In the world, but not of it

 

By Denis Haack

 

 

Editor’s note: One of the greatest difficulties we face as followers of Christ called to minister to the cross-cultural mission field of today’s youth culture is how to find our place in the world. It’s one of the issues we get asked about here at CPYU all the time. Over the years we’ve passed on to you some of the best and most helpful thinking we’ve found on this difficult reality. In this edition of ENGAGE, we’ve chosen to pass on a wonderful article from our good friend Denis Haack. If you want to know more about Denis and his ministry with Ransom Fellowship, or to order his valuable publication Critique, visit him online at www.ransomfellowship.org.

 

 

Sometimes a simple idea can prove difficult to define—or at least difficult to define in a way everyone will agree. An example is the seemingly simple truth that God’s people are to live in the world but not be of the world. Even Christians who share a common theological heritage can differ sharply over what it should look like in practice.

 

Sometimes we differ so sharply that we question the faith of those with whom we differ. We could all list examples. Watching R-rated films. Reading Harry Potter. Private, public or home-school education. Liking rap music. Voting for the wrong party. Never missing an episode of Desperate Housewives. Driving an SUV. Using the f-word. Reading Rolling Stone. Specific issues tend to shift over time and across generations, of course, but it usually isn’t hard to find a hot button to push to awaken a sleepy Sunday school class.

 

In the world but not of it goes back to something Jesus said. In the hours before his crucifixion, he prayed for all who would believe in him. “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world,” John records him saying, “but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it” (17:15-16). A simple prayer yet within a century of his resurrection Christians were disagreeing over how to apply it to their lives.

 

This is not a theoretical issue for me. Already a Christian for quite some time, I came to a new understanding of my faith—and its relationship to life—in college through the teaching of Francis Schaeffer. Though it felt like coming home, members of my family saw it as going astray. The theological tradition in which I was raised takes holiness seriously, instilling in me a longing to please God. That tradition, however, sees an active engagement with culture as part of what Jesus included when he prayed we would not be of the world. So, when I mentioned that I love good films, a relative told me I was “dabbling in Sodom,” and said he could have only “limited fellowship” with me.

 

How we understand Jesus’ prayer has a profound impact on our lives. Loving the world and loving God are mutually exclusive. “Do not love the world or anything in the world,” he writes. “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). And Paul warns us to refuse being pressed into its mold so as to be shaped by it (Romans 12:2).

 

Since the stakes are so high, it would be wise to think the matter through carefully. And to do that we need to go to the Scriptures.

 

Life since the Fall

Beginning with the story of the Fall, the Bible reveals that we must be aware of three sources of danger or temptation: the flesh, the devil and the world.

 

Sometimes the word translated flesh (sárx) in the New Testament is used to refer to the physical body. John 1:14, for example, refers to Christ’s incarnation as the “Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Paul uses sárx to mean the bodies of human beings, animals, birds and fish (1 Corinthians 15:39). When the context places sárx in contrast with God’s will or spirit, however it refers to our fallen natures. Paul says, for example, that “the sinful nature (sárx) desires what is contrary to the Spirit” and then goes on to contrast the “acts of the sinful nature” to the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17; 19-22). Thus, in this sense the flesh is that in us which is drawn to and easily tempted to sin—a personal inner array of weakness and evil desires.

 

The devil, in contrast, represents an outer source of personal corruption. “Be self-controlled and alert,” Peter says. “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith (1 Peter 5:8-9). The devil is “our accuser” (Revelation 12:10), speaking foul of us to our Father. Sometimes we can hear echoes of his accusations when doubt or a sense of abandonment suddenly weighs us down, sapping our assurance. The attack seems to come from outside us, striking like a dart. By grace we have armor so that we are able to make a “stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:11).

 

Then there is the world. The world (kósmon) sometimes refers to the earth or to all of humanity, as when John says Christ came into the world he created (1:10), a world that God loves (3:16). Kósmon is also used in a distinctly negative way, referring to the systems, values, and ways of life which are woven into human society which are both contrary to and in active opposition to God, his word, and kingdom. This is the world we must not love, since “everything in it,” John tells us, “comes not from the Father” (1 John 2:15-17).

