(you’re going to get halfway through this article and wonder if I’m ever going to get around to the Bible; don’t worry, I will)

I make no secret of my disdain for most country music. Most of it is uninspired, cliché-riddled nonsense about tractors and beer, all sung with a faux-twang that makes me want to rip my abnormally large ears off my slightly pointed head.

But I do love me some Johnny Cash.

I love him particularly because he wrote words first, and only after writing the words did he find a way to build a song around them. Other great musical talents like John Lennon and Paul McCartney famously created the licks first and then wrote lyrics to go around them. Not Cash. Johnny Cash was a storyteller and, in my opinion, he is one of America’s greatest storytellers, who just happened to spin his yarn with a guitar and a pick in his hands.

The man recorded music for nearly fifty years, from the time he first stepped into Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in 1955, to the final year of his life, 2003, when he put the final touches on a series of stripped-down, “just a man and his guitar” albums for producer Rick Rubin. Having been out of the country music spotlight for over a decade, and watching as “country music” devolved into “hick rock,” Cash realized he had no place on the radio anymore. With the end of his life approaching, Johnny Cash decided to devote his final years to singing the songs he wanted to sing the way he wanted to sing them.

His final songs (dubbed “the American recordings”) were written and released between 1994-2003 (with a few coming later, after he died) and feature a reminiscent look at the old cowboy songs and stories he grew up hearing and singing, as well as reflections on spirituality and his perspective on the world, after living in it for seven decades.

One of those songs was a tune he actually wrote and recorded way back in 1976, when he was still trying to be a contemporary artist. The tune was peppy, the tone upbeat, and the arrangement made the lyrics sort of disappear behind the music. He re-recorded the song in 1994, with a much more poignant approach, allowing the words of his story to shine brightly.

The song is called “No Earthly Good.”

A few days ago I wrote a devotional with the same title. The point of that article was to say “if we follow Jesus, the world will have no use for us. We’ll be no good to the world.” There’s another way to look at it, though.

Read what Cash wrote…

Come heed me, my brothers, come heed, one and all
Don’t brag about standing or you’ll surely fall
You’re shining your light and bright-shine it you should
But you’re so Heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good

If you’re holding Heaven, then spread it around
There are hungry hands reaching up here from the ground
Move over and share the high ground where you stood
So Heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good

The Gospel ain’t Gospel until it is spread
But how can you share it where you’ve got your head
There’s hands that reach out for a hand if you would
So Heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good

If you’re holding Heaven, then spread it around
There’s hungry hands reaching up here from the ground
Move over and share the high ground where you stood
So heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good

(to hear him sing it, click here)

The word picture is painted of a Christian so in love with the idea of Heaven that he does nothing more than think about being there. His head’s in the clouds as he ponders the bliss to come in the ever after. And as he goes about his day, daydreaming about his reward, he fails to notice all the people in need around him, he fails to do any good that he could on his way to Heaven. His love for God gives him such a high, allows him to shrug off any attack from the Devil, and helps him endure all manner of hardships. He’s shining that light bright, but he’s passing by everyone who could use a little of that light, too.

The song is a powerful rebuke, told gently, against self-satisfied Christianity.

It reminds me of Paul’s command to the Thessalonians, a people who—similar to the man in question in the song—were so focused on the coming of the Lord, they had stopped doing the work of the Lord in the meantime here on earth.  Paul has to say, effectively, “if they don’t buckle down and get to work, they shouldn’t mooch off the ones who do” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

It also makes me think of the Lord’s chilling warning to those who will hear Him say “depart from Me” at Judgment Day: It will be those who did not feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit the sick, etc (Matthew 25:41-46). Those people who refused to feed and clothe and visit might’ve been bad people who simply didn’t want to help others. On the other hand, maybe they were just too busy thinking about their own reward-to-come that they failed to help others who didn’t yet have that reward for themselves. They were so heavenly minded, they were no good on earth.

May it not be said of us.

~ Matthew