I remember as a young Christian in youth church being introduced to Watchman Nee by an encouraging uncle. He spotted my youth like zeal and thought to give me some tough food to chew on. The truth is, I’m still chewing today. I was introduced to Nee’s book ‘The Release of the Spirit’, which was first published in China in 1955. Nee taught in that book that the path to spiritual fruitfulness— and to a true, intimate knowledge of the Lord—is the brokenness of the outward man. He explained that God uses tests and trials in our lives to break our selfish nature so that Christ’s nature can flow through us. He spoke of the freakish nature of the Christian faith and the need to stand out. I remember as a young person reading this book and watching as these themes cascaded one on top of the other. With each point, my fear compounded as it dawned on me that zeal was not only to be outward expression and energy but the denial of a lot of the shows, songs, and ‘banter’ that I had come to love. It dawned on me that I not only needed to be bold and loud but that I needed to become an Alien!
Let us be honest, even as a Christian, there can often be (an albeit fading) desire to fit in, to be socially relevant and accepted by the world. I still get excited every time I make a successful pop culture reference. Although we have left the club, many of us still feel the desire to keep our membership card — just in case. We may still be drawn to attend the same parties but miss the ones that are really bad, we may even speak the same but avoid really bad speech, we watch the same things but avoid really bad shows. The ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO) can be crippling for Christians who watch everyone ‘playing and having fun’ and feel like they have no option but to join in. They enter the fun under the ruse of ‘banter and letting hair down’ and in so doing make their witness ineffective. This appears to be the experience of some nominal Christians around the world.
I have spoken earlier about Moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD). It’s a term that was first introduced in the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005). The book is the result of the research project the “National Study of Youth and Religion”. The author’s study found that many young people believe in several moral statutes not exclusive to any of the major world religions. A central statute in this book is that most young people think the point of religion is to help you behave better and make you into a better person. This is false. Alarming as it may be, this is what some Christians may have been hoodwinked into or knowingly started believing. This is the view that Christians are to be less bad than the world. To attend wild parties but not sin, to drink but not get drunk, to dance intimately but not have sex. To get involved in every discussion and debate but not be vulgar. To enjoy the same things leaving space for repentance straight after.
Many Christians believe Christianity is about being less bad than the world. Sure, this is a part of the Gospel, but not the thrust of the Gospel. The thrust of the Gospel is about making you right with God. It’s about satisfying eternal and weighty wrath and being born again. It’s about a change of nature and essence and not solely managed behavioural change. That comes after. Why is this important? Well because when we consider that we have been reborn (John 3:1-21) and set apart (1 John 4:4-5), we begin to understand that standing out and being different is the very call of the gospel. It’s not a choice or an optional module, its the very point of being saved. Saved from what? Yourself
Saved for or saved from?
One of the main reasons we struggle saying no to the desire to fit in and to be culturally relevant is because our Christian lives can sometimes feel like a never-ending list of don’ts. Don’t watch this, don’t read this, don’t listen to this. That way of living can feel repressive and stifling. Here, it’s important to consider the message of the Gospel. Through Gospel lenses, we see that the Christian life is not a constrained life by any measure, only a carnal mindset will produce that thought.
John Piper put it well when he said:
“My father used to say, be so busy doing… you don’t have time to “don’t“. When people accused us fundamentalists of being people with a bunch of don’ts, I have never felt that way. My life is not a constrained life. It is a free life.” “You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13)”
Life in Christ is not mainly about the avoidance of evil, but mainly the passionate and intense pursuit of good. “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
We haven’t just been saved from ourselves, but we have been saved for greater works, greater joy, greater peace – in Him. Jesus died — yes to purify his people and to make them positionally right forever. However, it is an absolute travesty to the triune God, to the cross, to treat it as though Jesus died only to forgive us for sinful acts and not to purify us for the power not to go back to our vomit. We have been saved from ourselves, from the applause of men, from needing validation from culture and saved for union and increasingly joyful communion with God.
What do I do when I feel left out?
Embrace it. Don’t run away from it. Embrace it. It’s a sign that you were ‘made for another world’. Let it remind you fo this truth. That you are a sojourner, an alien, a misfit here on this earth. It’s a sign that you have been enlisted into a different army and that you have a different commander. Christians ought not to run away from this feeling but to see what it points to and to rejoice in that. The truth is the world does not need ‘less bad’, irrelevant copies of itself. The world needs more aliens. More folks that are willing to stand out and be different. Who are willing to be called prudish, bizarre and old fashioned and uncool. Who are willing to embrace the ‘shame’ of the world and let it do its work. After all, look at the effect shame had on the life of Jesus. Shame stripped away every earthly support that Jesus had: his friends gave way in shaming abandonment; his reputation gave way in shaming slander; his decency gave way in shaming nakedness; his comfort gave way in shaming torture. It reminded him that he was different, set apart and holy.
Crucially, mature Christians must embrace a similar type of shame (Hebrews 12:2,3) and instead rejoice in God’s approval of their behaviour. Feeling left out is not only a sign but it also has a purifying effect in the life of a believer. It weans you off the world and prepares you for a new one. It makes you even more effective because to maintain your prophetic witness you need to maintain a prophetic distance. The truth of the matter is that we (Christians) cannot hope to change the world if we are motivated by the same things they are motivated by. What’s the difference? How can you aim to influence people who don’t see you as different? If they only see you as ‘better’ than they are, then they will wrongly assume that they just need to work harder to get to your ‘level’ when in reality they need to be saved and born again. Here are some helpful passages on standing out.
Brothers and sisters, in view of all we have just shared about God’s compassion, I encourage you to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, dedicated to God and pleasing to him. This kind of worship is appropriate for you. Don’t become like the people of this world. Instead, change the way you think. Then you will always be able to determine what God really wants—what is good, pleasing, and perfect.1. Romans 12:1-2
Therefore, your minds must be clear and ready for action. Place your confidence completely in what God’s kindness will bring you when Jesus Christ appears again. Because you are children who obey God, don’t live the kind of lives you once lived. Once you lived to satisfy your desires because you didn’t know any better. But because the God who called you is holy, you must be holy in every aspect of your life.1 Peter 1:13-15
You people are not faithful to God! You should know that loving what the world has is the same as hating God. So anyone who wants to be friends with this evil world becomes God’s enemy.James 4:4
I believe we must reclaim the forgotten message of consecration. It is not enough to know Christian doctrines or to paint a nice Christian veneer on the surface of our lives. God wants our hearts. We must embrace the cross daily. It is not enough to simply avoid the sins that our Christian culture says are the “worst”; we must also allow God’s knife to slay the pride, the self-will, the self-confidence and the self-glorification that our backslidden Christian culture encourages. We must consider that if we continue to indulge in the culture we are commissioned to change, we will be continually sanded until, subtly (and sadly) unbeknownst to us, our love grows cold and we are rendered blunt and ineffective in the hands of our Master.