 

This is the wider biblical context for understanding what it means to live in the world but not be of it. Now we need to reflect biblically on what it means so we can apply it practically to daily life. We will consider two unfortunate reactions, one subtle myth and eight practical questions.

 

Two unfortunate reactions

Dick Keyes points out in Chameleon Christianity that Christians can be tempted to react to a fallen world in two unfortunate—and unbiblical—ways.

 

The first reaction is to withdraw, to pull back from the world into a subculture where life seems safer and purer. Daily life is busy, and involvement in Christian activities keeps us in a closed circle where the corrupt world is not allowed.

 

The second reaction is to accommodate, to simply go with the flow of the culture. To quietly blend in, convinced they aren’t worldly so much as simply refraining from concentrating on aspects of faith that turn non-Christians off to the gospel.

 

There are problems with both reactions. One is that they are not generated by obedience to Scripture. “Sociologists tell us,” Keyes notes, “that dissonant groups within a larger society react to reduce the potential for friction in two predictable ways. One is to compromise their distinctive beliefs and way of life and so reduce their conflict with society. The other is to keep their dissonance and tribalize, retreating within their own group and thus losing contact with society.”1 Both are motivated by fear or defensiveness.

 

Both reactions are inadequate for Christian faithfulness. There is no reason to withdraw if the gospel is the power of God; there is no reason to accommodate for the same reason (Romans 1:16). “Like rocks dropped into a pond,” Keyes says, “Christians are dropped into society. What kind of waves do they make? Jesus calls us to make waves that are positive and transforming while we simultaneously keep our distinctively Christian identity.”2 To withdraw is a practical refusal to be in the world, and to accommodate is a practical refusal to not be of the world.

 

One subtle myth

A common myth found among evangelicals confuses the issue. It’s unbiblical, but is often expressed in ways that make it sound spiritual. The myth is that life is divided between the spiritual and the material, and what is spiritual is more valuable and eternally significant. In this view, things like Bible reading, prayer, and evangelism are spiritual; things like cooking, carpentry, and selling cell phones are material. Why read fiction when you could be reading the Bible? It may be a good book, but there is something better. The problem is usually solved by spiritualizing the less spiritual things: witness while you are working as a carpenter, compose music that is sacred not secular—something like that.

 

As Ranald Macaulay and Jerram Barrs demonstrate in Being Human: The Nature of Spiritual Experience, this myth actually comes from pagan Greek beliefs. The truth is, as Francis Schaeffer said, if you set aside what the Bible identifies as sinful, for the Christian all of life is not only spiritual, it is equally spiritual.

 

Human culture began not at the Fall, but in Creation. God called all things into existence in a riot of beauty and creativity and called it very good (Genesis 1:31). Human beings are made in the image of the Creator, and thus are creative. When God brought Adam and Eve together, the result was poetry (Genesis 2:23), which God was pleased to include in his written word. Our first parents cultivated God’s good earth (which is related to the notion of culture), tenderly caring for it and adding their creativity to the world he had made (Genesis 2:15).

 

Reading Scripture is important, but when the carpenter sets aside his Bible to build a wall, this too is done to God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). As Hans Rookmaaker used to say about art, work well done needs no justification. There is no sacred/secular dichotomy for the Christian. Jesus Christ is not just Lord of the new creation (Colossians 1:18-20), he is Lord of all of creation (Colossians 1:15-17).

 

There is great freedom in this. If we are called to vocational ministry, we can be thankful. But if our calling is to something else, it is not a lesser calling. We need not spiritualize our work somehow to escape being of the world. Every legitimate vocation can be pursued to God’s glory, and can be offered in gratitude and worship. Our desire to be faithful at living in the world but not of it will not be helped if we make an unbiblical value distinction between the spiritual and the physical.

 

Eight practical probing questions

Finally, I want to provide a series of practical yet probing questions which will help us reflect on being in the world but not of it. It may seem easier to make a list of forbidden worldly activities, but lists always metastasize into legalism. Better to have questions that will turn us back to Scripture and a walk of faith.

