Campus Blog

In But Not Of

Austin Ross
“Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

- John 17:11b-18

One of my first weeks as a freshman at Ohio University, we had one of those big meet-and-greet parties at a house where a handful of student leaders lived. It was, as all freshman parties are, a desperate time of vaguely enforced joviality as we all blindly sought out human contact and friendship in this new and alien environment. Saying your name and major over and over again to people you’ll just have to be reminded of again later becomes something of a mantra during those times, losing its literal meaning and instead becoming mere syllables, a numinous sound you cling to for comfort.

As the evening was winding down, I was in the backyard with a handful of other people and we were playing cornhole. There was a girl there who I would describe as the life of the party—fun to be around, but intimidatingly outgoing. And it became quickly apparent that she was “interested” in me, in the way a lion might be “interested” in an antelope. At various and seemingly random times throughout the evening, she would grab my hand, lean on my shoulder, etc. I should probably add that I had never met her before that night.

As some of us were walking back towards campus after the party had finished, she said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: “You’re not really into all this Christianity stuff, right?” 

It didn’t really sound like a question—it was more of a statement, as though she’d noticed something about me that indicated a divide between what I said I believed and how I acted. The funny thing is, she was right. Most of my freshman year, I wasn’t really into “all this Christianity stuff.” The only reason I agreed to go to our weekly meeting at all was because I didn’t want to look unspiritual in front of my twin brother. (Which, coincidentally, I found out later was the same reason he said he’d go. God can use all kinds of motivations, however messed up.)

Take a look at the above passage from John 17. Jesus is praying that we, as his disciples, would remain in the world, but that we would not be infected by the values of that same world. It’s a tall order. And it seems to me that there are three ways that we naturally want to invert this command.

The first is that we want to be of the world and in the world. This is when people around you say, “you say you’re a Christian, but you act just like the rest of us.” This was me during that freshman year. There was something about me that indicated to others that something wasn’t lining up between what I said and what I believed. My mind and my heart weren’t in alignment, and people were noticing. I was of the world and in the world.

The second way we invert this is to be of the world but not in the world. By that I mean that we would have the same values as the world, but we remain in our Christian bubble. An example of this would be to read the story of any disgraced former mega-church pastor. These types of stories really aren’t in short supply, and they all seem to follow a pattern—somebody falls into habitual sin and keeps it a secret. But because habitual sin, if left unchecked by accountability, invariably leads to more sin and a callous heart, they grow more and more bold until they are finally caught and the jig is up. Think of all the stories of pastors who have affairs with their secretaries, who misuse funds allocated for ministry, who lie—all while putting a smile on their face in front of their congregation on Sunday mornings.

And this inversion is not true for spiritual leaders only. There are definitely people in your movement who are lying through their teeth about who they really are. We must encourage—by example—everyone in our movements to bring every area of life into the light of the gospel. If we don’t do it willingly, it will be dragged into the light forcibly by the hand of the Almighty, because you cannot maintain a lifestyle of sin and pretend to follow God—and this is because God wants us to grow. Growth is painful a lot of the time. It’s kind of a package deal.

The third way we invert this is to be neither of the world nor in the world. We can all be easily tempted towards this isolationism, towards the belief that it is our right understanding and our right behavior that saves us, rather than Jesus Christ. We lean towards isolationism when we view ourselves as the subject and not the object of salvation, that we are the ones who save and not the ones who are saved. We develop all these systems of right behavior, and enforce them on others to make ourselves feel better. We view ourselves as more righteous because we don’t listen to “secular” music, or watch “non-Christian” movies. We add extra-biblical requirements, thinking that if we do so we will be holier or more righteous than others—when in reality all we’re doing is building a house of cards that can so easily be blown over.

Jesus tells us in this passage that as Christians, the world will hate us...but we should not give the world unnecessary reasons to hate us. The hatred Jesus is talking about should be because the world can do nothing but acknowledge the reality of God because of our conduct—it should not be because we are self-righteous and unlovable, believing the best in ourselves and the worst in everyone else. If we are hated because of Jesus, it should be because they see him in us and cannot deny what he’s done, not because we have made an unbiblical distinction between “those sinners over there” and “us righteous folk over here.” Before God, we all deserve the same fate. It is only because He is loving and kind and merciful that He saves any of us.

Therefore, let us strive to be in the world—to engage others with mercy, grace, truth, love—and yet not be of the world. It’s a tall order—but we know the only One who perfectly demonstrated what this looked like, and he has given us this same power through his Spirit. Let us, then, look to his example—and ask for his help.

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