A popular song titled, “Not of this World”, recorded by the Christian rock group Petra back in the 80’s, asserted that ‘we are strangers, we are aliens, we are not of this world.’ This scriptural concept is often misunderstood or misrepresented, yet is quite important if we are to live a life patterned after that of Christ’s. (Andrew Peterson’s more recent CD “The Far Country,” likewise emphasizes this same theme, reminding us that we are indeed residing in a country far from home – to which we should be looking to return.)
Inspiration for lyrics such as these comes, at least in part, from 1 Peter 1:1 & 17, where Peter encourages Christians to be, “…God’s elect, strangers in the world,…” In doing so however, he was not calling for odd behavior but expressing an expectation of a radically changed attitude in our relationship with the world. But what does that mean? Are we to be unfriendly, reserved in our acceptance of others, aloof in establishing relationships? Absolutely not! He was calling for us to be different – on purpose – with a purpose. Being different and acting differently are not necessarily the same thing; the appearance of strangeness at times merely characterizing someone who lives his life outside the circle of usual and customary behavior. In promoting a Christian lifestyle, we will dress, act and speak in a way that an immodest society will notice and consider odd; our modesty, morals and attitudes becoming noticeably different as a natural consequence of our mind’s being in tune with God’s will.
Understand! This will be difficult. We all want to be noticed, as long as we don’t stand out, which is sometimes impossible for a genuine Christian. Besides, being different has always been considered a birthright in this country; to our benefit and shame. It is our responsibility to be so in a gracious, constructive way. The biblical call to “strangeness” centers on unfamiliarity with the attitudes, motivations and vices of the world, even as we seek to establish relationships with people who question and challenge our beliefs and lifestyle. We must refrain from participation in the world’s activities and the advice of its leaders while preparing ourselves to show the world a better way of living through obedience to God and loving concern for mankind. Our strangeness finding expression not in something we portray but in someone we are; ‘reverent strangers in the world,’ (My paraphrase) dedicated to a higher calling.
Christians should never strive for personal notoriety through their attempts to influence others with the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, but we will inevitably gain a certain recognizability as we share in the awesome responsibility and tremendous opportunity with Paul, who declared that God has, “…reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” 2 Corinthians 5:18-20
Besides the expectation of our being strange or strangers in the world, Peter called for us to be aliens. (1 Peter 2:11) So what’s the difference between being strangers and being an alien or foreigner? Aliens could be extra-terrestrials, which I suppose we might become one day – a citizen of heaven rather than earth – but I don’t think that’s what Peter had in mind. (Although Paul does declare in Philippians 3:20 that, “…our citizenship is in heaven.”, even now.) Aliens, in this context, are people from another place or country, with a different culture, traditions and expectations. Yet in being aliens, we are not to be alienated or withdrawn from the people of the society we live in but rather refrain from the practices of that society that differ from God’s expectations of us, seeking to change that society from within. Being in this world – but not a part of it. Hating the sin but loving the sinner.
Living in the world without being a part of it is a lot like breathing, which we must do to survive, but we don’t become air ourselves. More to the point, it is common knowledge that our atmosphere consists in large part of water, which shields us from the harmful effects of the sun and allows our earth to maintain a hospitable environment; that water covers a majority of the earth’s surface; that our bodies consist in large part of various kinds of fluid – or water. We breathe moisture into our lungs as humidity, we bathe in it to cleanse ourselves, we cook with it and drink it in various forms to quench our thirst and cleanse our bodies of toxins and waste. We must have water to live. In fact, we can survive longer without food than without water. And yet, a balance must be strictly maintained. We can actually become toxic from drinking too much water; very high humidity levels makes it difficult to breathe and move about; our bodies can retain too much water, literally suffocating us if not remedied. A graphic example of this danger is shown through the act of swimming. When we swim, we place our bodies into water, sometimes submerging ourselves completely in it and all is well until we mistakenly take it into our bodies in a way we shouldn’t. We likewise must be present in the world, our purpose demands it; but our call commands a certain separation from it as well.
Is there a risk in being alien? Certainly! In most every society, to be alien and unfamiliar with a culture’s customs generates a certain stigma and aloofness. We can expect just such a reaction from the world at large if we genuinely live the life we are called to; treated differently as we create curiosity and opportunity or resentment and irritation. It is up to us to prove we can be different even as we experience many of the same hopes and desires, needs and difficulties of every inhabitant of this world – but with a God who directs and provides. By showing our love for others through our love for Jesus we can prove that being different is not only ok, but better than anything else the world has to offer.
Check back next week for more on how to be ‘Not of this world.’
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