While watching an entertainment talk show recently, I saw an astonishing interview with a popular actress. I say ‘astonishing’ because it would have been nearly impossible to guess her profession from her blank stare and hesitant, stuttering responses. This young woman simply had no idea how to answer the interviewer’s questions – and the questions were not all that challenging. I have seen her in wonderfully engaging roles, where she portrays her characters with vivid clarity and wit. However, when she has no “lines,” when she herself must generate a thought and the words to convey that thought, she is utterly lost – a beautiful yet vacuous clay figurine.
Her performance (or lack thereof) is indicative of our cultural condition. We, as a collective body, have become numbed by the constant barrage of media impulses – whether television, radio, or far more likely today, the Internet. We just don’t think for ourselves as much as we used to – as much as we used to have to. The “talking heads” do our thinking for us, providing us with our “lines” which we file away and retrieve as needed whenever we feel compelled to assert or defend a particular position. In the event we have not heard the “official” line from those whom we have entrusted to do our thinking for us, we have no idea whatsoever how to respond. When they do speak, the views we hear most often, most often become our own. As Christians, sadly, we are fundamentally the same.
We, as the collective Body, profess faith in God. We proclaim our earnest desire to honor Him in our lives, and we acknowledge that His Word, the Bible, is the ultimate source of wisdom. At least, we profess such things on Sunday mornings. In the “real world,” however (and many of us regularly, if subconsciously, make such a distinction), our words and our actions betray an entirely different worldview. When confronted with moral dilemmas or practical decisions, we rely more on those cultural impulses than we do on the imprint of the Holy Spirit on our hearts and minds.
Rather than empirically collecting data and rationally analyzing that data to reach conclusions consistent with our professed convictions, we merely parrot back what we have passively ingested through the many unguarded channels to our minds. Like our young actress, we say our lines and act out our parts in a play that is scripted by an entertainment / technological complex which is openly hostile to Christianity, against a backdrop of an intellectually tepid Church with no stomach for confrontation, on a set littered with sensual indulgences and wanton excess. Our decisions are made for us, not by us. We abdicate that responsibility whenever we take what we hear or see at face value, without a critical examination. It matters not at all whether we have truly thought a position through, we are nevertheless content to vote for this candidate or that issue; to buy this product or boycott that one; or to ascribe to this value system or ridicule that one. It is, of course, this last idea that is especially treacherous for Christians genuinely desiring to fulfill the Master’s call.
Christ calls us to “come out from among them and be separate (2 Corinthians 6:17).” He is not here advocating monastic separation. The challenge, rather, is to live in such a way as to be a “peculiar people (1 Peter 2:9)”; that is: to be different. If our behavior mirrors that of the unbeliever – even the essentially moral one – then what is there to attract others to Christ? What is there, in fact, to convict others of the reality of sin and the necessity of the gospel if there is no observable dissimilarity between “us” and “them”?
In the World, But Not of It…
In 1 John 2:15-16, we read this warning: Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. How are we to understand this verse, particularly in light of James 1:17, which assures us that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights…?”
It would seem that, in this context at least, the “world” is not referring to the physical plane or even, necessarily, the tangible objects upon it, for there are undeniably many “good” things on earth – both in nature and as a result of people using the creative aspect of God’s image in us to bring glory to Him. One can gaze in wonder at both a brilliant sunset over a mountaintop and at a Renaissance artist’s depiction of the passion of Christ. The verse in John’s epistle offers its own clarification: “all that is in the world” means “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” Thus, this is not referring to the physical world, per se, but rather to the system of worldliness – the value system that governs unbelievers. This is, of course, in marked contrast to the system of godliness – the value system that governs (or, at any rate, ought to govern) believers.
A paintbrush, a computer keyboard, a guitar, or a television camera can all be tools of either the worldly system of values or the godly system of values. Though the worldly system uses such tools as means to create artistic products intended to direct glory anywhere other than to God, it does not necessarily follow that we, as Christians, must throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. That is to say, we need not avoid the arts or other popular aspects of our culture. Christians may indeed enjoy a night at the movies, a round of golf, or a day at the beach. We must simply learn to sift every thought, word, and action through the filter of the will of God, as revealed in His Word.
Follow the (Right) Leader…
Years ago, when personal computers were first reaching the masses, there was a rudimentary computer game called Lemmings. I confess that at the time I had never heard of the little rodents that are the game’s namesake. The game, however, quickly and graphically demonstrated that they are most known for their mass migration. When food is scarce, thousands of lemmings will cross the fields of Norway – climbing mountains and swimming across rivers, eating all the vegetation in their path. Ultimately, they reach the coast and, en mass, tumble into the surf, presumably not knowing that the ocean is not just some narrow mountain stream. And thousands follow thousands to their deaths.
In Romans 12:2, the Lord instructs us to “be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” That is, do not be conformed to thesystem of this world but be transformed until we are conformed to God’s system. Unlike lemmings, we are to counter the flow around us, not be carried along by it. So, how are we to be thus transformed? The Spirit of God initiates the process by changing our desires (Psalms 37:4). As Christians, we hunger and thirst for righteousness; unbelievers, of course, do not. Hence, our passions, our goals, and our priorities should be radically different. If I am craving sushi and you are craving pizza (and assuming there are no obstacles to each of us pursuing those cravings), we are not likely to end up at the same restaurant! So, how can we who have such different passions shuffle along like lemmings in the same direction? More pertinently, why is it that the Church follows the lead of the world rather than lead the way so that the world might follow Christ?
