A few days ago, I was having a conversation with my uncle in which he mentioned that Christians keep at an arms length away from society. I started thinking about that comment. It kept me up that night as I mulled it over. For some reason, it didn’t quite sit right with me, but I wasn’t sure why. And then I realized.
We talk about being “in the world, but not of the world,” based on Jesus’ words in John 17:14-17. But I think we focus more on the latter half of that phrase — “not of” — more than we focus on the fact that we are, indeed, very much “in” the world, and I believe we are called to be right in the middle of society.
First, if we look at the life of Jesus, we find Him in all the places we would tend to avoid. With Samaritans (Arabs?), tax collectors (crooked lawyers?), lepers (AIDS patients?), the demon-possessed (mentally ill?), and prostitutes. Jesus didn’t keep an arms length away. There was no society gap that His love didn’t cross, no barrier that wasn’t swept away by His indiscriminate tidal wave of compassion.
Second, we consider that we must separate ourselves from society in order to distinguish ourselves as upright, moral people. But truthfully, Christians did not invent the society gap. There are thousands of society gaps created by racists, sexists, politicians. All of them want to separate themselves as wheat from the chaff. Nobody wants to be associated with people groups that they consider in any way inferior; everyone is trying to make some sort of statement by their separatism. People are very used to being excluded from various groups, and Christian separatism is no different to them. We think we can make people change their behavior by not associating with them in any legitimate capacity until they conform, but it doesn’t work that way. Instead, they simply think, “Another group who thinks they’re too good for me. Whatever, I don’t need them.” We want to be known by our reputations of high moral character — but Jesus said we would be known by our love. Jesus wasn’t concerned with His reputation. In fact, in many circles, He had a pretty crummy reputation, but He didn’t bother defending Himself to those who misjudged Him. The outcasts who truly encountered Him were forever changed, and that was enough for Him. It was worth the risk to His reputation. You see, we think distancing ourselves from society will make us stand out, but it doesn’t, because everyone else thinks that as well. Here’s the paradox: if we want to look different from the world, we have to plunge headfirst into it.
Why don’t we?
I think in a lot of ways, it’s far easier to distance ourselves from society than to wade through the gray areas of unconditional love. You see, love is messy. Really messy. It gets into all these complicated issues of accepting people vs. condoning behavior, loving the sinner and hating the sin, etc., etc.
Do we throw a baby shower for a baby born out of wedlock?
Can we enjoy hanging out with an alcoholic? Or do they have to be a project, a charity case?
How many times do we let someone mess up before they’re a lost cause and we cut them off?
I don’t necessarily have the answers to these questions. They’re hard questions. But I think we need to confront and work through the tough stuff instead of brushing it under the rug and pretending it’s not there.
Dean Barham from Woodmont Hills church of Christ once spoke on the parable of the sower, introducing a new twist I had never thought of before: the Sower didn’t plant His seed carefully. He scattered it at random, without concern for what kind of ground it would land on. It didn’t matter if it landed among the thorns. It just mattered that He sowed it. And it’s the same way with us. We can’t be selective about who we love. We’re not called to invest in the ones with the most potential. Sometimes we just need to scatter the seed of Christ’s love without worrying about where it falls or how it’s received. Really, isn’t that what unconditional love is all about anyway? You can’t rein in the radical love of Christ. Sometimes — no, all the time — we just need to let it spill out onto everyone around us, whether that’s buying a stranger’s lunch or being the only one to have compassion on the preacher who was fired for embezzling. When justified scathing judgment is hemming him in, maybe a bit of unexpected, undeserved love is what will bring him to his knees.
Not only is it easier to distance ourselves, but it’s also a great deal safer. As much as we talk about surrendering to God, I’m pretty sure that very few of us have actually surrendered our reputations. A lot of it we excuse by saying, “I can’t be seen hanging out with this person because it will damage my witness!” To you — and to myself, because I’m guilty too — I’ll say the following: first, that’s just an excuse. That’s you wanting to be in control of what people think of you. You say that you’re trying to protect Jesus’ reputation, but He didn’t care about protecting it, and He doesn’t need you to protect it. Second, if you’re worried that people won’t be able to see a difference between you and the world, you’re probably not living right yourself. If you’re all out for Jesus, it won’t matter who you hang out with. They’ll see the difference. They’ll know.
We also want to protect ourselves and our kids from the influence of the world. With kids, I’m a little more understanding, because they’re like little sponges. But if it’s about you, forget the fear and get your head in the game. You might be introduced to some new ideas and difficult questions outside the security of your Christian bubble. Good. You can’t find truth if you never have to look for it, and you’ll never get answers if you never ask questions. Being in the world turns theoretical discussions into practical ones and makes you think about why you believe what you believe. It’s like being pushed out of the nest — it might be a little uncomfortable and a little scary, but that’s how you learn to fly.
What do we do about it?
Living in the world, in the gray areas, takes a lot of faith. It’s not all black and white out there, and like I said, love can be really messy and really awkward. So the first thing you have to do is rely heavily on Jesus. You have to trust Him with your reputation and trust Him to guide you through the murky waters of messy love. You have to feel your way through when to confront in love and when to let go in love, when to speak in love and when to be silent in love.
Pray a lot. Love a lot. Live a lot. Read about the life of Jesus over and over.
See people as people, as beloved children of God. We all have a common denominator; we’re all broken and we all need Jesus. Some people may not be receptive right away, but they still need Him. He loves them, and so should you.
He breathed the same life into that struggling addict that He breathed into you.
He counts the tears of the “slut” who cries herself to sleep trying to find acceptance.
He carefully formed each little finger and toe of baby Hitler.
No one is an accident. No one is a mistake.
If nothing else, we must love people because they are His creation of whom He said, “It is good.”
And maybe as we start to strip away our own pride and complacency and see a lost, broken, hurting world, rather than a bad, sinful, malevolent world…
…maybe love and compassion will take over and the society gap will begin to close.