The pressure to conform to the crowd is one that most Christians face. I certainly do: “Go on Rob, just have one more drink”, “Oh come on Rob, it’s only a movie”, “But Rob, can’t you just put it down on expenses?” The temptations might be different for you. But if you don’t ever feel that pressure to conform, it could be a sign that you’re already part of the crowd, that you’ve begun to “let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould” (Romans 12:2 – J.B. Phillips). This problem is not a new one, of course. Throughout history, God’s people have always been confronted with the temptation to blend in with the nations around them, rather than to stand out as distinct from them.
You shall not do as they do
“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 18: 1-5)
God has powerfully rescued his people from slavery. The land of Egypt is behind them and the Promised Land of Canaan lies before them. For now, though, the Israelites are in the wilderness, sandwiched between these two lands and these two sets of people.
Having rescued his people from Egypt by grace, God now calls them to a life of grateful obedience. They are to live differently from the nations around them. God’s people are to be a holy (or separate) people. In fact, that’s the big theme of the book of Leviticus where the word holy occurs 87 times. Sadly, Israel fails in her call to distinctive living. Far from separating themselves from the practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites, the Israelites actively indulge in them.
God’s command to be holy is carried forward to the New Testament (1Peter 1:16). Just like the Israelites, followers of Jesus are called to live distinctive lives, even though in many ways our expression of holiness will look quite different to Israel’s. But just like them, we too often fail to live distinctively and instead conform to the values and practices of our surrounding culture.
Longing for Egypt?
Before entering the Promised Land, there’s a setback. Twelve spies are sent out into Canaan, but only two – Joshua and Caleb – believe that the land can be conquered. The other spies report that those who dwell there are too powerful. After hearing this negative assessment, the people are despondent. Then the unthinkable happens: “And they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt’” (Numbers 14:4). Egypt! The very place they’ve been rescued from. God commanded them not to be like the Egyptians, but instead they want to go back and join them.
The implication for Christians? Well, like the Israelites we may find ourselves longing to go back to what we’ve been saved from. Relapsing into patterns of behaviour, or habits, or thoughts from which God has rescued us in Christ. Turning back to the relative comfort, security and familiarity of our old life perhaps. I often find that the desires of my sinful nature resurface and try to dominate, to tempt me back to Egypt. But Israel’s experience should act as a warning not to turn back to the ways in which we used to live before Christ staked his claim on our lives.
Not only do the Israelites long to return to Egypt before entering the Promised Land, but once in the Land they then fail to live differently to the Canaanites. This devastating verdict from Judges sums up their attitude and actions: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). So God’s people forget about obeying God’s law and instead make up their own rules for life.
This may sound familiar. Doing what’s right in our own eyes is generally encouraged today. But as Christians, we need to fight against this kind of moral relativism and not ignore the laws that flow from God’s throne of righteousness and justice. Martin Luther King believed that, “the first principle of value that we need to rediscover is this: that all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws.”
We can’t ignore the impact that doing what was right in their own eyes had on the Israelites. Rather than shining like a light to the nations, they allowed themselves to be conformed to the ungodly practices of those around them. So they got involved in idolatry, gang rape, murder and theft – and that was just the priests! (Judges 17, 18, 19). In response, God continually raises up judges like Deborah, Gideon and Samson to drive the foreign inhabitants from the Promised Land and to call God’s people to repentance.
Today the Church, just like Israel, faces constant pressure to conform to our culture’s value system and to water down biblical teaching. In our age, it’s particularly evident in the area of sex and relationships. So, for example, many people warn of the danger of Christians becoming irrelevant if we fail to affirm and embrace same-sex marriage. But we mustn’t make the same mistake that Israel made. We’re called to be distinct from our culture – in every are of life – rather than to be swept along by it!
Do not be like them
The call to live distinctively different lives runs from the Old Testament through into the New Testament. So several times in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus contrasts two kinds of people. He urges his followers to be different to the tax collectors (Matt 5:46), to the hypocrites (Matt 6:2) and to the Gentiles (Matt 6:7). “Do not be like them” (Matt 6:8) is the gist of it. Jesus concludes his sermon by making it clear that wise people will build their lives on the solid foundation of his teachings (Matthew 7:24).
We’re already different
Earlier on in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:13-14, Jesus declares that his followers are salt (acting as a preservative that stems moral decay) and light (shining into a world of darkness). Notice he doesn’t say that we’re to be salt and light, but rather that this is what we already are.
As Christians, we are a holy people. When we first trusted in Christ we were sanctified, we were set apart from sin to God (1 Corinthians 6:11). So right now, as a spiritual reality, you and I are different to those around us who don’t know Jesus. But the challenge, of course, is to become increasingly holy in practice. By God’s grace, we’re to “be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…” (Philippians 2:15)
Rather than being squeezed into the world’s mould, then, let’s dare to be different. Different in our speech, our attitudes, our actions. Different at work, at home, out with our friends, indeed in every area of our lives. True, some people who don’t know Christ might be surprised when we “do not join them in the same flood of debauchery” and they may malign us. But they, like us, “will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:4-5).