Thursday, April 10, 2014

How in the World Should I Live?

The perennial question, how should I live out my faith as a Christian in a world that has rejected Christ? has occupied my thoughts for many years. Living in the Washington, DC area, I have been exposed to a wide variety of interpretations of what it means to live life as a Christian. I have asked other believers for their points of view and the answers I've received have varied quite a bit. I've asked questions like, are we to be counter-cultural or culturally sensitive? Are we to be relevant to the world or radically different from it? And how much in the world can we really be without being of it? These are issues that we all have to consider, not just for our own lives, but also in our churches at large. We need to ask ourselves: Are we to be radical or relevant, or somewhere in between? 

The term "relevant" in the Christian context refers to the widespread effort over the last decade or two to make Christianity more relatable to younger generations (who are leaving the church in droves) by speaking more directly to their lives. More often than not, trying to be relevant to young people has led churches to mirror secular culture as opposed to presenting a counter-cultural worldview. 
I've also noticed that Christians who are more culturally relevant in their lifestyle share more common ground with unbelievers than Christians who live out their faith in a more radical way. The same goes for "seeker-friendly" churches that attempt to be relevant over being radical. At times, I have wondered if Christians who are more entrenched in the ways of the world are better positioned to outreach to unbelievers because they can relate to them more easily and haven't alienated themselves as much as the more radical Christians have. 

When my husband and I had children, we began to discuss the topic of how to live in the world with a renewed sense of urgency. We asked ourselves, how can we best prepare our children for adult life in a secularizing culture? How much of the world should we expose them to and how much should we protect them from? I started to worry that we would turn them into Christian kooks in a hostile world if we were too radical, or sheltered them too much, in our parenting. I worried that if we acted "too Christian," we would turn people off, and alienate ourselves. But then I would also worry that if we compromised too much on our biblical convictions, we wouldn't be helping our children build a solid foundation for a faith that endures. 

It was when I actually turned to Scripture for the answers, however, that things started to become clear. The problem is, I had been getting lost down a confusing rabbit trail of thoughts and theories of my own mental construction. I was getting bogged down in the "buts," and the "what ifs," and the "on-the-other-hands." Instead of going to God's Word first, I had been looking to the world for the answers, focusing primarily on the conflicting opinions of other people
. But God's Word has a funny way of turning human ideas upside down, doesn't it? It was one of those be-careful-what-you-ask-for kind of scenarios because going to Scripture with a surrendered heart will always provide answers...but the truth is not always easy to swallow! The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12). God's Word certainly cuts to the chase.

The first thing that struck me when I went to Scripture was quite simply that this world is not our home. The beautiful, simple truth of this penetrated my heart more deeply than ever before. We are described in Scripture as sojourners in an alien world, as "foreigners and strangers" whose "days on earth are like a shadow, without hope." (1 Chron 29:15). Our hope is not rooted in this world. And our short lives on earth are like a vapor (James 4:14). The world will tell us to "live in the moment," but the beguiling pleasures it has to offer can entrap us into losing sight of the everlasting riches that await us in Glory. Peter reminds us of this when he writes, "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul." (1 Peter 2:11). The world tells us to focus on the here-and-now, and to indulge the desires of the flesh, but Scripture tells us to live our lives in light of Eternity. This puts the temporary trials and fleeting pleasures of this world into perspective doesn't it? Rather than getting too cozy in the world, then, we are to be sojournerswanderersin the world until we are called home.

As I thought more about what it means to be "foreigners" in the world, I realized that foreigners look, act, and talk differently from the inhabitants of the alien environment around them. They stand out. They speak a different language. So then, as followers of Jesus Christwhom the world has rejectedwe should also stand out from the rest of the world, rather than seeking to blend in with it. Paul tells us not to conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2). And he further explains that we, "must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart." (Eph 4:17-18). Because unbelievers are alienated from God, we, as children of God, are consequently alienated from them. 

Rather than feeling pressure to fit in with contemporary culture or the worldly status quo, Paul says we should "come out and be separate from the world." (2 Cor 6:17). He explains that we should not be unequally yoked with unbelievers, for what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever and what fellowship can darkness have with lightness? Because God lives in us, and we are His temple, we should come out and be separate from those who worship idols in His place (2 Cor 6:14-18). The use of the analogy of lightness and darkness to show the incompatibility of righteousness and sin is also used by John when he writes, “If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” (1 John 1:6). 

It is hard to break free from the deceitful patterns of this world, if we fellowship with darknessif we live life in close partnership with those who worship the things of this world. This should not be misconstrued as an excuse to retreat into a holy huddle, however. We should wholeheartedly reach out in the love of Christ to unbelievers. We are called to go out into the world and make disciples (Matt 28:19), and this can't be achieved inside a Christian bubble. For my husband and I this means we enjoy friendships with those who don't share our faith and try to witness to unbelievers. However, we live life closely with fellow Christians because we share a deeper level of intimacy and spiritual understanding that is unique to the Body of Christ. 

For me, it's all about balance. I don't think my family and I have to be outright weirdos or something...In many ways, we are a pretty average family (with a few quirks here and there for sure!). Personally, I like to follow fashion and other cultural trends within reason. But it's important to try to keep our motives pure in these things, asking ourselves: are we loving God first or loving the world first? 

The reality is, even if we try to fit in with the world and conform to its patterns, the world may reject us all the same. How many celebrities have we seen rise and fall in popularity? How many people who were once idolized have we seen plummet from fame? The world is ruthless and fickle. But the love of God endures forever. In light of this, it dawned on me with renewed clarity that as followers of Christ, we should seek to please God first, not people first, in all we do. Doing this is not often likely to win us popularity or worldly status. On the contrary; Jesus said, "You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved." (Matt 10:22). Christians are called to believe a foolish message and live a foolish lifestyle. But, God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Cor 1:27). Through the Cross, God exposed the wisdom of the world to be a sham (1 Cor 1:19-21). And we can take heart because Jesus has overcome the world! (John 16:33).

As a natural born people-pleaser, this is a refreshing perspective for me. When I am focused on pleasing God first and foremost, I am released from the pressure to win popular approval or to manage other people's perceptions of me. Seeking my identity in Christ is a real confidence booster! After I gave up my career (and with it the pursuit of worldly status) to stay at home with my children, for example, I didn't give up my sense of significance. This is because my significance was no longer based on how I am viewed in the world's eyes, but it is rooted in the fact that God, the Almighty Creator of the universethe Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end—loves me and thinks I am important

In light of this, when my husband and I discuss decisions on how best to raise our kids, or how to live out our faith, we try to do so in a way that honors God first by being obedient to His Word and going to Him in prayer. We no longer base our decisions on the changeable, unreliable opinions of the world, but on God's perfect and unchanging will. So, instead of building our lives on the quick-sand surface of a relativistic world, we're building our lives on the solid rock of absolute truth. Sometimes, the decisions we make may not be the most popular choice, but we can have peace knowing that pleasing God is all that really matters.

Ultimately, I believe that living an authentic life as a Christian is the best witness. Instead of trying to be like the world in order to be accepted by it, I think it's important to keep our identity firmly rooted in Christ, remembering that it's the role of the Holy Spirit to convict hearts, not ours to finesse our faith and tweak the gospel to make it more culturally acceptable.

1 comment:

Brenda Bowman said...

I appreciate your thoughts. I see so many churches trying to be something they are not. If the church isn't set apart then why should seekers even look there? They could just keep looking out there in the world!
But having a different mindset does not make us unrelatable!