“And the child grew and became strong in spirit and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” – Luke 1:80
This verse describes the childhood of John the Baptist. The footnote to this verse in the NIV version of the Bible says this of the passage:
“By living in the desert, John remained separate from the economic and political powers so that he could aim his message against them. He also remained separate from the hypocritical religious leaders of his day. His message was different from theirs and his life proved it.”
I think there’s a message in there for us all, at least metaphorically speaking. John the Baptist lived his early life in isolation so that he could block out the distractions of the day as he developed his message and his mission. As Christians, we’re not called upon by God to be prophets, but we are called to be a priesthood of believers (1 Peter 2:9). Isolation is overkill in our cases, but a certain amount of detachment may be absolutely necessary.
If you doubt this, consider Jesus’ prayer for his Disciples and for all believers:
“I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” – John 17:14-16 (Emphasis mine)
As believers, we often get a little too deep into the world, and do it in a way that can not only compromise our witness, but even create a negative witness, the kind that turns people away from the faith. Consider the possibilities.
Christians and politics
A few years ago I was standing in a grocery store checkout line, making small talk with the cashier and a couple in front of me. The guy in the couple talked about one of those End Times/Rapture books. He excitedly told us how during the Rapture in the book, all the believers were pulled up to Heaven, including George W. and Laura Bush.
Now if you’re a Republican or a conservative, you won’t give that much thought – you’ll think that’s as it should be. After all, the Bushes were publicly declared Christians.
But what is the witness of that book – or of the believing readers of it – when it comes to Democrats, liberals, independents or even Libertarians? It could actually be a negative witness.
Such a book has an obvious faith component, based on the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation. But putting the Bushes into the storyline is interjecting a certain very definite political position into an otherwise very Christian understanding. How does the reader or listener who isn’t Republican relate to that book? Either he feels excluded in the story, or he sees the obvious political slant of the author and dismisses everything else written in the book.
And that’s really the point. The world desperately wants to reduce everything to politics. It wants to believe that there’s a political solution to every dilemma facing humanity. But from a spiritual standpoint, politics has a very real potential to become a false idol. We know from Scripture that humanity will never “get it right”, that the only path to salvation is vested in God alone. When we mix politics with faith, we’re really mixing a gospel of men with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
No matter how we may see this as either acceptable or normal from a human perspective, it’s pure heresy as a matter of faith. Sometimes as Christians we get so caught up in politics that our public pronouncements are little different from those of our secular friends, neighbors, family members, and coworkers.
For what it’s worth, I’ve seen and heard Democratic Christians do the same thing. No matter what political persuasion you are, as a Christian, you are foremost:
- A child of God,
- desperately in need of salvation through Jesus Christ alone, and
- ultimately a citizen of Heaven.
It’s fine to vote and to do your civic duty, but we must be especially careful that we are not blending politics into our faith. When we do, we’re behaving exactly the way the world does, and we have no faith witness.
Christians and criminal justice
Maybe it’s because I live in an area that has a large population of fundamentalist Christians, but I’ve noticed the unmistakable trend in many Christians to enthusiastically support the criminal justice system. I often wonder how this appears to nonbelievers.
This support includes passing more and tougher laws, building more prisons and the imposition of the death penalty. But in Matthew 9:13 Jesus said following:
“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Emphasis mine)”
Now I realize that there are different opinions in regard to criminal justice, but recognizing that we are all sinners – and called to extend mercy to other sinners – how do we square this with support for greater levels of incarceration and for the death penalty?
It seems to me that if we’re believing Christians, we should struggle in this area much more than we often do. We should find both aspects of criminal justice – the commission of the crime and the administration of justice – to be deeply sad events. I think that God grieves all of it, and we should do the same.
The next time that you see or hear someone arrested, don’t assume their guilt. Don’t jump on the media bandwagon of wanting to see an accused or convicted person “fried” for their crime. Criminal justice in America has turned into a sick, modern-day form of entertainment, not entirely unlike the administration of Roman justice 2,000 years ago. If you doubt this, just turn on your TV and watch the litany of criminal justice shows, as well as the heavy focus on crime that your local TV news programs offer up. Yes, people and organizations are quite literally profiting from the public obsession with criminal justice. How much do we want to feed that?
Maybe the better response for a Christian in witnessing the prosecution of an accused criminal should be found in the saying, “But for the Grace of God go I.” I think that might be a more effective witness than enthusiastic support for prosecution.
Christians and world affairs
Too many Christians today see war through the lens of eschatology (the study of the End Times as prophesied in the Bible). This is particularly true if the conflict occurs in the Middle East, involves the nation of Israel, or the global heavyweights, such as China and Russia.
But if you study eschatology, it’s about the conflict between powers beyond this world, in which Jesus Christ will ultimately triumph. To many Christians, any time there’s a war, Armageddon is at hand, and the United States of America is leading the forces of Jesus, marching to vanquish the enemies of God. Few state this publicly (though some well-known televangelists are more honest about it) and for many it isn’t a conscious thought. But it seems to have become a convenient way for believers to wrap their faith around the ancient human art of war.
I believe that the appeal of war from a Christian standpoint – much like that of criminal justice – is that it seems to a play on the good-versus-evil theme, but on a grand scale. The human side of us likes that kind of conflict. It’s a time when right and wrong seem to be as clear as day. But that’s not a faith position – it’s human one. Humanity is all about conventions, which are beliefs and assumptions that we make that enable us to simplify complex problems.
When it comes to war, the good and evil that seemed so apparent at the start of the conflict often become meaningless when things get ugly. And history has shown that most conflicts occur for reasons that were much different than the stated purpose at the outset (usually it‘s rooted in economics).
War is ultimately a messy affair in which people are killed, wounded, mistreated, and often displaced. It is also a time in which land and other assets change hands at the point of a gun. As much as we may think that our country is in the right, and the opponent is completely wrong, war is not something we should ever celebrate or advocate lightly. Soldiers will go off to war and never come back, wives and husbands will be widowed, and children will lose a mother or father. And in virtually any war, innocent people are killed – and some of them are our Christian brethren. This should not be viewed as acceptable simply because such people live in “enemy territory”. War is a massive, orchestrated human tragedy.
Except in very rare instances, when Christians get caught up in a war frenzy, we may be digging into the world a little bit too deep. It is often said that truth is the first casualty of war, but if you’re a Christian, then faith is most likely the first. That’s when we trust in our leaders, our soldiers and our weapons, and when the voice of the Holy Spirit goes soft in our hearts.
Please visualize this outcome…
Many Christians oppose anti-war movements, often labeling them as “pacifists” and even “un-American”. But let’s step back and view the development from afar. On the one hand we have “left wing, anti-American pacifists” calling for peace, and on the other, we have the followers of Jesus Christ advocating for support of war. (We’ve now softened that position with the widely popular Support our Troops motto).
As a Christian, do you see a conflict in any of that? Have you considered how non-believers might perceive it? Does it look at all hypocritical? And most important, what does it speak of our witness to the world?
On Wednesday we’ll continue with Part II of this series, discussing popular Christian positions on morality, people who are somehow different, and my personal favorite, worry. We’ll also discuss what might be the better approach to dealing with all of these issues – one that might be more effective in the course of evangelism. Please come back.