The answer lies in how we choose to respond to that initiation of the Spirit in our lives. We have two choices: we can follow His promptings, transmitted primarily through the Bible and through the convictions He illuminates from our meditation upon it; or we can choose to ignore those promptings and take the path of least resistance by following the cultural impulses that work against God’s Word. Which we choose will have an incalculable impact on the quality of our spiritual lives and our witness to the world.
We are called to be agents for change, ambassadors in the service and employ of the ultimate Sovereign, the King of Kings. As such, we cannot huddle undercover, gathering in cloistered rooms once a week, then nod dumbly like bobble-heads as the world tells us what is “really” going on. How imprudent to accept the judgments and conclusions of the world as being, ironically, the “gospel” truth! How appalling to think that we could allow an anti-Christian bias to supersede the principles established by Christ Himself.
You Are the Light of the World
Thus far, we have been considering one option believers may choose in this cultural milieu: specifically, that of non-engagement, that of “going with the flow.” As we have seen, this option is not a valid one for Christians. Another option is to provide a defensive “line in the sand” against the encroachment of non-Christian values. We see this commonly in the public debates on abortion and homosexuality. For the most part, the Christian community has provided a firm, defensive posture in these debates. However, we are considerably less united in organizing an offensive front against these and other attacks upon the values we believe to be explicitly proclaimed in Scripture.
While non-engagement is not a valid option, a strictly defensive position is not a comprehensive option. The only truly valid and comprehensive option is to stand firm against attacks upon our faith and upon our values while, at the same time, engaging in an uncompromising strategy that has as its aim the proliferation of the biblical truths of law and grace throughout our culture. To be sure, one means of doing this is to elect officials who share our core values. More important, however, is for we ourselves to boldly express our values through our lifestyles, and, just as boldly, identify them as distinctly Christian values, accompanied by a clear presentation of the gospel. Our goal is not merely to dwell in a society that is friendly to our faith. While that may create a comfortable environment for believers, God has not called us to be comfortable. Rather, our goal is (or ought to be) to proclaim Christ and Him crucified to that society, irrespective of our own comfort and accommodation.
The essentially moral unbeliever offers a superficially positive alternative to an unrestrained, hedonistic society. He or she may express outrage at crime or abuse, for example, and may even promote an agenda that runs parallel to ours. Parallel lines, however, never cross. It is nothing more than a superficially positive alternative because it involves applying a fresh coat of paint to a house that sits upon a rotten, crumbling foundation. Those who follow the example of the essentially moral unbeliever will ultimately be judged not for their essential morality, but for their unbelief in Christ. By itself, an outward display of conformity does not indicate genuine solidarity. Granted, a society governed in accordance with basic morality, as such, provides an atmosphere where we can share the gospel safely and openly. That, of course, only amplifies and intensifies our responsibility, removing every vestige of excuse. We (particularly as Americans) have no choice but to take advantage of such providential opportunity. We are called to be different – but not to be isolated – precisely because we are the chosen instruments of God’s call to a lost and dying world.
To declare fatalistically that the Church cannot have a radical and extensive impact upon our nation and the world is to err in two respects. First, it is the error of vainly thinking that we can usurp God’s sovereign authority and improve upon His ordained course for humanity. Like the prophet Jonah, we display a remarkable arrogance when we think that our unwise assumptions trump God’s all wise commands. We simply cannot know the specific details of God’s plan. Instead, we must proceed in every case as if every person may be saved and every activity may be sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit. Second, holding a laissez-faire attitude toward cultural engagement is to impose a particular eschatological interpretation upon the world to the exclusion of biblical imperatives. While there are certainly many believers who are convinced that a culturally pessimistic view of prophecy is the proper interpretation of the Scriptural texts, it would be a daunting task indeed to find a single verse that instructs us to sit back and watch as the world goes down in flames.
While there are ample resources available to Christians that extol the personal benefits of an obedient life, the uniform testimony of Scripture is that we are to be outwardly focused; that is, we are to act out our faith. The Great Commission is, above all else, to go. However, before we go, the Spirit of God must change us. This is the only means by which we become capable of discerning God’s will. Then the Word of God must nourish us. Our worldview will correspond to God’s view only after we have feasted on the deep and rich truths in the Scriptures. Furthermore, we must think about those truths systematically and practically, plugging the verities of God into the circumstances of life. Finally, the gospel of God must compel us. We must take seriously our convictions and our commission. We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. That is why we are here. Cultural tools must become Kingdom tools. Our mission is clear. Our motive is critical. Our methods must be successful, remembering that we do not measure missional success by quantitative results but by the faithfulness and integrity of the witness.
When we look like the world, when we sound like the world, when we act like the world, why in the world would the world feel compelled to be like us? However, when we present substantive differences – real hope, genuine peace, and the forgiveness of the Cross – then the world’s options become clearly identifiable. We are to imitate Christ; we are to represent Christ. Such imitation and representation will likely be met as He was met. Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you (1 John 3:13). The world hated Jesus because He challenged their self-righteous attitudes and their self-important ideas. If we do the same, dare we expect any other response? Better that we look like Christ, sound like Christ, and act like Christ, that the world, convicted of sin, may be compelled to come to Christ.