The following is a teaching I gave at a recent men's retreat for the People of Praise.
This morning it’s my job to provide a few principles for you to think about regarding Christian engagement in and with the world.
This is a tricky topic. There are a lot of ways in which Christian engagement with the world can go very wrong and has gone very wrong in the past. But we have also come to one of those exciting if somewhat frightening times in history when a lot of creative work needs to done. For 2000 years we’ve been working out what Christian engagement in the world should look like. But what is it going to look like in the new millennium?
But even before we start thinking about the Christian and the world, we must first recognize that all humanity is God's special creation. Not only are each of us are individually created in his image but as humankind we have also been given by God unique authority and power in his world.
This is what Genesis 1 is getting at when we are given a glimpse into the purposes of God in creating us:
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."
And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. (Genesis 1:26 – 29)
That’s for everyone – whether they know it or not. God intended humankind to be the world-shaping agents of his ongoing activity in creation, so whenever and wherever we see this world-shaping activity, we see the purposes of our God being worked out! There is something of the stamp of God so permanently upon us that we cannot erase it. We are builders, makers, shapers, problem solvers because God created us to be!
When federal investigators researched and studied the collapsed 35W bridge to find out what had happened and why, they were doing the work of God in the world. When a team of people sat down to design a new bridge over the Mississippi, one that would be safe and that would beautify the city, they were doing the work of God in the world – no matter how many of them were professing Christians. When the contractors and builders and craftsman worked to finish the project ahead of time so traffic flow could improve, so that people could get home earlier and more peacefully from work to spend time with their families, they were doing the work of God in the world – even if some of them were doing it unknowingly.
Our Father wants us to have good bridges, good government, healthy lives, to create beautiful music and art, and to live in peaceful societies. And those are the things He has set for us to do.
And yet, we also know that we have fallen from the original beauty and integrity of that purpose. Turning away who we were supposed to be and what we were supposed to do, we turned to our own interests or even the interests of the enemy. Pride, rebellion, chaos, violence, envy and destruction then entered our pattern of life and infected our work.
Because of this, the cities we have built, the systems we have constructed, the work we have done in the world is sometimes dangerously faulty and even evil.
The first expression of this in the scriptures takes place on the plain of Shinar, when the inhabitants of that area say to themselves "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:4) They did make a name for themselves. It was Babel. And it is not hard to hear echoes of their plans in our present own hunger for a man-made security.
Similarly, the book of Daniel records this boast of Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, as he looked upon the city he ruled over: "Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?" (Daniel 4:30). Hear again, it’s easy to hear echoes of this in our sense of everything we have accomplished in the last hundred years or so.
And so in the scriptures, Babylon becomes the great symbol for every instance of humankind shaping for itself a whole system of power and authority that opposes itself to God by turning away from Him to serve its own interests. Think of how this has continued throughout history.
Roman imperial pride.
South African apartheid.
Nor are we free from this in our own United States.
Sometimes as Americans, we have mistaken our liberty for the right to do whatever we want in whatever way we want to do it. We have turned the good principles of democracy and freedom into a radicalized individualism that is in the end only self-destructive.
We have taken an effective economic system, free-market capitalism and made for ourselves a golden idol of consumerism and a fantasy of the American dream.
Because we believe we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, we have neglected the poor, saying to them, “You have two hands. If we did it, you can do it, too.”
And even the good things of the world – the 35W bridge for instance – are not complete until they are recognized them as part of God’s providing for us – and that is not often our attitude.
Of course, here’s where it gets tricky. What is a Christian man to do in and with this kind of world? How should we relate to the larger project out there, to all the good, world-shaping activity that is often laced with sin, corruption, and self-destruction? How is Christian society to respond to that tension?
Well, the first thing we must do is to constantly remind ourselves that God is at work in the world. It is far too easy and no help at all to just stand outside the circle and throw stones. But don’t need to do that. In a very real way, we are not opposed to the world. We are for it. When Joseph was in Egypt, a pagan country with many false gods, it was his wisdom that saved not only the nation but the entire region from a devastating famine. Similarly, when Daniel was in Babylon itself with all its imperial pride and arrogance, he rose to the position of King’s advisor and helped shape public policy for the empire across administrations. We have a similar responsibility not to abandon this aspect of God's work. We must be salt and light in the world.
On the other hand, we must also be aware of the corrupting powers at work in the world's systems. We do no good either if we naively participate in the world’s project on the world’s terms in the world’s way. Everyone knows how easy of a trap that is to fall into and how tempting it is if we are not careful.
But we are a new creation in Christ. And in the world we must be agents of new creation. We can and must work with and alongside the world, but as agents of new creation we cannot compromise with the principles of the old. We cannot sacrifice justice, righteousness and our first responsibility to Christ our Lord. If the salt loses its saltiness, it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled upon.
Jesus Christ, our Lord, our savior, and our older brother, is renewing and will renew all things, and so all things must eventually come up against his standard. And it is us, full of the Holy Spirit, who bear that standard with us and bring it into the world.
When you go into the world, you carry Jesus Christ with you as your ally, your advocate, your friend and the one who is behind you, cheering you on in your own world-shaping activity. This should give us tremendous confidence to simply be sons of our Father in his world. As the apostle Paul asks, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31). It is not easy to be at work in the world as sons of God, but we do so with the example, the help and the promises of Him who has gone before us and has conquered even death.
Finally, there does also come a time, with discernment, to act counter-culturally. When some aspect of the world's system is failing, there comes a time for Christians to create something new. When the world's way of doing business collapses into nothing but greed for profit, perhaps we have to find a new way of doing business. When the education system fails to accomplish its mission, perhaps we have to find a new way of doing education. When communities lose their way and cease to be communities, perhaps we need to find a new way of building community.
But even as we act counter-culturally, we act for the world. We shape a Christian life together so we can hold it up as a good example of how God wants the whole world to be. It’s never a perfect example, but it is one full of the Holy Spirit, one that really works. We want to say to the world, “Look how good life together can be!”
Everything we do together or individually in the world, full of the Holy Spirit and supported by our life together, is for the world, both as an example and as an invitation. In this way, our men’s groups are for the world. Our areas are for the world. Our businesses are for the world. Our school is for the world. "A city that is set upon a hill, cannot be hidden" (Matthew 5:14). And we are a city set on a hill – not a hidden compound, tucked away and protected.
There’s a lot for us and for Christians everywhere to do in working these things out with discernment, freedom, conversation and courage.
I want to end by simply putting one of the prayers of the Psalmist as a banner over our work. It’s a prayer that should probably be unpacked and meditated upon. But for now, just listen to it as you think about your work and our work in and with the world.
Let Your work appear to Your servants,
And Your glory to their children.
And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands for us;
Yes, establish the work of our hands. (Psalm 90:16 – 17)