The Courage to be Different

The article was first given as a presentation for the Faith and Allies Conference held in in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA in 1987.

God’s people today need the courage to live a way of life different from those around us. To understand the need for this courage, it is well to begin with what the New Testament teaches about the contrast between the Christian way of life and the ways of life of the “world.” Let us consider, for example, Paul’s letter to the Romans:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1-2

When he speaks about a renewal of our minds, Paul is not concerned primarily with a mental change. He is concerned with a change in our behavior, a change in our way of life. This is clear from the context. This text introduces the section of the letter that gives instruction on how to behave within the Christian community and in relation to the state. Paul’s concern is with the standard for measuring or determining appropriate Christian living. 

Consider next the first letter of Peter:

Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who has called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you invoke as Father him who judges each one impartially according to his deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

1 Peter 1:13-19

Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

1 Peter 2:11-12

The exhortation to abstain from the passions of the flesh is similar to the teaching in Romans not to be “conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.” In both cases there is a concern with our behavior, flowing from an understanding of who we are in Christ and how holy is the God who dwells in us by his life-giving Spirit.

Aliens and Exiles

The first letter of Peter speaks about “the time of your exile.” We are to live as aliens dwelling in a foreign country, keeping the ways of our true homeland. First Peter addresses these words, it can be seen from the beginning of the letter, to Jewish Christians who were living outside the land of Israel. They were maintaining their own way of life in the diaspora, far from their homeland, among people who did not believe in their God and who did not follow his ways.

To one degree or another, Christians are always in such a condition. In this world we dwell among people who do not follow our way of life because they do not believe in our God. Consequently, we dwell among them as aliens and exiles. We need to be careful to hold faithfully to what belongs to our way of life and avoid adopting what conflicts with it. The particular social and cultural circumstances in which Christians live varies greatly in different ages. Sometimes entire cultures may be broadly characterized as Christian. But the teaching of First Peter never ceases to have significance. To Christians, living amid the de-Christianized secular cultures of the West in the late twentieth century, it applies with particular force.

In the letter to the Ephesians we read:

You must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ! – assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Ephesians 4: 17-24

Paul here says that learning Christ, putting on Christ, putting on the new nature, means taking on a new way of life, different from that of the people around us who are ignorant of the Lord and his ways. The way of life people follow is a result of whether or not they know Christ and his ways.

These and other such passages show that Scripture teaches a separation in way of life between Christians and those around them who are not Christians. Three aspects of this separation bear mentioning here.

First of all, it is not a physical or geographical separation. In John 17 Jesus, praying to his Father, says of his disciples, “I sent them into the world.” We are not of the world, but we live in it. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5, “I told you, do not associate with the immoral or ungodly.” But he explains, “I did not mean the immoral and ungodly of this world, because if you wanted to stay away from them you would have had to leave this world. No, that is not what I meant, but I meant you should not tolerate that way of life in your midst” (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-13). Separation does not mean that we get away from those who do not follow the Christian way of life; it means that we get their ways out of us so that we live according to Christ’s ways.

Second, how close our ways are to the ways of those around us ought to depend on how much their way of life corresponds to God’s demands. We ought to know what the Christian way of life is and how to live it. Then we will be in a position to evaluate how well or ill the way of life of those around us reflects God’s intentions.

Third, the early Christians, knowing that their way of life had to be different from the life of those around them, expected the Christian way of life to cost them something, whether through obstacles to material advancement, loss of prestige and power, or outright persecution.

Losing Our Bearings

Today most Christians in Western societies are virtually indistinguishable from those around us, yet the world around us is becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity.

For very many Christians the differences between themselves and those around them do not constitute a distinct way of life. The differences are rather (1) mental: what they believe; (2) avoidance of the grosser forms of immorality; and (3) some pious practices. Now, the absence of a distinct Christian way of life might not be so bad if the surrounding culture were basically Christian. But whatever one thinks of Western culture in the past, it cannot be described as Christian today.

It is easy to give examples of our culture’s present hostility to Christianity. I draw from American examples, but I’m sure other Western countries would provide just as many. I offer the following list merely by way of indicating how widespread the hostility has become and how many areas of Christians’ lives are being shaped by it.

Sexual behavior. Fornication is normal in our society. Adultery is becoming so. Sexual perversions are publicly defended, and even privileged by law. The swelling volume of pornography is staggering. So is the frequency of sexual abuse of children. Since these kinds of behavior are common, and most Americans identify themselves as Christians, clearly it is not only non-Christians who are behaving in these ways.

Use of material goods. Materialism is the engine that drives our society. Thrift and hard work have always had an acquisitive thrust in American society, but in recent years we have seen greed flaunted. The constant desire for new and better material things creates dissatisfaction, suppresses the desire to have children, and leads to dishonesty in business and personal life. Again, we are talking about Christians as well as other Americans.

Speech. Whole sections of the print and electronic media fall into what the Scriptures call reviling, slander, and gossip. Christians have learned to talk the same way. We see it in controversies conducted publicly among Christians today. It is now common for Christians to handle problems among themselves with the same weapons of verbal abuse and media attack customarily employed in secular culture.

Medical ethics. Abortion is an obvious example of a severe departure from the Christian ethic. Euthansia is growing in respectability, and is actually being applied to severely handicapped infants and others.

