The Christian’s relationship to the surrounding culture can take many different forms, but for simplicity’s sake I would like to argue that there are basically only two main options here: either the Christian will change and transform his world, or he will allow the world to change and transform him.
The Bible repeatedly warns about the latter, while encouraging the former. We are not to slavishly imitate the world’s beliefs, agendas, values, philosophies, habits, lifestyles, or tactics. Instead we are to be leading in all these areas, seeking to have a godly influence on the rest of society.
That is in part what Jesus meant when he said we are to be salt and light. We are to be influencing the surrounding culture instead of letting it influence us. Scripture over and over again informs us that the values and practices of the world will be polar opposites to the values and practices of the Kingdom.
One of the key New Testament texts on the need to get the influencer/influencee mix right (if I can put it that way) is Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
There is an ever present danger of allowing the world to squeeze us into its mould, as the J.B. Phillips’ version of this passage famously puts it. We are to actively, steadily and resolutely resist the temptation to buy into, or conform to, the world and its ungodly and anti-godly beliefs and values.
The Old Testament is unfortunately full of instances where God’s people did exactly what Romans 12:2 warns against. Time and time again Israel adapted to the surrounding pagan culture, allowing Canaanite values and practices to heavily influence them.
Indeed, much of the Old Testament storyline involves this ongoing conflict. The question keeps popping up: will Israel resist the charms and deceits of the surrounding Canaanite nations, or will the Canaanites prevail? As the old saying goes, Israel had a harder time of getting Canaan out of Israel than out of the land.
I was reminded of all this in my daily Scripture reading. In 1 Samuel we read of the importance of leadership, and see the marked contrast between godly leadership and ungodly leadership. Of course three important leaders are showcased here: Samuel, Saul and David.
Early on as Samuel is getting old, the Israelites again show their true colours, in demanding that they follow the surrounding culture instead of being a contrast to it. They in fact like what they see in the pagan nations and want exactly the same for themselves.
In this case they want to be ruled just like the other nations are. They want a king of their own. As we read in 1 Samuel 8:4-5: “So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have’.”
And in verses 19-20 we find out exactly why they want this: “But the people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles’.”
There you have it: “Then we will be like all the other nations”. Instead of enjoying and celebrating their uniqueness as Yahweh’s covenant people, they instead wanted to be just like their pagan neighbours. To see what God thinks about this, all we have to do is read what took place after the initial demand:
“But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you’” (vv. 6-8).
That is a very strong and sobering response: “they have rejected me as their king”. Even though this may have seemed to be a sensible and logical request, it really amounted to insubordination. They were in effect rejecting Yahweh, favouring instead the surrounding nations.
John Woodhouse highlights this point: “This was a remarkable rejection of Israel’s calling to be the Lord’s ‘treasured possession among all peoples,’ ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,’ ‘separated . . . from the peoples,’ a ‘great nation,’ ‘in praise and in fame and in honor high above all nations,’ ‘a people for himself’ (Exodus 19:5,6; Leviticus 20:26; Deuteronomy 4:6; 26:19; 1 Samuel 12:22). It was, in other words, the political equivalent of pursuing foreign gods and Astaroth (1 Samuel 7:3)!”
The sad truth is, so much of the church today is exactly like Israel of old. We do not come out and say it in so many words, but our mindset is really like this: “Then we will be like all the other nations”. We want to be like everyone else.
We are in fact uncomfortable with being different, unique and set apart (which is what the term holiness means). We would much rather fit in with the surrounding culture. We would rather not rock the boat and appear to be contrary. We just want to get along and blend in.
And we are far too willing to borrow all the world’s techniques and programs and models and emphases. ‘If it is good enough for the world then it must be good enough for the church’ seems to be the way our thinking goes. Thus we are quite happy to borrow from secular business models, or utilise all the latest marketing and advertising techniques, to make our churches cool and hip and trendy.
And given that much of the reason for Israel wanting to have a king of its own was for security purposes, let’s ask ourselves how we seek to find safety and security. Is it by trusting fully in the Lord and allowing him to work on our behalf, or is it by us doing everything ourselves so that we need no faith and will have to take no risks?
Do we ignore the requests of missionaries overseas to send them a bit of money so they can help build a project which will provide clean running water for the devastatingly poor people they are ministering to, so that we can have that nest-egg just in case?
Do we trust God for our financial well-being, or put all of our trust in our local financial advisors? Do we seek first His Kingdom, and let him take care of our material needs, or do we have all sorts of fleshly schemes to be financially secure with all kinds of stocks and bonds and investment properties, etc?
That is, do we never ever allow ourselves to be put into a place where we really need to trust and depend upon the Lord alone? Do we seek to make all sorts of provision for any future contingencies, acting as if God does not even exist, and everything is totally up to us?
I suspect the main reason why most Western Christians have never seen God’s miraculous provision, or seen him come through in a real jam, is because we have made darn well sure that we will never get in a pinch or a predicament in the first place.
We have everything under control, so that we have no need – certainly not a need for God to prove himself on our behalf. We have everything sewn up, and all the bases covered. We have effectively ruled God out from ever appearing, showing himself strong on our behalf.
We are completely self-sufficient, with no real need for God to act in and through our lives. We are really living like Christian atheists in other words. We say we believe in Jehovah Jirah, our provider, but we never give him even the slightest opportunity of demonstrating this to us.
Now I am not saying of course that we should be reckless, careless and irresponsible. We need to work, earn, save and look after ourselves and our families in a responsible manner. I have tried to show how the biblical balance is to be maintained in this article: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/08/31/christian-atheism/
But it seems that far too many of us have decided that we will provide for all of our needs, security and safety, and God is almost absent from the picture. In this we just want to be like our non-Christian neighbours. This amounts to a rejection of God’s lordship, just as it did for the Israelites of old.
Of interest is the fact that just within hours the US Congress has to come to a resolution about its debt ceiling crisis, or financial chaos will ensue. I cannot help but think that the Lord may be allowing all this to take place, to get the attention of Americans and everyone else, to remind us all that God is the ultimate answer to all our problems, not various man-made schemes.
This and other crises may be happening so that we all – but especially God’s people – can get into our heads the truth proclaimed in Zechariah 4:6: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD Almighty.”