There are many Christians, and especially Seventh-day Adventist Christians, who talk about the importance of followers of Christ being “different” than the world. “We are to be in the world,” the popular sentiment goes, “but not of the world.”
I have no problem with this concept, in theory. I think it is a very biblical idea. It seems clear from the Bible that we are not to “love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15). Similarly, in Christ’s last prayer, He explicitly stated that He was not praying that His Father would take His disciples “out of the world, but that [He] should keep them from the evil one,” because they were not “of the world” (John 17:15-16).
This much is clear.
But I think the popular idea as to what it means to be “different” from the world gets people a little bit on a wrong path and, when taken to the extreme, actually has people going away from the very core and center of Christianity – that of loving others and living a life of constant service to them.
And this is the crux of the matter: I have recently realized that usually, when we talk about being “different,” it is within the context of behaviorism. Even more to the point, it is often within the context of Christian standards. “If we are Christians, we will refrain from watching bad movies,” some might say. Others might posit that we should dress differently, we should eat differently, we should talk differently. Some of us may transfer this philosophy into the way we raise our children and thus we try to remove them from interaction with “nonbelievers” as far as possible – or, as one person put it to me recently, “righteousness by removal from temptation.”
All these things are well and good and I wholeheartedly agree that our lives will be different in these areas when fully responding to Christ. And, of course, I already worry about what my children are exposed to when it comes to “outside” influences.
But is this the “different” to which Christ primarily refers?
Furthermore, is it possible to be “different” in these areas of our lives and yet be completely the same as the rest of world at the very core of who we are?
“By this shall all men know . . . “
The truth is, I think we make a huge mistake when we overemphasize these issues as those that make us different. These issues, as much as they may have their place, are merely symptoms. Far too often, however, they seem to be viewed as “ends” in themselves.
According to Christ, the primary way Christians are to be marked as “different,” revolves around the orientation of our hearts – that is, are we other-centered or are we self-centered? “By this will all men know that you are My disciples,” Christ said, “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Many of us know this passage by heart – and yet we do not take it to heart. According to Christ, the way we are distinguished as being His followers is not by what we wear, eat, drink, watch, listen to, or add-your-verb; the way people know that we are His followers is if we have a deep-routed agape love for one another.
This is, after all, what is so counter-cultural. The natural way of the human heart is to gratify self; to get one’s own way; to preserve one’s own interests to the detriment of others’; to take, rather than to give.
So when a person comes along who is constantly other-centered, constantly seeking to give rather than to take, constantly looking to bless others even to the detriment of self, this is a mighty impressive display of what it means to truly be “different” than the world.
The problem with the behavioristic approach is that, quite often, emphasizing these areas has the opposite effect. Oftentimes when we are zealous about personal behavior and Christian standards, we become the opposite of loving. Instead of displaying the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (see Galatians 5:22-23) – we become judgmental, impatient, unforgiving, critical; we feel “holier-than-thou,” or, at the very least, we come across that way. I’ve personally walked down that road one too many times in my own life.
And, while we may be doing pretty well as far as being “different” outwardly, we are what Jesus calls “white washed sepulchres” who “appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt 23:27). This was what Jesus called the Pharisees, who did a good job of paying tithe on “mint and cummin,” but “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Of course, we need to recognize Christ’s own balance and the fact that He did not throw the proverbial “baby out with the bathwater.” He said the Pharisees should have engaged in justice, mercy, and faith, “without leaving the others [ie., tithing on their spices] undone.”)
This is why three Ellen White statements intrigue me. The first one is a classic quote from The Ministry of Healing, which is much in line with Jesus’ John 13:35 thought:
The badge of Christianity is not an outward sign, not the wearing of a cross or a crown, but it is that which reveals the union of man with God. By the power of His grace manifested in the transformation of character the world is to be convinced that God has sent His Son as its Redeemer. No other influence that can surround the human soul has such power as the influence of an unselfish life. The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian. (p. 470, emphasis added)
Though I do not want to put words into Ellen White’s mouth, I would venture to say that, within our context, she would agree that the “badge of Christianity” is not some outward sign, like whether a person is or is not dressed conservatively, or whether a person is a vegan or not. Again, these things are appropriate to talk about in the proper context, but they are not the sign of whether a person is truly responding to God or not – much like circumcision was not the sign in Paul’s day, either (see Galatians 5:6).
But there is more to being a “loving and lovable Christian” than simply being nice to people when we see them. Loving people means we are proactive in our interactions with them. It means that we pursue their wellbeing just as Christ pursues their wellbeing. Being loving does not simply mean we avoid doing bad things to people; it means we are actually intentional about doing nice things for people.