Suffering a De-Christianization of Behavior. What I am concerned with is not whether the shapers of Western societies are hostile to God in their approaches to life (although a very good case can be made that in general they are) but whether Western culture on the whole, on the day-today level, is inimical to holy living. Furthermore, the issue is whether Christians living in this culture have been converted to its ways, suffering a de-Christianizing of their behaviour while retaining some Christian beliefs. I am convinced that there are a lot of good, believing Christians whose minds are in one place and whose values and behavior are, in practice, in a very different place – and that they are unaware of it.

Writing to the Ephesians, Paul says that sexual immorality should not even be mentioned among us. Further he says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them, for it is a shame even to speak of the things they do in secret” (see Ephesians 5:3-12). But many Christians who believe the Bible let the things that ought not to be mentioned enter their homes constantly through television. They allow these things access to their children through the music they constantly listen to.

Do Christian parents consider television from the viewpoint of not allowing into their homes the shameful works of darkness in sexual matters that ought not to be mentioned? Do they know what is in the music their children listen to? It would be foolish to say these things have no effect on those who use them.

Another example of our de facto de-Christianization is our acceptance of self-fulfillment as the goal of life. The search for self-fulfillment has become the common ideal of Western society. Self-fulfillment is an ideal at odds with the ideal of the Christian life as Jesus pronounced it. Jesus said to his disciples, “If any man come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it. Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Now there might be some senses of self-fulfillment which a Christian could own. But self-fulfillment as we find it and are influenced by it in American society today is not the creation of Christians who looked at the Scriptures and Christian tradition and reflected on how they ought then to live. Rather, our embrace of the secular ideal of self-realization stems from the fact that the cultural sea in which all of us have been swimming has been moving away from Christian values. The current has changed, and all of us, used to swimming with the current, have gone right along with it. Many of us now find ourselves in a very different place than where we expected. We have been converted in our ways in spite of what we still believe. We have lost our bearings.

Years ago a friend described to me the familiar (to his Iowan mind) phenomenon of corn rootworm (familiar because he grew up in Iowa farm country). The corn plant has two distinct sets of roots. Large, straw-like roots project diagonally from the base of the stalk into the ground. These substantial looking roots, however, bring no life to the plant. They are merely supports whose function is to hold the plant upright. There is a second set of roots – small, fine fibers extending invisibly into the soil from just below the stalk. It is these fine, unseen roots which nourish the life of the plant. It is these same fine, invisible roots which are attacked by the corn rootworm. When the attack is over, the plant stands tall and upright – but dead. The outer appearance of life lasts well after the actual death of the corn.

This is a little like what Christians in the West have been allowing to happen. We have permitted the secular culture to shape us, attacking the roots of our way of life. Many of our beliefs remain; our institutions remain. But instead of bearing a harvest, we are standing in the field, lifeless, waiting for a storm to flatten us.

Where Courage Is Needed

What does all this have to do with courage? Just this: we need to live a Christian way of life in every respect if we want to continue to believe in God and serve him effectively. And the effort to discover the Christian way of life and actually live it takes some courage.

For many people the decision to raise their children with a Christian way of life and not just with Christian beliefs requires a great deal of courage. But because of our love for God, because of our love for the revelation he has given us about how we should live, because of our reverence for God with whom we have been united by the indwelling of the Spirit of his holiness, we must learn to live a Christian way of life and pass on the Christian faith to another generation.

Father Michael Scanlan, Chancellor [now Emeritus] of the University of Steubenville in the USA, wrote that when he became responsible for the university in 1974 he saw that it was not enough to have Christian teaching in the classroom. He had to look at what the young people did in their dormitories, how they approached dating and preparation for marriage, their use of alcohol, what they did for entertainment, the use of their time. Those things had to become Christian as well, if the university was going to be Christian. The same goes for our community life, for our parish life, for our family life.

Fulfilling Our Responsibilities 

Psalm 106 gives us this terrible picture of the accommodation of God’s people to the way of life of the people around them:

They mingled with the nations
and learned to do as they did.
They served their idols,
which became a snare for them.
They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to the demons;
they poured out innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan;
and the land was polluted with blood.
Thus they became unclean by their acts,
and played the harlot in their doings. 

Psalm 106:35-39

I believe we can apply that in a fairly direct way to what is going on in Western society. We Christians have mingled with the people and learned to act as they do. Acting as they did, we began to serve their idols, one of which is the good life, the life of material ease and prosperity, life without personal responsibility, life without difficulty. And then we began to sacrifice our sons and daughters to the demons through abortion. The road we have been walking leads down and down.

We must not walk down that road any longer. We must find a different road and walk it in our daily life. I am not mainly concerned with what we might be forced to do by the people around us. I am concerned with the things that we choose to do in imitation of people who do not know the Lord. If day by day we compromise away the life of Christ, we are not going to be able to play our part when battles come. Because if we do not live a Christian way of life, we will not fall nobly in battle; we will keel over dead from an inner disease that has eaten out our heart and our soul.

That is not what God has in mind for his people. I believe that he has restoration and renewal in mind instead. That is why he is sending movements of spiritual renewal, such as the charismatic renewal. That is why he is inspiring Christians to recognize one another as brothers and sisters across denominational barriers. That is why he is sending purification and chastisement among the Christian people. It is all meant to change us, to strengthen us, to unite us, so that we will reject those ways of life that will rot us out from the inside and so that, united as brothers and sisters, we will become capable of carrying on the battle for the minds, hearts, and souls of the people around us, to whom God has given us the responsibility of announcing the good news of his Son.


This article is excerpt from Courage in Leadership, Center for Pastoral Renewal, 1988. Used with permission.

Top image of man standing on mountain top, from Bigstock.com, © by Andrushko Galyna, stock photo ID:   13811567. Scripture passage added separately.

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