Sunday, September 10, 2017

LIVING WELL IN THIS WORLD

As you might suppose, one’s view of life is affected in many ways by living in a foreign country. At least mine has been. I am not talking about mere travel.  I am not referring to tourism. What I mean is when one needs to settle down for an extended period in a foreign land, long enough where he has to buy or rent a house and set up a residence. I have had to do this (I just counted) six times in six separate countries of the world other than the United States.

This is different than travel or tourism, for in settling down, a person must learn to live in a culture that is foreign to anything that he has ever before experienced. It is possible to exist, certainly, but to live in a content manner is a different matter entirely, and it is not always easily accomplished.

I suppose almost all expatriates (as these foreign dwellers are called) must struggle with this difficulty of living contently while overseas. This especially seems to be true for us fortunate ones—we individuals who have come from loving and caring homes in our home countries.

There are different ways that people find to deal with this inner conflict of living in a foreign culture. It is interesting to note the various ways in which people respond to this change in their lifestyle.


Some, quite frankly, never do become comfortable in their new surroundings. Some continually find fault and criticize every minor aspect of their new country. They tenaciously cling on to whatever they can of their past life, both in the practical, such as food and clothing, and even in the symbolic and emotional ties that they have to their homeland.

Then there are other expatriates who go to the complete opposite extreme, throwing off their old life like last year’s clothing style and completely and shamelessly embracing all of the ways of their new country. Some of these people go so far as to reject many of the values and thinking of their home country, even the neutral or positive aspects. They almost seem to come to live in a state of denial, as if they had never been a product of their home culture, and even become ashamed to admit that they are from the country of their birth. This was especially true of some Americans that I have known overseas. 
It is interesting observing how different people deal with the unique problems faced in being an expatriate. And in addition to this, it causes one to do a lot of self-reflection and self-criticism. "Why am I reacting the way that I am?"

Which Culture is the “Correct” One?

When there is a distinct difference between cultures, it is common to consider one culture right and one culture wrong on these issues. For example, in North America, we sometimes equate efficiency with what is correct and right.

But very often, especially in the places where I have lived and worked, things are just not done in an efficient manner. We chafe at the need for us to have to suffer along with such an ineffective system.

Yet can we say that because it is inefficient, it is wrong? In Latin America, for instance, there is generally more importance placed on relationships than there is on punctuality. The people there are not so quick to sacrifice personal connections in order to gain efficiency.

When we lived there, I experienced numerous times when the traffic had come to a stand-still because two cars were stopped in the street, each in their own line of traffic on both sides of the road. The cars were driven by friends who had been going the opposite direction, and had met as they drove along. Upon meeting each other, they naturally stopped their cars, and with window down and elbow out the window, they caught up a bit on the news with one another.

We could discuss all day what may be the best, but I do not think that we could ever come to an agreement as to which way is “right” and which is “wrong.”

There are things about different cultures, of course, that are inherently right or inherently wrong. The problem comes in determining what those things are. If we tend to be of the first type of expatriate who finds comfort of the ways of our home country, our inclination probably will be to assume that the way in which we are accustomed to live (our home culture), is right, and the new way is wrong. This may not always be the case, and it is sometimes difficult to admit this.
 

This is the interaction of cultures—a very interesting and not-so-simple a subject. Nevertheless, it is one about which every Christian must think. Not only missionaries. Not only people who live and work among people of differing cultures, but every Christian—even those who never step foot out of the US, and even those who never have interaction with people from other lands. 

The Conflicting Cultures of Heaven and of the World

That is because all Christians are bi-cultural. All Christians are expatriates, if you will. We all must constantly attempt to judge between what are often two conflicting views. As followers of Christ, we are, as it were, people from another culture. If we have been born into Christ, we are of a heavenly culture. Yet, we are called to live here in the culture of the world. It is to us a foreign culture.

However, it is even somewhat more confusing than that, because despite the fact that we are of a heavenly culture, as it has happened, we were actually raised in the culture of the world. It is because of this that the culture of the world sometimes seems right to us. Because of its familiarity to us and because it is comfortable, we tend to cling tenaciously to it. 

The Clash of Cultures

In fact the whole situation is a little confusing. Like expatriates who have not learned to be comfortable or to live well in a foreign country, neither have we as Christians learned to live well in the world. We live exactly at the point of a clash of two cultures. It is one of the major teachings of Jesus. How is it that we have so greatly missed it?