This is why Jesus was so counter-cultural when He announced that we are to “do to others whatever you would like them to do to you” (Matt 7:12, NLT). The popular idea in Jesus’ day was that people were not to do to others what they didn’t want others to do to themselves. But Jesus took it a step further, actually saying that we are to pursue the happiness of others and proactively seek to do things for others that we wished they would do for us.
This is also why living as a hermit, as well intentioned as we might be when we are raising children, often takes us away from the very core of Christianity. We may be helping our children avoid “temptation,” so to speak, but we are not teaching them how to be proactive in their love for others. If we truly behold the love of Christ, and how He lived His life in service to others – healing the sick, relieving the suffering, bringing the Gospel to hungry souls – then we will want to be “different” like Him and seek to love others optimally.
To provide balance, I am not saying that we should not live in the middle of nowhere or seek to “shelter” our children to a certain extent. It’s just that we need to be very intentional about making sure we teach our children how to pursue relationships and interact with people in a proactively loving way. Jesus seemed to have perfected the ability to live between the “mountain and the multitude.” As Ellen White says,
God does not mean that any of us should become hermits or monks and retire from the world in order to devote ourselves to acts of worship. The life must be like Christ’s life—between the mountain and the multitude. He who does nothing but pray will soon cease to pray, or his prayers will become a formal routine. When men take themselves out of social life, away from the sphere of Christian duty and cross bearing; when they cease to work earnestly for the Master, who worked earnestly for them, they lose the subject matter of prayer and have no incentive to devotion. Their prayers become personal and selfish. They cannot pray in regard to the wants of humanity or the upbuilding of Christ’s kingdom, pleading for strength wherewith to work. (Steps to Christ, p. 101, emphasis added)
This is a very telling quote! When we remove ourselves from the “social life” and find ourselves simply worrying about personal piety, our prayers center solely around ourselves (“Dear God, please help me to learn how to eat two meals a day instead of three.”) This, to me, seems to be the definition of self-centeredness and the antithesis to the core of Christianity – that of being all-consumed with the work of other-centered love.
The third quote from Ellen White addresses the issue of jewelry and adornment, specifically, and it is very telling as to how balanced Ellen White was:
There are many who try to correct the life of others by attacking what they consider are wrong habits. They go to those whom they think are in error, and point out their defects. They say, “You don’t dress as you should.” They try to pick off the ornaments, or whatever seems offensive, but they do not seek to fasten the mind to the truth. Those who seek to correct others should present the attractions of Jesus. They should talk of His love and compassion, present His example and sacrifice, reveal His Spirit, and they need not touch the subject of dress at all. There is no need to make the dress question the main point of your religion. There is something richer to speak of. Talk of Christ, and when the heart is converted, everything that is out of harmony with the Word of God will drop off. It is only labor in vain to pick leaves off a living tree. The leaves will reappear. The ax must be laid at the root of the tree, and then the leaves will fall off, never to return. (Evangelism, p. 272)
Jewelry, she says, is foliage that, if simply picked off from a living tree, will reappear. So let’s work more on the heart than on the foliage, itself. Let’s not treat the symptoms anymore, but get to the core of what is going on.
Of course, we cannot have our hearts changed, and become completely other-centered, giving, agape-filled, people through our own efforts. We cannot simply flip a switch and make ourselves loving. Neither can we make others loving simply by telling them they need to be so. We can only become loving as we behold the love of Christ. After all, “We love,” John says, “because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
This is why Ellen White goes onto say in the next paragraph:
In order to teach men and women the worthlessness of earthly things, you must lead them to the living Fountain, and get them to drink of Christ, until their hearts are filled with the love of God, and Christ is in them, a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
So how can we become different? Is it by stripping ourselves of all “wordly” things? Is it, by sheer willpower and in a moment of haste, throwing out all our DVDs and porkchops? Doing so may help us become more loving, but that is the point: leaving these things behind are not ends in themselves – but getting rid of them is important insofar as they have prevented us from being more loving, more other-centered, more giving.
(On a personal note, this was brought home to me this morning as I sat on the floor in my living room, next to my two children, while texting someone about the NHL playoffs. A number of times as I was texting, my son, Camden, said to me, “Play toys, Daddy, play toys.” What may seem like an innocent pastime – talking about hockey – was distracting me from giving my undivided attention to my son and loving him fully, even for those 20 seconds that my mind was in another world.)
Of course, we can only truly become “different” when we first realize that, at our very core, we are not different, and that we need to be delivered from this “body of death” (Romans 7:24). Then, and only then, can God point us to Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf and ask us to behold Him. Thus, as we behold Him, our hearts will be changed and we will truly become different.