Friday, January 19, 2007

In Not Of

We are often reminded that as Christians we are to be “in” the world but not “of” the world. Here the term “world” is used equivocally, for we are “in” the world as the place of God’s creation where we dwell and experience life, but we are not supposed to be “of” the world—the world in this sense being the arena of apostasy, everything in the world that is not of God or is set against Him, the degeneracy of certain elements of our culture, etc. This idea has been taken, at least in part, from Jesus’ high-priestly prayer to the Father, for his disciples: “I am not praying for the world [in the negative sense]… they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (John 17:9, 14-15). Since He doesn’t ask them to be taken out of the world (the world He has created), they are to be in the world, but He also makes clear that they are not of the world, that is, not belonging to it, not following its godless ways (“I testify of it that its works are evil”; John 7:7).

All this is true, but perhaps does not exhaust the meaning of being in the world and not of it, since it is mainly a negative approach, that is: be not of the world so as to avoid all its evils. St Paul also deals with the issue, though not in precisely the same terms, but he supplies a positive dimension as well.

He begins by saying: “Why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (Col. 2:20). This presupposes that Christians know who they are, what God has done for them, and what their destiny is. The negative part is that Christians have “died” to the world, that is, have severed their inordinate worldly attachments and have thus become free to focus on divine and eternal matters. Therefore, he says in another place, let “those who deal with the world act as though they had no dealings with it, for the form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties” (1Cor. 7:31-32). Again he says that our citizenship is in Heaven, so we ought not get so entangled in the world’s affairs that we lose sight of our reason for being here in the first place. We ought not adopt a “Heaven can wait” attitude while we attempt to make our fortunes here and now.

To be a Christian is to live a radically different form of life than those who are not—though externally it may not at first glance seem so different—but unfortunately the Christian Gospel has become so watered down, so compromised with the world as to seem to require little more than a bit of religious practice pasted onto an otherwise worldly life. But to accept that is to deny true Christianity and Christ as well.

St Paul now gives us the positive thrust of being not of this world: “If, then, you have been raised with Christ [i.e., if you really are a Christian], 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 hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4). So, we are not of this world because we have died to it and our lives are inserted into that of Christ, who lives in the heart of the Holy Trinity. In my last post I looked at a few ways (from this same section of Colossians) in which we “die” to the evils of the world—those sinful “pleasures” that are opposed to goodness—but here are the ways in which we live in the grace of Christ, while still in the world: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience… as the Lord has forgiven you, you must also forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…and be thankful” (3:12-15). That is how we live in the world without being of the world. The Lord may not take us out of the world, but as we cling to Him in faith and love He will protect us from the evil one and all the cunning seductions he offers through the agency of this world.

In order to be not “of this world,” we have to be “of God,” of Christ, that is, belonging to the world of the Spirit, of Heaven, of the grace and truth and love of the Lord. We are in this world, which is so often set against God, so as to witness to the real world, the world “hidden with Christ in God,” the world we enter through faith, the sacraments and prayer, and to which we bear witness by the way we live. To be not of this world is not simply to avoid its evils, but to infuse it with good, to help win it back for God, who so loved the world that He gave his only Son to save it.

We can’t help but be in the world as long as we live. But we have a choice about being of the world. Let us make no mistake: to be “of the world” is to be “not of God” (see John 8:23, 47, and James 4:4). And the only thing that matters on Judgment Day—which means the only thing that ultimately matters at all—is to be found to be of God.