We have the words of Jesus in John 12:31-32. “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”

Jesus spoke here of the decisive point in history when the two kingdoms came into direct conflict. He is referring to the moment of his crucifixion. It was at this very point that he began to draw men unto himself. And it is in this context that he speaks of judgment coming upon this world, along with the casting out the ruler of this world. What does he mean by this?

The word world is not a simple word. To understand what Jesus meant and to understand correctly this clash of cultures, we must first understand this word. 

The World and its Adornments

The word for world is kosmos in Greek, but it does not have exactly the same meaning that we often attach to the English word cosmos. In classical Greek, it speaks of something arranged in an orderly and harmonious fashion—or it could mean an adornment.

For example, we are told in the book of Luke that some people were viewing the temple in Jerusalem of that day and admiring how it was adorned with beautiful stones (Luke 21:5). John speaks in the book of Revelation of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2). The word used in these places for adornment is the verb form of kosmos.

Adornment might be merely superficial, or it might be of more abiding qualities. Peter advises wives, “Your adornment must not be merely external, but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:3-4 NAS).

This is the use of the word kosmos: an orderly arrangement. It is helpful to remember this as we consider some variations of the word. 

Some Twists in the Kosmos

But the word kosmos can also refer to the material world. “God made the world and everything in it,” Paul said (Acts 17:24).

John also said, “He was in the world and the world was made through Him.”

But in this statement by John, he follows it with a twist on the word world. Here we begin to see a distinction in the meaning as he uses the word to refer also to the culture of the world. To quote the entire sentence of John, he said, “He [Jesus] was in the world and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him(John 1:10 NAS, italics added).

These who did not know Jesus were the inhabitants of the world. This is the whole race of men who are alienated from God. The world cannot receive the Spirit of truth, John said, “Because it does not see Him or know Him.”

So the word world means the created world and also its people, but there is also yet another little facet to this word world. This one is even a little more difficult to grasp. 

The World System

John said in another place, “Do not love the world nor the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world; the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father but it is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16, NAS).

How is the word “world” used in this case? It is here that we see the classical use of the word kosmos. The world in this sense is the whole system and arrangement of governments, economies, and the market-driven production machine of every description of consumer goods (isn’t it strange that we call them “goods”). To live well in this world, we must understand this aspect of the word world.

What is this pervasive arrangement and system of the world, and how did it arise? If it really is evil, as John said in the verse above, how then are we to live within it? Assuredly, we are still here in the world and must function here as expatriates from another culture.

Well, about the world system being evil—if we believe the words of Jesus, we must say that it is certainly evil. The world “hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil,” Jesus said again (John 7:7, NAS).

We should note the context here as well, because Jesus was not talking about some overtly and obviously evil event. At the time when Jesus spoke of the evil deeds of the world, his brothers were telling him that he should go with them to a religious festival to promote himself to the world.

This perspective of the brothers of Jesus is understandable, for this is the natural way of the world. In order to gain a following, one must present himself to the world. It is the world, then, that becomes the judge as to what is and what is not acceptable.

But Jesus already knew what this judgment of the world would be. “The world hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil,” he said. 

The Personification of the World

When Jesus spoke of the world, he almost personified it. How is it that the world can actually hate someone? How can the world determine what is acceptable? This is more than millions of individual and independent decisions. There is a system here. There is an order.

As Christ is the head of the church, the worldly system also has its head. Jesus spoke of this head in John 12:31. Do we remember the verse? “Now,” he said, “the ruler of this world will be cast out.” (Elsewhere he speaks of the ruler of this world as having “no claim on me” (John 14:30), and as being judged (16:11).

There is an order to what we see in the world; there is a system with a head. We tend to think not. We tend to think that the world system is simply a series of unconnected events and decisions made by various independent nations based upon their own self-interests.

It is not. It is more than that, and because we have not completely understood this, we have not known how to live well in the world. Because we have not understood the world’s far-reaching effects, we have seen often the world affect the church far more than the church has affected the world.

Let us never make the mistake that we should try to befriend this system of the world. However, we must also be careful here. I did not say that we should not befriend the people of the world. I said the world system. This is not the same as referring to the people that inhabit the earth.

