Called to be different
Recently I’ve been looking at passages and reading commentaries to help me to understand more about our call as Christians to be different in society. What form that difference should take and how we should react to the changing world around us. After having been recently voted to be an elder of Legacurry, I’ve been reading passages related to the role and I kept coming back to 1 Peter 5v1-4. It’s not a list of virtues, it’s a clean and concise summary of the responsibility and it actually focused my thoughts away from eldership and on who I am in Christ in front of other people in every opportunity I have to witness for him and talk about him, where I fail in that regard, and more extensively on how Christians as a whole are perceived by the world around us for witnessing Christ.
What follows is a summary of how those few verses have shaped my study of God’s word over the past couple of months and to start let’s look at some words from Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16 NIVUK)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5:38-47 NIVUK)
I think these verses are a very clear teaching on how Jesus wants us to be when we are one of his disciples. To make a really basic summary we need to be visible in the world by our good deeds and we need to love and pray for our neighbours and our enemies. And on both counts Jesus says the reason for this is related to our relationship with our Father, to firstly glorify him and secondly to allow us to be his children.
Paul in Titus 2v14 says that Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”
And John Piper says it like this… “in order for God to get glory from the way we live, we must be engaged in good deeds. It is not so much by avoiding gross sins that God’s people display his glory, but rather in the pursuit of good deeds, acts of generosity, works of kindness, ways of love.” 1
Changing world around us
However, the western world is changing around us and we can all see that our place as Christians in society is starting to take on a very different role than what we have maybe become comfortable with. Society’s opinions on our values and beliefs have changed and it’s starting to make a lot of Christians fearful.
One commentator I read describes it this way … “There are many reasons for our lamentation, from fear that religious liberties will be taken away to worries about social ostracism and cultural marginalization.” 2
This change is making it difficult for many to feel comfortable attributing good deeds to their faith or speaking out for their faith, and making it very difficult to understand how to love their enemies when they are constantly under attack from them.
I think we in Northern Ireland have been shielded from this as Western Europe and the US have seen these changes happen very rapidly. It is a form of persecution we are not used to and so that change can lead to fear.
The Bible reassures us
But the bible is very clear on how we should react and how we should approach persecution, regardless of the form. To go back to 1 Peter, I read it in it’s entirety and started to read commentaries around it and it is an incredible book for understanding how God wants us to deal with persecution, by first reminding us about who we are in Christ, and how to remain pure and how to treat one another, and then into how we need to use that spirit of purity to deal with suffering and distress.
It says in Chapter 4 “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4v12,13)
The ESV Study Bible commentary says this in it’s introduction to 1 Peter: “[Christians] are to remain faithful in times of distress, knowing that God will vindicate them and that they will certainly enjoy the salvation that the Lord has promised. The death and resurrection of Christ stand as the paradigm for the lives of believers. Just as Christ suffered and then entered into glory, so too his followers will suffer before being exalted.”
We should also be aware that this letter was written in the lead up to Nero’s persecution of Christians and today we are far from the most persecuted of our brothers and sisters and that in itself allows us to be thankful for the liberties that we have rather than allowing our focus to be too much on the non-Christian changes to our society. But the society we see is very comparable with Romans 1, where Paul talks about God giving people up to their ‘dishonourable passions’ so it is nothing new and we have instructions on how to live in that type of society.
I came across a commentary by Miroslav Volf called Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter. 3 It seems to be a very quoted piece of work when it comes to thinking about our reactions to the culture around us.
In it he looks at those verses I read and says “negative reaction is to be expected from non-Christians. Christians should not be surprised by the ‘fiery ordeal’ which they have to endure.”
He also is very positive about the hope he finds in 1 Peter as he says “one of the central passages in 1 Peter entertains a lively hope that precisely the Christian difference—outwardly visible in their good deeds—will cause non-Christians to see the truth and eventually convert.”