 

1. Does the wonder of grace shape all I am and do?

If we fail to understand our sinfulness we will fail to live humbly before God and our neighbors. If we fail to understand grace we will fail to have a quiet confidence in the gospel of Christ. There is no reason for defensiveness or fear as we live in the world, because Christ has told us he has overcome it (John 16:33). And there is no reason to act aggressively superior, as if we have everything together, because we are called to humility (1 Peter 5:5).

 

It is God’s grace that makes faithfulness possible in a fallen world. Grace to be forgiven and to forgive, grace demonstrated when it isn’t deserved, grace which gives the gift of listening to people living sadly fragmented lives, grace to enter the lives of lost people who doubt any real hope is possible, grace to find creative ways to lean against the sorry effects of the Fall.

 

Only grace is sufficient to get us past our timidity, fear and defensiveness so that our lives can exhibit something of God’s love, power and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7.) Only if we believe what the Bible says about grace will we be willing to take the necessary risk of fleshing out the gospel in a world which will try to destroy us.

 

2. Am I living with integrity given the weaknesses of my flesh?

Taking sin and temptation seriously is freeing because we were made for holiness. “Just as he who called you is holy,” Peter writes, “so be holy in all you do” (1 Peter 1:15). This is not an impossible standard, but an invitation to life at its richest.

 

Jeremiah reminds us of our tendency to self-deception when he says our hearts “are deceitful” (Jeremiah 17:9). Christian community is a grace allowing us to be in relationship with fellow believers who love us enough to listen, walk alongside us, and call us to account. Being in the world can slide into being of the world when we allow ourselves, intentionally or not, to walk into situations where our flesh uses the world as an excuse to sin.

 

So, if certain films prove difficult for you, see other films. This involves far more than a dependence on the world’s ratings. Some PG-13 movies have scenes far more seductive than some films rated R. Because my wife and I know our weaknesses, there are catalogues we won’t keep in our home because they make us discontented with what we have.

 

3. Am I growing ever more discerning in our increasingly pluralistic world?

Our neighbors, co-workers, and friends do not necessarily share our deepest convictions. As beliefs and values proliferate we’ll need to develop skill in being biblically discerning, since faithfulness is more thoughtful than merely reacting according to how we feel at the moment.

 

Sometimes, for example, we find ourselves in situations where Christians would disagree. Such as when an unmarried friend asks us to help them move in with their lover. Or when a Muslim neighbor asks us to drive them to the mosque for prayers. Such situations are uncomfortable because there is no specific text which specifically addresses them. Still, God’s word must be the light for our path in all of life, not just the ones for which we can find specific texts (Psalm 119:105). It’s easy to simply react in such situations, but far better to grow in wise discernment, creatively applying the truth of the Christian world view to all of life and culture.

 

4. Am I nourishing my mind, heart, conscience, and imagination in God’s word?

If we are to be discerning and grow to maturity, we need to be not only familiar with the Bible but steeped in it. As the Scriptures are our delight they keep us from being swept away by the ideas, lifestyles and attitudes of a fallen world (Psalm 1:1-2). As God’s word written reveals the living Word, it provides “training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

 

The only way to be sensitive to the subtly ugly lies and unhealthy temptations of the world is to reflect deeply on their opposite, all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). Sometimes this text is misunderstood to mean we can only think about such things and thus need to withdraw from the world. That would mean we cannot have thoughtful relationships with sinners, since Paul’s description of them runs directly counter to this list (Romans 3:9-18). Paul is not counseling withdrawal but preparation for active engagement. The seductiveness of a fallen world fades when we are passionately in love with holiness and overwhelmed by grace.

 

5. Am I honestly probing my involvement in the systems, institutions and values of the world?

All the world’s systems and institutions are tainted by falleness, or as John puts it, “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Like the proverbial fish in water, we get used to them—after all, they’re simply there—and so fail to notice how they affect us.

