“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” — John 17:15-18
As followers of Jesus, we live in a perpetual tension, living as residents of the world, but belonging to the Kingdom of God. The familiar shorthand, “in the world but not of it,” expresses that never-quite-comfortable space we occupy. We engage with our neighborhoods, communities, nation, and planet, but we resist buying into the world’s power games, predatory systems, and self-serving idolatries.
During the second century, a Christian writer named Diognetus wrote a tract defending the Christian faith. In this writing, he captured the perpetual tension we live in with an insight that is still relevant nearly 1800 years later.
“Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle….While they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are “in the flesh,” but do not live “according to the flesh.” They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted…”
Diognetus describes the reality that we Christians are engaged with the concrete places in which we live — we speak the local language, eat the local food, root for the local teams. Yet our highest loyalties and deepest values belong not to the local economy or the local government but to the Lord. This doesn’t mean that we can’t participate in local life, but the way we engage is first and foremost as followers of Jesus Christ, rather than as devotees or a particular market system or members of a particular political party. Everything else in our lives is shaped by our faith commitments, which can make us look strange to those who live by different values and commitments.
Jesus said that though we don’t belong to the world, we have been sent into the world to serve God’s Kingdom purposes. It’s a delicate dance to be sure. May God grant us wisdom as we live in the tension, always seeking to align ourselves with the Lord.