And I love how both points reassure me when I think of the changing world around us. First that we have no reason to be afraid or concerned about things we see changing. Yes we would prefer our views to be the majority, but in the minority we can still see God at work and still know that he is sovereign. And secondly that we shouldn’t change our approach. We should continue to focus on our good deeds as they WILL “cause non-Christians to see the truth and eventually convert.”
And another well quoted Christian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “If we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray. But if we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of him who goes before, we are already straying from the path. For he is himself the way, the narrow way and the strait gate.” 4
So from all of that I would say that it is very clear that we should not be fearful of the changes, we should not retreat from society but stay very visible in society. But how we go about that is as important as the act itself. Which takes me back to what Jesus said about our good deeds, and praying for our enemies and thinking about that in terms of how we should react when we remain in the society that is changing around us and to focus our thoughts specifically on the people we encounter each day.
Something that I think a lot about is what drives people to be so ferocious in their opposition to my views as a Christian. And I think taking it back to a basic truth about people having a desire in their heart to know why they exist helps me to understand how some of that has come about in our society.
We believe that desire was put there by God, a desire to find the truth, the truth that Jesus Christ brings us. As Saint Augustine said “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
So our faith in the new covenant puts our life and existence in the context of God the creator and saviour and redeemer of us and the world.
For a lot of others in our western society, the science of matter is what gives them the truth about their existence. The one in infinity chance of life existing and it happened on our planet. And that evolution from a point in time is the explanation which satisfies their desire.
What can then happen is that there is then created an us vs them mentality. That they are now such polar opposites that they must be pitted against each other with a desire to prove that one view is better than another. And more and more I am seeing this taking the shape of ridicule. Not a focus on the belief but a focus on the other belief being inferior.
This is a well known approach of the New Atheist movement which I believe is why we now see it as a prominent tactic of many Non-Christians when they oppose Christian beliefs, as the influence of people such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens cannot be underestimated. Their approach often includes the ridicule of religion in order to prove that religion is a bad thing.
For example, you may have seen the Munk debate a few years back between Hitchens and Tony Blair. It’s something I only came across recently but it is a very interesting debate on the topic of religion in the world. But as an example of this, in Hitchens’ introduction he describes God as a “celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea.” Obviously in the west there is a sense of superiority to a country such as North Korea so for him to use this as an approach early in the debate in his introduction sets the tone for how he conducts his debate. And the crowd took to his approach. He won over the majority of the undecided in the room, added to that of the majority of people who agreed with him at the outset, providing him with the victory in the debate. 5
It something many of us have probably experienced ourselves with non-Christian friends or work colleagues, where the conversation can quickly turn to a non-Christian ridiculing our faith in order to claim mental superiority.
And it’s a view that is not only now used as a tactic, but has entered into society’s consciousness about Christians. In Vanishing Grace, which I would strongly recommend reading if you interested in this topic, Philip Yancy tells of a research group who asked people about Christians and the groups president is quoted as saying, “Evangelicals were called illiterate, greedy, psychos, racist, stupid, narrow-minded, bigots, idiots, fanatics, nut cases, screaming loons, delusional, simpletons, pompous, morons, cruel, nitwits, and freaks, and that’s just a partial list….Some people don’t have any idea what evangelicals actually are or what they believe – they just know they can’t stand evangelicals.” 6
It’s a list which seems ludicrous if every Christian was focused on good deeds and praying for their enemies doesn’t it? But the problem is that ill-informed or ill-advised comments from Christians spread and add fuel to the fire of ridicule. Yancy describes a pastor on CNN saying that we should “round up all ‘lesbians and queers’ inside a huge fence, perhaps a hundred miles around and air-drop food to them. Eventually they’ll become extinct.” I use his example because it is would lead me to labelling Christians as moronic, but we all have seen comparable examples, either in the media or in our every day lives.
And it’s an attack mentality. It’s looking at the changing world around us and thinking of it in an us vs them way, and as a result then resorting to the same tactic of attacking, of trying to prove that our belief is superior to their belief. It gives that air of superiority that has turned so many people away from the bible and from church and you see it, even in subtle ways all the time.