 

Learning to ask hard questions can reveal our blind spots. For example, how am I subtly shaped by the values of consumerism? Do I ever buy stuff mainly to feel better after a stressful day—is it ever wise to turn stewardship into a form of therapy? How does the insistent flood of advertising make me feel discontented with what I have? Even if I claim to reject them, how do standards of attractiveness affect the way I respond to people? To what extent does the biblical concern for caring for the earth shape my political involvement? When people sit in my living room do they see a decor shaped by thoughtlessness, or the latest fashion, or a creative attempt to make people feel safe and welcome?

 

Asking hard and probing questions is disquieting, especially since it is unlikely any of us have achieved a level of holiness unspotted by the world.

 

6. Am I being intentionally redemptive in my vocation?

Regardless of our calling, we have the opportunity to grow over our lifetime in leaning against the effects of the Fall in our vocation. We can examine the unspoken assumptions and values in light of Scripture.

 

I met a nurse who worked in the department where a friend was a physician. When I mentioned his name she brightened. He is an excellent doctor, she said, but he is more than that. He even takes time to meet the lab technicians and knows them by name—most physicians never notice them. In Beyond Paradise, a friend issues a challenge to Christians in engineering, arguing that for too long technology has been measured only in terms of its effectiveness. Technology sets up ripples in social, aesthetic, and spiritual aspects of life, he argues, and Christians can take the lead to help bring this field more in conformity with biblical notions of shalom.

 

7. Am I winsomely engaging our postmodern world with the gospel?

Withdrawn Christians rarely know any non-Christians as good friends. Accommodating Christians rarely have anything distinctive to say. The New Testament allows us neither option.

 

When Paul visited Athens he was among people who did not share his Christian faith. Luke’s report in Acts 17 shows how Paul intentionally found ways to understand what the Athenians believed from within their world view. He used their authorities to begin talking about things that matter most. He used a shrine (17:23) and a truth about God from a pagan poet (who was referring to Zeus) to winsomely engage the Athenians with the gospel.

 

So, Am I finding creative windows of insight into the beliefs, values, fears and dreams of those I live and work with? Thoughtful movies can be these windows. Made by non-Christians, they provide a glimpse into the world as shaped by their world view. Good novels can do the same. Without for a moment giving up my own convictions as a Christian, such windows allow me to understand another person’s world from the inside.

 

And, Am I using points of contact to begin winsome conversations with non-Christians about the big issues of life? Paul spoke the truth but appealed to authorities the Athenians would listen to, rather than repeating the same presentation he made in Antioch when he addressed people who accepted the Bible (Acts 13:13-52). My wife and I have found, for example, that many of the postmodern generation who have contempt for Christianity are eager to talk about the music and films that touch them deeply. Good art probes into the big issues of life.

 

Popular culture is not the only window of insight and point of contact, though it is the primary one for the postmodern generation. The question, however, is not about popular art but about whether we are actively discovering and winsomely talking about the gospel in a way that our non-Christian friends can truly understand.

 

8. Where do I need to grant freedom to my fellow believers?

We don’t all have the same weaknesses. We pursue different vocations, though each is enmeshed in some way in the world. Unique callings require different windows of insight and points of contact. Therefore though we are all to be holy, faithfulness will not look identical for each believer. Your conscience may not allow you to watch a certain film with co-workers who are eagerly discussing it, but that doesn’t mean I am compromising either faith or holiness if I watch it with them. It is not diversity but sin which is forbidden.

 

In the world but not of it

Living out Jesus’ prayer in a fallen world is imperative, but it is not tidy. We dare not get swept in, and we dare not be aloof. We must be separate while being in the thick of things. And in contrast to lists of forbidden worldly things, and withdrawing or accommodating, this requires walking by faith together as the community of God’s redeemed.

 

 

Denis Haack is a visiting instructor at Covenant Seminary and director of Ransom Fellowship (www.ransomfellowship.org), which helps Christians develop skill in discernment. This article is reprinted with permission from the June/July 07 edition of byFaith, the magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America. All rights reserved.

 

1 Chameleon Christianity, p. 15.

2 Chameleon Christianity, p. 14.

 

 

 

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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.

 

©2007, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding