One of those phrases which are said far too often and almost flippantly, are believers, Christians, are “to be in the world but not of the world.” Usually it is a teacher or someone who is attempting to make a point through the use of this phrase, but no real, concrete explanation is ever given which would give meaning to the aphorism.
The listener is somewhat perplexed and unsure how to alter their behavior, so they can then avoid being “of the world.” I’m sure, in many instances, the frustration builds, and no attempt is made to alter their life. Thoughts of finding some kind of camouflage may even immediately be considered to avoid being detected . . . .by anyone!
While this saying usually sounds so much wiser than the wisdom actually imparted, the Apostle Paul, in the letter to the Romans, wrote to them saying, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect”(Romans 12:2 ESV).
The saying, “being in but not of the world,” is not in the Bible, but the principle is. The Apostle Paul, after spending eleven chapters informing the church in Rome of God’s plan, of how God chose people to be His in spite of the fact every single person had rejected Him and had chosen to worship the inferiority of creation rather than Him; He made a decision to choose some of us anyway.
Paul then demonstrated how on our own, no one would be able to come to Him through His Son. He then gave the example of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah—and how God will stillsave a remnant who will accept His Messiah Jesus. Then Paul concludes by telling the Roman Christians they should, as an act of worship, “present [their] bodies as a living sacrifice” which is their natural, spiritual worship response as a saved, redeemed people.
Okay, so far so good. Yet just as the saying of “we’re in the world but not of the world” sounds really cool in concept, how exactly does this occur? Paul doesn’t hesitate, but quickly adds the way, the mechanics which will allow this to occur: through “the renewal of our minds.”
When computers first started to become the ubiquitous necessity they are now, there was an aphorism that was immediately recognizable and understood: “Garbage in, garbage out!” If you enter bad data, you will never—and have no hope of ever—get good data from the computer.
Paul understood this was true of people as well. We are created beings and the One who created us knows how we are made and what is needed for us to function well. While Paul is writing to Christians, this principle is true of all of humanity. If you eat junk food, if you consume violent or risqué media, do not be shocked when the cigarettes you smoke make you wheeze, the donuts keep you from seeing your toes and the media you allow in your mind affects your ability to think clearly and function normally.
One other note: the Greek word translated as conformed gives us the ability to understand this conformity with the world that literally “fashions us together with” the world so we cannot be separated from it. This is the same idea in camouflage. Regardless of who you are, you have made the choice to “blend in” so well, you cannot and will not be distinguishable from your surroundings.
So, let’s return to our confusing little homily: “in the world yet not of the world.” As believers in Jesus Christ, as those who Paul says have been “recreated” by the Spirit, we are literally “no longer of this world.” Just as a diver must wear an air tank, a mask and flippers to propel him through the water and to keep him alive, believers must breath faith, consume God’s Word, and we must depend on the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christians are to be different. “Different” does not mean weird! Different means we exist through our faith, we are sustained by God’s Word and we find our energy, our power through the Holy Spirit. As we use our faith, consume God’s Word and live by the Spirit’s power, we will find our conformity will be to Jesus Christ. Paul even said this clearly that every believer is “to be conformed to the image of His Son.”
We are “in” not “of.” The only way we can exist “in” is for us to “look like” Jesus Christ—literally, for people to “see Jesus,” when they see us.
Now that’s some great camouflage!
We’ve all said something like this: “They are their own worst enemy.”
What motivates us to make this kind of observation? Usually it’s due to individuals who seem to be captive of their own weaknesses which they either cannot see or cannot overcome.
Yet even while we may shake our heads as we walk away from someone who should have known when to stop talking, we must always keep this in mind: we are no different than they are. There are times in everyone’s life when we are simply unable to determine where we are or what we’re doing.
No matter how aware we believe ourselves to be, no matter how we may even pride ourselves on our ability to understand the consequences of our actions, time and again we demonstrate our inability to often see what is proverbially directly in front of us. It is almost as if our brains seem to work against our efforts to interpret our circumstances.
Here’s the scenario: your wife has sent you upstairs to get a particular cleaner out of the closet (usually due to the fact you had the audacity to appear to be “un-busy” while she is busily “doing something”). You are familiar with this cleaner; you know what colors the bottle has on it, you even are familiar with the size and shape of the bottle, so off you go to check another victory off your list!
