Dare to be Different
There is a famous photograph taken in 1937 that records the launch of a newly built ship for the German navy. In the picture, hundreds of shipyard workers have their arms extended in a Nazi salute. If you look closely at the photo, however, you will find one man with a smirk on his face, standing with his arms folded defiantly across his chest. The worker has been identified as August Landmesser, a German man, later sent to a concentration camp, eventually to be killed on the eastern front. Though Landmesser initially joined the Nazi party to obtain employment, his love for his Jewish wife opened his eyes to the twisted nature of the Third Reich’s ideology. Many of his peers also recognized these evils, but Landmesser was one of the few who had the courage to stand for the truth.
I like to think that, had I been present in that German shipyard, I would have stood with Landmesser in defiance of the crowd. But taking a stand against the spirit of one’s age is not an easy thing to do.
All Christians know the temptation to conform to the world. In every generation, there are societal norms that contradict the teachings of Scripture, and the pressure to adhere to those norms can be intense. One Christian teen says that living for Christ in a public high school makes her feel like “the one fish swimming in the opposite direction than all the other fishes.” Pastor Sugel Michelén writes, “If a believer is not vigilant … worldliness will enter their heart, and to the extent that worldliness enters their heart, their spiritual deterioration and drifting from God will occur.” It is never easy to stand firm for Christ when those around you are bowing to the gods of the world.
But Scripture tells us again and again that, if we want to follow Christ, we will often have to go against the crowd. Jesus said, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). Paul urged Christians to reject “the wisdom of the world,” reminding them that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age” (1 Cor. 3:19; Gal. 1:4). John warned us, “If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them,” just as James wrote that “anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (1 Jn. 2:15; James 4:4). Christian author Tony Reinke writes, “We can love and treasure the day Christ will return. Or we can love the world. But we cannot go on trying to love the world and love the day of Christ’s return.”
There are two essential things that Christians need if they are to stand firm for Christ in a godless world. Those two things are conviction and community.
In his book, The Discipline of Grace, author Jerry Bridges defines conviction as “a determinative belief: something you believe so strongly that it affects the way you live.” He notes that “a belief is what you hold, but a conviction is what holds you.”
To be able to see through the fog of worldly wisdom so we can live for God, we must allow the Holy Spirit to form godly convictions within us that arise from Scripture. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” The antidote to conformity is mental transformation – to have one’s mind shaped by the word, rather than by the world.
If our exposure to Scripture is significantly less than our exposure to entertainment, social media, and cable news, we should not be surprised to find our vision for God’s kingdom growing dim. On the other hand, if we regularly allow God’s Spirit to speak to us from the pages of our Bibles, we can expect our capacity to see through society’s lies to grow.
The importance of being guided by God’s word is highlighted when we recognize that the line between godliness and worldliness is often a very thin one. Where does shopping end and consumerism begin? When does prudent saving become fear-based hoarding? How do we love our gay friends without embracing an unbiblical view of human sexuality? How do we serve our country without bowing at the altar of nationalism? The Apostle Paul wrote, “Those who buy something, [should behave] as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, [should live] as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:30-31). We are called to live in the world without being of the world. This is not easy to do.
Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” As God’s word creates clear convictions within us of what is right and what is wrong, the dark shadows around us are illuminated by God’s truth. We begin to see clearly how God wants us to live. We start to recognize the lies bombarding us from the world. Our ability to stand firmly for Christ grows in relation to the attention we pay to Scripture.
Jesus said, “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Mt. 7:13-14). We should expect, when we follow Jesus, to find ourselves in the minority. But being in the minority does not mean we have to be alone. One thing that can help us stand against the tide of worldly pressure is to participate in genuine community with other believers.
The book of Philippians was written to a small congregation of Christians struggling to follow Jesus in a context of pervasive paganism. Unlike most of the cities where Paul planted churches, Philippi apparently did not have a big enough Jewish population to support a local synagogue. (See Acts 16:12-13.) The culture of that city, therefore, had been largely uninfluenced by biblical truth. Sorcery was practiced openly; antisemitism abounded (Acts 16:16, 20). Paul likened the members of the Philippian church to “children of God … in a warped and crooked generation,” urging them to “shine among them like stars in the sky” and to “hold firmly to the word of life” (Phil. 2:15-16). Paul warned the Philippians that “many live as enemies of the cross of Christ,” exhorting them to “stand firm in the Lord” (Phil. 3:18; 4:1).
How would these early believers hold onto their faith in such a spiritual oppressive context? It is interesting to note how frequently, in his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle stressed the importance of Christian community. He wanted to see them “stand firm in one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel.” He urged them to be “like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” He cautioned them to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit [but rather] in humility [to] value others above yourselves.” He counseled them to follow his example and to “keep your eyes on those who live as we do.” He pleaded with church leaders in conflict to resolve their differences and “be of the same mind in the Lord.” He instructed the entire congregation to “greet all God’s people in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:27; 2:2, 3; 3:17; 4:2, 21) In other words, the Apostle’s solution to the destructive influence of the surrounding world was for believers to maintain close, loving relationships with each other.
In sports, people often talk about the home-court or home-field advantage. This refers to the benefit teams enjoy when they do not have to compete on the road. Playing at home can have a huge impact on a game. (In the 2018-2019 NBA regular season, home teams won more than 70% of the games.) There are certainly several reasons for this phenomenon, but one of the most important is the help players receive by being cheered on by their fans. Even elite athletes, who have spent thousands of hours training for their sport, are impacted by whether the voices around them are shouting encouragement or crying out for their defeat.
If this is true in the realm of sports, how much more so in the spiritual realm. We need to be surrounded by voices that encourage us. We need the fellowship of other believers if we are going to stand for the Lord.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together was written from his experience leading an underground seminary in which he trained leaders for the Confessing Church movement that stood in opposition to the Nazi Party. In the book he describes the importance of Christian community for those who hope to live for Christ in a godless age. He wrote, “If you scorn the fellowship of your brothers and sisters, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.” He also wrote, “Sin demands to have a person by themself. It withdraws them from the community. The more isolated a person is the more attractive will be the power of sin over them, and … the more disastrous their isolation will be.” Sometimes the difference between standing for Christ and conforming to the world is the presence of one brother or sister who prays for us and encourages us in our faith.
What are ways God is calling you to stand firm for Christ in our present age? How might the call of God lead you to live differently than those around you? In his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Christian poet Wendell Berry wrote, “Every day do something that won’t compute.” That is not easy to do. Allowing God to form biblical convictions within you and uniting in community with other believers are essential for those whose desire is to stand firm in the Lord.