When I was first saved I entered a world which was very new to me. I hadn’t come from a Christian home. My parents were good, decent people who believed that there is a God, and so they sent me to a nearby Sunday School. However, their beliefs didn’t include any awareness of a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I had come to a deep, but simple early faith through good Sunday School teachers and by reading Christian children’s books. I understood God as a Father and Comforter; Someone Who loved me and was always there for me in my loneliness and sense of “apartness”. It wasn’t until I was older that I recognized myself as a sinner who also needed Christ as Savior. Nothing in my reading or experience had prepared me for the evangelical “life style” I encountered after I declared my faith at the age of fifteen.
It was a confusing time. I wanted to prove my sincerity and conform ~ I was a teenager after all, and conformity to my chosen companions was essential ~ so I closely watched those around me and listened hard.
I noticed that most of the girls looked alike. They all wore the same hairstyle (a curly shoulder length bob). They didn’t wear any makeup. They never wore earrings, although simple bracelets and necklaces were considered all right. A cross on a chain was not acceptable: it “trivialized” the symbol of the Lord’s death. They never wore trousers of any kind unless involved in sports; jeans were then allowed for the sake of modesty. I was taught that I could no longer go to movies or dances, and I should make my friendships only with other Christians. To be in close relationship with non-Christians was considered too much of a temptation to a return to worldliness. I should consider non-Christians only as souls to be won for the Lord, and not as people worth befriending for their own sake. Etc., etc., etc.
The list of rules and regulations went on and on. The idea seemed to be that outward appearance and taking the moral highroad was our primary witness to the world of our commitment to God, and that this would distinguish us from our more worldly neighbors. We lived to please God, after all ~ and there was a subtle internal pleasure in feeling somewhat more enlightened than those around us still “in darkness”. We would never have acknowledged that this was a kind of pride. Above all, we were always to project the myth that Christians lived perfect lives, were never angry, were always happy and at peace with all their circumstances. There was no understanding whatsoever that this was establishing a wall between us and our neighbors which would be a formidable barrier to our ever convincing them that Christians were in touch with the sometimes mind-numbing difficulties of living in this world.
Fortunately, part of the rules included having a daily “quiet time” when you read your Bible and prayed. As a new Christian, this was a natural and pleasant routine. It served an essential function. To be in sincere relationship with God through His Word or in prayer allows Him to change us even if we don’t have a clue as to what is happening in our hearts. It took a long time, but gradually the power of the Word began to work and I began to realize that maybe this idea of relying on legalities to speak for us was not the most effective plan. Perhaps God intended something else: a gradual change in us which would transform us into something more like the character of His Son.
The scriptures are quite specific about how God would like us to live. The Gospels and the letters from the apostles teach us over and over: love one another, be servants of each other. These characteristics need to be real because pleasant outward behavior seldom really masks a selfish or greedy heart. If you don’t have genuine compassion for the trials of others, you won’t be able to fake it for long. Gentle humility is more healing than self-righteous defensiveness. We are to be kind, empathetic, genuinely caring. We are taught to consider others more important than ourselves and to be prepared to sacrifice for the needs of others as Christ did for us. Christ is to be our example, and these are the characteristics He demonstrated.
While most of our Christian behavioral rules and practices are not necessarily wrong or harmful (although a few may be), I believe that external behaviors are less important to Him than the internal reality. The Lord called the law-observing Pharisees “whited sepulchers” because He knew that their outward conformity masked hearts filled with self-righteousness and pride. We certainly should live moral and God-focused lives. It is when we assume that rule-keeping is the same or can be a substitute for a living, growing relationship with Him that we have a problem. It is also not our best witness to those around us.
What draws others to us is not necessarily what we say or which rules we choose to follow, but who we are. They watch us and are not usually inclined to give us the benefit of the doubt. They know what they see and are sensitive to the sincerity (or not) they feel coming from us. The rules and regulations of today may be different from those which I found back in the forties and fifties, but the principle is the same. Godly character, a genuinely loving and gracious personality, is more essential than superficial legalistic behavior. The good news is that God will always work with us toward the goal of becoming more like Christ.
I believe we need to re-examine what it means to be “in the world, but not of it”.
Does it mean that we are to separate ourselves from the rest of humanity and live in fear of becoming compromised by everyone else in the world? There is a veiled arrogance in that plan. If we shut ourselves off from others how, then, can we be salt and light? Our citizenship is certainly in heaven, but for now we are sojourners in this world, and our mission is to share God’s love, in practical ways as well as verbally. How can we do this if others perceive us as believing we are too pure to mix with others?
Instead, it seems to me that being in this world, but not of it means living our lives side by side with all our neighbors, sharing their lives, caring about them and simply being good friends and neighbors ~ but living out our faith in a natural way. We don’t have to join them in certain activities, but we also should not appear to judge them for their choices. We are just to be who we are, without apology and without moralizing. If asked, we should be prepared to explain our faith. God should be such an integral part of our lives that others will see our faith in operation in the everyday activities of life. That is a powerful visual!
We need to step back and look at the picture we present to the world. Praying for wisdom and a clear vision of those areas where I need work is one path to self-awareness, although sometimes it can be painful to see ourselves as God sees us. The only grace found in self-awareness is the sure knowledge that God always sees us through love. If we really want to reflect our God and encourage others to come to Him, we need to be able to recognize those parts of our personalities which originate in our old nature. Then we can submit these to God. We can let Him have more of us and reduce our inclination to let self govern our lives. The more we genuinely reflect the nature and character of Christ, the more likely we are to encourage others to want to know Him, too.
This process of metamorphosis/sanctification is still viable although we may not call it by that name anymore. If we truly commit ourselves to knowing Christ, and keep our minds and hearts open and obedient to the nudging and whispering of the Holy Spirit, we will find that we do change. It takes some of us longer than others, but change is inevitable for those who will let it happen. If we insist on holding on to our own will, and continue to assume that we know best, God won’t force us to change. He wants our obedience to be voluntary. Yet, how much better to let Him guide us and transform our lives into the image of His beloved Son. This is how we will best affect our world and, perhaps, help to bring others into the Kingdom of God.