Unfortunately, the cleaner isn’t in the closet. You looked. It wasn’t there. So, you inform your wife that it isn’t in the closet (usually by increasing the volume of your voice so it will reach your wife who is still downstairs). After mere moments have passed, your wife comes to you. Of course, you are prepared for your vindication. You are confident of your situational assessment. You are prepared to receive your prize (trust me, this is a guy thing).
Reality, in these moments, becomes simultaneously displeasing and disappointing. Your wife reaches into the closet and turns to you and places the cleaner into your disbelieving hands. She then goes back downstairs while muttering an esteem-destroying narrative which further weakens one’s grip on one’s man-card….
So, you are standing there with the bottle of cleaner, attempting to process the reality of your ignominy, and you cannot fathom how you could be so wrong! And judging by the continued muttering of your wife downstairs, neither can she.
If your inability to have seen the cleaning bottle was a physical issue, this would have been referred to as a scotoma, a physical blind spot in one’s vision which makes one unable to see anything in the center of one’s vision. Yet very few people have a true diagnosed scotoma; while everyone has a blind-spot in their field of vision, few have the debilitative sort.
The reason our “man” example could not see the cleaner was a kind of scotoma, a mental one. I’ve done this very thing. The reason we do not see the very object for which we are searching is our minds have given us an image for which we were looking! If what our “eyes” see does not match our mental image, our brain immediately dismisses what is before us.
We are seeking. We desire to find a particular object. Yet because of what we are thinking our brain says it isn’t there!
It happened. We’re in the water but we don’t know it.
We have become our own worst enemy.
For the believer in Jesus Christ, this should cause us great chagrin and even alarm. If our minds so readily dismiss the reality in which we live simply because we have the wrong image of reality, how can we know we know? How can we avoid being our own worst enemy?
In Romans 8:26, the Apostle Paul informs us through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (ESV).
Because God created us and because He knows us completely, He has placed His Spirit within everyone who has a relationship with Him through the Son Christ. One of the most overlooked benefits of the presence of the Spirit in the life of a believer is the Spirit, who is God, knows what we need—and what we should know—better than we do.
Perhaps we should remember the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the 1990 movie Total Recall: “How do we know this isn’t a dream?”
There is great power and strength in our relationship with Christ! No, this doesn’t mean we must all live in fear of spoiling our relationship with Him because of what we could do. A few verses after the above reference, Paul adds that nothing in the list he gives “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39 ESV).
So the next time you are looking for something you know you should be able to find, remember the gift God has given us so we can always find Him, we can always know His will and we will never be able to make any decision which will separate us from the love He has given to us in Christ through His sacrifice.
We will have defeated the enemy within us: ourselves.
Ok, sure, I’m a pastor……
While some of you make think that’s great, far fewer may think it’s cool and perhaps many of you may think I only work one day a week, I can boil the most visible part of my job (the teaching part) down to a very simple parallel: I’m a mailman.
Now unlike the guy who drops off your mail at your home or business, I read your mail; I read it for my information and I in turn read it to you. I have even gone to school to learn how to read your mail properly and accurately! I have become an expert in reading your mail because the mail of yours which God has sent to you was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek! I guess I am an expert at reading God’s mail addressed to people!
Now since it is the Bible which identifies what sin is (at the behest and will of God) I am bound by my relationship with God through Jesus Christ the Son to deliver His Word (His mail, if you will) truthfully. For me to not tell you what His Word identifies as sin would lack integrity and love. It lacks integrity because I am purposely and willfully hiding the Truth of God from those who want and need to hear what God says. It lacks love because I do not really love you if I won’t tell you what God says.
The Bible says divorce, lying, cheating, murder and overeating (among others) are all sin. It also says homosexuality, abortion and same-sex sexual relationships of all kinds are also sin. All of these actions (and I have not listed them all) are all sin and God views them all equally as rebellion against Him.
Remember, I’m the mailman!
Do I believe these things are sin? Yes I do. I also believe the Bible when it says, “All have sinned and missed God’s intended target of perfection (sinlessness).” Even in the Jewish Old Testament (the first part of the Holy Bible) a prophet many hundreds of years before Jesus stated, “There aren’t any righteous people anywhere; everyone has sinned.” This means every single person is guilty and there isn’t a single human anywhere who isn’t guilty of sin—we are all equally guilty!
This means when I identify a particular act as sin, I must do so knowing there isn’t any sin the Bible identifies which would be beyond my ability to do. I am capable, under the right circumstances and the right temptations to engage in overeating, divorce, homosexuality and lying. True, some things are fairly easy to do while others may take much more motivation, but I am capable of any and all sin.
