainable in every season of life than the kingdom of heaven. Seek longevity for this reason: that you might leaven as much as possible. Live healthy and live long, but not for yourself, so you can see further down the x-axis and tell of what God has done to those yet to believe it.
In the face of the vision of Legacy, the gospel takes our eyes off of ourselves and onto a bigger vision that we can only reach with others, under the lordship of Christ. The greatest legacy of impact and influence will fade unless it is ruthlessly and relentlessly redirected towards kingdom aims. Then your legacy will last and be celebrated as God works in your weakness to steward your gifts and make mammoth changes in this world. Seek a legacy, but not for yourself: that your life would be tied to the name of Christ; that it cannot be mentioned without mention and praise of him.
In the face of the weight of Lethargy, the gospel tells us that in God’s hands the tiny, unimpressive things we do faithfully will be used like loaves and fish by Christ for enormous flourishing in his kingdom. Christ comes like to little Talitha’s bedside and says, “arise!” He knows how intimidating and inaccessible the world is, and he gives us his Holy Spirit, and he makes our body his temple, his place of presence with the world. Believe his promises. Take a step into the world, into lifework that glorifies him. Get up again, even though you fell down. When he raised the little girl, he told others to bring her food. Receive help from the people of God. Join in. You are needed, and your mustard-seed sized work will be transfigured by the great miracle-worker into grace to his world. Believe it, and work at the little thing you can do. The resurrected king is alive.