We should not mimic a corrupt world, we should go back to Jesus and hear him say the words “let you light shine before others, that they may see you good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
We are called to be different! With everything we do we should be passionate about showing the truth, not being passionate about saying why everyone else is wrong because they conflict with our beliefs.
A great example you can read in Yancy’s book shows the correct interpretation of Jesus words, was by Dr Francis Collins, a man who directed the Human Genome Project. An incredible intelligent scientist, who is a Christian. He wrote the book the Language of God.
Christopher Hitchens, who I talked about earlier, sadly died in 2011 of throat cancer, and was someone who Collins had public debates with about Christianity. When Collins heard about Hitchens’ illness he offered to help. Reading a bit more about this in a Telegraph article online it describes Collins as a “part developer of a new personalised medicine” which allowed Hitchens to have “his entire genetic make up mapped and is receiving a new treatment that targets his own damaged DNA”. 7
Ultimately the treatment failed but Yancy in his book records that one of Hitchens’ last columns paid tribute to “one of the greatest living Americans” and a “most selfless Christian physician” and also said, “This great humanitarian is also a devotee of CS Lewis and in his book The Language of God has set out the case for making science compatible with faith.”
This is how we should act. He showed grace and love for his enemies and his good deeds were seen through the media. It’s a great example of witnessing up to someone not forcing faith down.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this ridicule. Jude v18 says “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.”
John MacArthur talks about the history of the church and says that devotees of immorality have persecuted the church since it began, using Acts as his starting point on this. 8
And because we shouldn’t be surprised by persecution, and we shouldn’t react in an aggressive, judgemental or superior way. We should let them slap us on the cheek, “and turn to him the other also.” (Matt 5v33)
MacArthur is right to use Acts as a fantastic example of what our response should be. When we look at the apostles in the early church, living in a society that was attacking them, leading to the first martyr in Stephen, we see how they react to persecution. Peter and John are brought before the council in chapter 4 after healing a lame beggar, at a point at which they could have been forgiven for fearing for their lives having seen Jesus before the high priests not long before. Their reaction is to proclaim the gospel, and what is great about this passage in the context of what I am talking about tonight is that they get the opportunity to do it because of a good deed. Peter says in v9, “if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Witness up from wherever we find ourselves
Hitchens often spoke of religions promoting a desire for the end of time giving them reason to destroy those around them for their religion, but Christianity is different. We desire the end of time, yes, because we are going to be in glory with our amazing saviour, but we are commanded to make a difference for good while we are here. We are called to be different while we are here. Jesus doesn’t tell us to hunker down and wait for the end of the world he tells us to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and the the end of the earth” (Acts 1v8), to make disciples (Matt 28v19) and He tells us to love our enemies which we can’t do if we don’t get amongst them.
We must be different. We should not fight for our beliefs to be the dominate beliefs in society, instead we must love those around us and because of that love, desire to do good and to pray for them. I believe God has been teaching me about this because I, personally, have a lot of work to do in this area, but I think many of us have as well. Change is bringing fear but where we find ourselves is really not to be feared but maybe celebrated. It’s an opportunity to focus on influencing at community level witnessing up rather than national levels forcing down.
To finish, Volf in his paper says this:
“We get no sense from 1 Peter … that the church should strive to regulate all domains of social life and reshape society in the image of the heavenly Jerusalem. [The community he is speaking to] did not wish to impose itself or the kingdom of God on the world, but to live in faithfulness to God and to the values of God’s kingdom, inviting others to do the same. It had no desire to do for others what they did not want done for them. They had no covert totalitarian agenda. Rather, the community was to live an alternative way of life in the present social setting, transforming it, as it could, from within. …The community did not seek to exert social or political pressure, but to give public witness to a new way of life.”
4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
6 Philip Yancy, Vanishing Grace