One thing I have been concerned about recently is the number of people who are talking about being unlike the world. I understand that scripture tells us to be separate from the world and to live lives that are different from those around us. There is a frequent refrain within the New Testament of being a chosen, distinct, and identifiable group. The trouble I have is with people putting the emphasis on being “unlike the world”. When people say we are called to be distant from the world they are putting the focal point on the actions and attitudes of those outside the Church and saying we are to act in the opposite manner. I don’t think people realize how hard it is to define ourselves by a negative, as the opposite of something else. It is difficult for Christians to live their lives properly when we define ourselves by who we are not.
The issue is that defining “the world” is very difficult, because “the world” is a term in the Bible for those who are outside of God. There is no cohesive group that is the other, the outsider, the world our only definition is those people who are not a part of the church. But those people are not pure evil, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…”. Solzhenitsyn wrote these words about the Soviet Union and a regime that had imprisoned him in a brutal gulag. These words should speak to the heart of Christians and to how we define ourselves.
The trouble in defining ourselves as “not the world” is that some group of people will always represent “the world” and there will be always be a temptation to define “righteous” as not that group. This reality has two major flaws, the first is that whatever group we use to define “the world” will, in our minds, grow further from salvation. We will see that group of people as irredeemable and lost in sin. The temptation will grow to see this group of people, which for us represents all that is wrong in the world, as people committed to undermining God, they will be equated with demons. I have already seen this as Christians on social media denounce their token foil as the world and demonic. Further, we will see ourselves in the same light as the Pharisee in Luke 18, the man who is assured that he is better than the sinner standing next to him. What was the reality Jesus taught in that parable, the one who was puffed up and assured of his own righteousness was the one in need of repentance.
The second major flaw in seeing ourselves as “not the world” comes from forgetting Solzhenitsyn’s words, no group of people is ever purely evil, no matter what we might think about them. Here I will use a real example, a woman this week told me that Democrats are evil and no Christian can ever support one. Here’s the problem if she defines her Christian identity as “different from the world” then she will become reactionary, specifically she will react to what Democrats do by doing the opposite. The trouble is this woman believes that Democrats are demonic because of their platform on abortion. Yet, she does not seem to realize that there are times that Democrats take stands that lead to justice and a reduction of abortions. In other words to react against them is to actually contribute to an increase in abortion. Her desire to be “not the world” would actually lead her to the unintended consequence of supporting injustice (sin). I use this example because it is fresh in my mind but I have heard any number of groups put into that position, and each time there are two consequences the Christians who compare themselves to the world fall into an unintentional sin and they loose compassion for the group they call the world.
Rather, I purpose that Christians always define ourselves in a positive sense, instead of focusing on being unlike or called out from the world we concentrate on being like Jesus. We say to the world around us, “We do not concern ourselves with how you act, we are going to live as Jesus lived and with that create a new world.” No I recognize there are passages in the Bible, even words of Jesus that encourage us to not act like the hypocrites, or pharisees, or the world. But these passages (as far as I can remember) always have a positive action tied to them, “do not pray like the hypocrites, rather…”. In other words in each of these cases we are given the example of Jesus as a model to emulate. We are called far more often to be like Jesus in action and attitude than we are warned against acting like the world. In putting our attention on being like Jesus we are both learning to have compassion like Jesus did and avoiding the pitfall of failing to recognize the line of good and evil does not run between us and them. In living a life like Jesus we will never run the risk of not having compassion on a person or group because Jesus came to show love to the whole world. We will always be able to see the other person as we are, a sinner saved by Jesus’ mercy and grace, and will act accordingly. Further we will more readily recognize the good in others and the evil in ourselves allowing us to grow ever more like Jesus. And best of all in striving to be like Jesus we will implicitly leave the world.We will give up the world more and more as we focus on Jesus. Jesus is the finish line and the world is the starting blocks, it is far easier to cross the finish line facing it than facing the starting blocks.