So this is where I am: I’m a full-blooded human with all of the capabilities and predilection to commit sin. I am also a pastor; I am fulfilling God’s design and plan for me through ministering to people and teaching them about God’s Word and the good news of His Son. My role often means I put on my “Captain Obvious” cape and identify as I teach the Bible what the Bible calls sin.
Yet this is the important part: I must do so without personally judging anyone in the process. If it wasn’t for God’s grace and His power in my life (it’s all God and Jesus!) I could be caught up in the same things the Bible states is sin. If I am who I claim (a pastor and a believer in Jesus Christ) then there should be evidence of my claim. If I live like there is no evidence of who I claim to be, at best I am a liar and at worst I am severely deluded!
Why is any of this important? Because as I live my life, I am to make Jesus real in an unreal world! This world is unfair, unjust, cruel, brutal, out-of-control and often incredibly stressful. Believers (those with a relationship to God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son) must hold their faith and their testimony to others carefully and gently. We must desire to have every part of our lives testify and proclaim who Jesus is in our life.
This also means we must understand even in our obedience to God’s Word and His Son we must allow those who do not believe as we do see the love of God in our life. Will this remove all of the misunderstanding and hatred we may face because of our desire to be obedient?
Unfortunately it will not; just as there will be those who will absolutely hate my identification of what some people are doing as sin even in this blog, I have to remember it really isn’t about me. I am to obey and sometimes in the process of obedience, I will become a target of opportunity by those who dislike what the Bible (and me in this context) says.
Yet they better see God’s love in everything I do. Otherwise, I am in danger of being judged by the same God I claim to be serving!
Back in 1958 Eugene Burdick and William Lederer wrote the book The Ugly American. It told the story of the hapless efforts of the United States in a fictional country in Southeast Asia (widely regarded to represent the US efforts in Vietnam) in the attempts of America to fulfill its quest to “contain” Communism and therefore continue to implement Truman’s famous doctrine.
Originally, the desire of the authors was to write a factual study, but the publishers persuaded them to transition to a work of fiction. In doing this they were afforded greater creativity and even more freedom to both apply their version of “truth” as well as greatly expanding the means by which their work could be disseminated among various competing ideologies. In other words, the work became a tool for those who espoused a decidedly anti-American and anti-Western philosophy.
Sadly, Burdick and Lederer accurately portrayed the reality of the American efforts in this region of the world. Neil Sheehan in his book A Bright Shining Lie further highlights the incredible incompetence spawned by unchecked bureaucracy during the Vietnam War. The cold reality dogging American efforts was reflected in the words of the Apostle Paul, our “good was evil spoken of.”
In many ways, Christians today are far too often and too easily viewed as ugly. In my own denomination, there seems to be this almost puerile obsession with the habits of those outside of Christianity yet all the while they are oblivious to the ugly and insidious nature of the accepted behaviors within Christianity. What is sad is many of these unattractive attitudes and practices come from those who are regarded as leaders and pastors.
Many of the problems arise from the assumptions made of those professing the name of Christ. A whole industry has been built to fortify an almost revisionist-style history portraying the United States as a country began with solely Christian values. While the underlying philosophy of our founding fathers was a definitely a Judeo-Christian paradigm, we were not and are not now a Christian nation.
There were many of our founders and leaders who were familiar with Christian nomenclature and philosophy—some even reared by strongly Christian parents—yet for every reference point given to “prove” the evangelical bent of these men there are equally as many proofs countering those claims. Even though evangelical Christianity did not infuse every one of our founders, there were many genuine Christians among our founders.
So should those who are Christian handicap themselves by not referring to the importance of Christianity on the formation of this country? Not at all; yet Christians cannot continue with their arrogant attitudes and patronizing actions if they (including myself) truly desire to reach those who do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
I wouldn’t want you to think I am immune from such silliness either. Far too often I “catch” myself thinking some incredibly stuffy thought and then something inside me (I believe it is the Holy Spirit who resides in all who have a relationship with Christ) points out my foolishness. My plan is to write a “series” (I usually can’t stand multi-part anything; I’m making attempts at maturity here so bear with me . . . . .) dealing with the subject began in this post.
My desire is the same as the United States Senator Adlai Stevenson: “Today, I come to you with the task of speaking; your task is that of listening. Let us hope we all end at the same time.”
Hey, it’s a hope!