The world is a seducer. It seeks to attract our attention and our devotion. It remains close at hand, visible and enticing. It eclipses our view of heaven. What is seen vies for our attention. It entices our eyes, preventing us from watching for a better country whose builder and maker is God. It pleases us—much of the time, anyway— and, alas, we often live our lives to please it. That is where conflict ensues, for pleasing the world seldom overlaps with pleasing God.
The divine call is this: “Do not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). But the world wants us to be partners with it. We are urged to participate in the fullness of it. It presses on us with the ultimate peer pressure.
Remember the anxiety we all experienced as teenagers? Our self-worth, our esteem, was measured by one magic word, a single all-encompassing standard: popularity.
To be “conformed” to this world is to be with (Latin con) the forms or structures of this world. It means doing the popular thing. The conflict is this: what is popular with people is not always popular with God. To be pleasing to God is not always to be pleasing to people. Sometimes we must choose whom we will please. This is a daily struggle in the Christian life.
In every generation, in every culture, there is a prevailing spirit. The Germans coined a word for it, zeitgeist, a term that joins two common ideas. Zeit is the German word for “time,” and geist is the German word for “spirit.” So zeitgeist means “spirit of the time” or “spirit of the age.”
The contemporary zeitgeist in which the Christian lives is one of secularism. The emphasis is on this world, on this time. Little attention is given to things that are above and beyond this world. Eternity is rarely considered, save for brief moments at a graveside. What counts is the here and now. To live for the moment, for the gusto of the present, is the goal in this day and age.
The secular spirit of this world has its own trends and emphases, but in its essence it is not new. Every generation has its own form of secularism. We are earthbound creatures. Our focus is on this world.
The same was true in Jesus’ day. He repeatedly called His disciples to look beyond the present. He lifted their gaze to the eternal: “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” He said (Matt. 6:20 NASB). He called them to weigh matters in the balance of eternity: “What profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matt. 16:26).
The world or the soul? Please the world or please God? This is the issue for every generation. To be conformed to this world is to risk the loss of one’s eternal soul. The world places little value on the soul. A body in the hand is worth two souls in the bush, according to the zeitgeist of our generation. The world’s spirit invites us to play now and pay later. This is the popular way to live.
For the Christian to resist the seduction of this world, he must risk going against the tide. He must be willing to risk the loss of human approval to gain God’s approval. Hence, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven” (Matt. 5:11–12).
The key words in this beatitude are “for My sake.” The nonconformity we are called to is not simply nonconformity for nonconformity’s sake. Anyone can call attention to himself or herself by being a maverick. It is the “for My sake” that separates cheap nonconformity from the genuine article. There is no virtue in being “out of it” indiscriminately. Our nonconformity must be selective. It must be at the points that matter.
It is easy to trivialize nonconformity. We can reduce it to simplistic externals as the Pharisees did. But authentic nonconformity rests on transformation. The Apostle Paul added a positive mandate to the negative prohibition. He said, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2).
It is the prefix that must be changed. The prefix con (“with”) must yield to the prefix trans, which means “across,” “beyond,” or “over.” It is not enough for Christians to drop out of society. The call to transformation does not mean withdrawal from the world. We need no more monasteries. We are to go beyond the forms of this world. We are to effect changes in the world. The perspective of Jesus is beyond the forms of this world. We neither surrender to the world nor flee from the world. We are to penetrate the world with a new and different spirit.
There is a timeworn Christian saying that has become a cliché through its use: “We are to be in the world but not of the world.” To be of the world is to be worldly. It is to conform to this world. To drop out of the world is to be a nonconformist who undergoes no transformation.
The theater of God’s redemption is this world. It is to this world that God came in Christ. Christ refused to allow His disciples to hide in an upper room with the doors locked because of fear. No tabernacles were allowed on the Mount of Transfiguration. We are called to be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Jerusalem is in this world. Judea is in this world. Samaria is in this world. The ends of the earth are still on this earth. So we should not flee this world. But, oh, how many Christians try to do so. And in doing so, they may actually be displeasing the God who wants the world to be redeemed, not escaped.