One of the great struggles that many Christians face is how to interact with the world, or more importantly the greater society in the world that is not always religiously or morally based. Throughout the history of the church different groups and individuals have encouraged various modes of interaction. While these modes of interaction could be placed at various ends of the spectrum, one truth is certain, all Christians recognize the danger inherent in the “ways of the world,” that the values of the world can become a temptation and a hindrance to righteous living. And the question becomes, how do we as Christians learn to live spiritual lives in the midst of a very secular world.
Henri Nouwen address this subject in his book Life Of The Beloved: Spiritual Living In A Secular World. After spending the main part of the book arguing that all people need to see themselves as the beloved of God he ends by reminding his readers that the spiritual life comes with responsibilities. Spiritual living is not for personal benefits or to help one get to heaven, spiritual living is always for the sake of the world. It is always in order to advance God’s mission. But how can spiritual living be for the sake of the world when the world is so dangerous? If the world is evil why would we want to engage it? Shouldn’t the spiritual life free us from the world? While these questions are appropriate, Nouwen believes we should re-frame our thoughts. He writes,
“The world is evil only when you become its slave. The world has a lot to offer – just as Egypt did for the children of Jacob – as long as you don’t feel bound to obey it. The great struggle facing you is not to leave the world, to reject your ambitions and aspirations, or to despise money, prestige, or success, but to claim your spiritual truth and to live in the world as someone who doesn’t belong to it.”
Nouwen’s quote makes sense. On the surface Nouwen’s quote is just an extension or expansion of another oft quoted exhortation, “Christians are to be in the world but not of the world.” Yet Nouwen’s quote seems to dig deeper. Remember, God made the world to be a blessing. God made the world as part of his creation and it is good. Humanity has been given the task to have dominion over and care for God’s good creation. The world is not evil. Sin has corrupted the world, sin has bound the world and hidden the good that God created so much so that even the earth is groaning in anticipation for the world’s redemption, but the world is still good. The task of the spiritual life is not to escape the world, but to speak spiritual truth to the world. The goal is not to simply avoid being controlled by the world and the things of the world but to become so sure of the truth that you are the beloved of God that the things of the world have no meaning.
Money by itself is neither good nor bad. Fame by itself is neither good nor bad. Ambition by itself is neither good nor bad. The question is will they control you, will they enslave you. These items enslave when money or fame or ambition become the goal, become the driving force, the place where one finds fulfillment.
But what if fulfillment has already been achieved. What happens when a Christian becomes so convinced that they are a beloved child of God that the truth that they are beloved is all that matters? What happens when a Christian truly understands that nothing they ever can or can’t do will change the fact that they are the beloved of God? When one comes to understand that they always have and always will be God’s beloved then nothing else can enslave them. The secular world holds no power over them and they can now live in the world and function in the world while not belonging to the world. When one embraces the truth that they are the beloved of God they become free from the enslaving powers of the world and can then join God in his mission to reclaim and redeem the world.
“all I want to say to you is, you are the Beloved, and all I hope is that you can hear those words spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold.”