But when it comes to the world as a system, let there be no doubt, this is kingdom that is in direct conflict with the kingdom of God. John puts it this way: “We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19 NAS).

Jesus said, “The world hates Me, because I testify of it that its deeds are evil.” 

Living in the World

 Having come to this point, what should our response be? Like it or not, we live in the world. Jesus has left us here for purposes we have never fully understood. “I do not ask that you take them out of the world,” Jesus prayed to the Father, “but that you keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15, ESV).

How are we then, as expatriates in a foreign land, to live in this worldly culture? As I mentioned earlier, one way that some people attempt to survive as expatriates in a foreign country is to maintain as much as their home culture in their lives as they can. By this, I do not simply mean an American celebrating Fourth of July, for instance, or other national holidays of one’s home country. I mean that these people shut out the local culture in every manner in which they are able, and continue to grasp on to their home culture.

As an example, everyone living in a foreign land loves it when they are able to have a meal from their homeland and that they grew up with, but I have known some people who had barely even tried any of the local cuisine of the country where they were residing, and who ate only food prepared as they had in their home countries. This is always done at great expense, since it involves buying many imported foods and even shopping in stores that cater only to foreigners, with prices several times those of local shops.

In other ways as well, these people try to shut out the local culture. They live in their own little world. It is an unrealistic world to be sure, since no matter how hard they try to make their lives so, they are not in their homeland. They indeed are in a foreign country. 

Blocking out the World

Interestingly, when it comes to Christians living in this present world, many people try to cope using this very same method. As much as they are able to do it, they shut out the world. They refuse to involve themselves in the structure of the world in every way that they can. They may even establish their own little communities, where they function by their own rules and live in their own insulated culture. Some groups have rules that regulate even the smallest details of daily living—what the people are allowed or not allowed to do, and even what they may or may not wear as clothing.

Is this the answer? Should we withdraw and refuse to be part of the world system? James tells us that we are to keep ourselves unstained by the world (1:27), but is the proper solution to shut the world out completely, and to establish, as it were, a life and culture apart and isolated from the society around us? Is the answer to create and live in little enclaves where one tries to keep the things of the world out?

In some ways, I admire these types of attempts to keep oneself unspotted by the world, but frankly, I do not think it is a satisfactory answer. 

The Danger of Being Controlled by Evil Things

One of the reasons that I do not think that this is the proper response to our difficulty with living in the world is from something that the Apostle Paul has written. No one puts it clearer than does he: 

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch”…according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.     Colossians 2:20-23 (ESV, italics added) 

We sometimes think that to keep the world from having a part in us, we must make a list of rules in the church of things that we may or may not do. We have tried that often in the past, and I think that we have found that it does not work. It may give, “the appearance of wisdom,” as Paul said, but in the end is of no value.

You see, by coming up with a list of things that we should do and things that we must never do, we in some ways demonstrate that the world still has its control over us. It may appear that the world has no part in us, but inwardly there remains the constant struggle.

Please understand this clearly. Paul is not advocating becoming part of the world and then just trying to convince ourselves by saying that our actions do not matter or that they have no effect on our spiritual lives. If you think that, you are missing the point entirely. This is not what Paul said. These matters of sin are of great importance and of great consequence, but our manner of dealing with them is often wrong. Paul continues: 

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.   Colossians 3:5-10 (ESV) 

The solution is not in making a list of rules and laws, but to come to the recognition that these things will have eventual hazardous consequences. They are opposed to the culture of God and will eventually be judged and incur his wrath. 

The Danger of Being Controlled by Everyday Things

Nevertheless, as troubling as these lusts of the world are to us, it may not be these things at all that give us the very biggest problems, and which inhibit us from living well in this world. What about matters such as finances or employment? What about the clothes that we wear and the cars we drive? These are not inherently evil things. However, they are worldly things. It is certainly easy to see that these things are part of the world as a system, and that they can, and often do, control us.

What is to be our attitude toward these things? Here are some more words of Paul from the same passage of scripture: 

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.    Colossians 3:1-4 (ESV) 

The answer to our struggle of how to live well in this world is found exactly in this statement by Paul. The key is his observation that our lives are “hidden with Christ.” We will examine this in the post next Sunday.

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