By Rachel Hinz
“We are in the world; but not of the world.” Did your mom ever say this to you? Mine did.
I thought of it recently when I came across a picture of mom on one of her many travel excursions. That same day, I happened to find myself in a conversation with my aunt about her sister’s adventurous life. You see, my mom is now in the best destination: at rest in the presence of Jesus! However, she had many great trips along the way: living in Hawaii or in San Diego (on a houseboat!), and traveling through Europe and South America. I can remember my mom describing her adventures in her own words, and always with a beaming smile.
For my mom, the world was an exciting place, filled with incredible people to meet.
PEOPLE. Yes, that’s what really made the world so amazing. Why else would she live and travel in all of these exotic-to-me-places and then decide to settle down in tiny Ida, a cute farming community in southeast Michigan? That’s where her dear family lived. That’s where she put down roots and got to know the community. I was told during her visitation that the line of people waiting to give their condolences wrapped around the building.
The story of such a long line is not an exaggeration. My mom talked to everyone. She was the last person to leave the parking lot after church on Sunday (much to our dismay as kids). There seriously wasn’t a person my mom wouldn’t engage.
I remember one of her friends recalled, with big eyes, how my mom (at the time probably in her late 50s), found herself near a big gang of hardcore Harley-Davidson riders. Without hesitation, she quickly approached the bikers, wanting to know everything about them. (Mom was more likely to be wearing a Snoopy shirt than sporting leather or tattoos, so it’s no wonder this encounter stuck in her friend’s memory). But that’s just the way mom was. She regularly told me the life story of whichever girl at the College of Beauty did her hair that week (and for whom my mom was now praying, and planning to drop off a Bible and a church invitation to the next day).
So the other day, when the Holy Spirit brought to mind my mom’s words, “We are in the world, but not of it,” I suddenly had a breakthrough. I think too often I’ve interpreted that phrase as a lament. Or a judgment of the world. In any case, my mind would put a tone on those words that for sure wasn’t my mom’s actual tone.
My version went kinda like, “Well, I guess we’re stuck here in this world, so just don’t do anything worldly,” or even more of a “motherly warning” to call out before a child ducks out the door with friends: “We might be living among sinners, but that’s not an excuse to sin!” But that doesn’t jive with the way my mom lived her adventurous life, full of curiosity and love for the world and the people in the world.
Could it be, hearing this phrase, that we automatically create an “us versus them” mentality? While I know I confess being a sinner, it’s all too easy (and convicting) to picture myself as a Pharisee back in Jesus’ day, not wanting to associate with the people Jesus did: zealots who wanted to overthrow the government, women who did what they wanted with their bodies, tax collectors who got rich from taking what wasn’t theirs, and all the “sinners” who probably do not think, act, or believe as I do.
In other words, it’s all too tempting for me to look at those outside of the body of Christ who are “in the world,” and, either out of judgment or fear, turn away and not engage. Sadly, I do not think I’m alone. Could it be that we, the Church, have actually worked so hard to not be “of the world” to the point that we’re not even “in it”??
I know I’m completely guilty of this and, if I’m being honest, it’s hard to not to see where the Church as the body of Christ has also failed to even be “in the world.” What conversations have we left because they’ve made us uncomfortable? What issues have we avoided, because we feel we have already addressed them, despite constant calls for help from people in the world? What “isms” are triggering feelings of anger and annoyance rather than softening our hearts and opening our ears to listen?
How often do we avoid being “of the world” by simply refusing to be “in the world”?
So often I recall the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and it’s easy to hear that parable as a call to be a Good Samaritan, and miss the fact that two ordinary, good, upright, religious people quietly passed by the man who lies beaten on the road. That’s not even a scene far removed from our current day. I wonder why Jesus included this type of religious passerby not once, but twice…?
Or consider the Parable of the Prodigal Son. How often do we have the mentality of the older brother? We end up thinking that what the “younger brother” needs is a good dose of Law: an awareness of his sin, because we are so sure that what the world offers is going to leave him empty, broken, and separated from God, NOT EVEN REALIZING that, if the older brother were to just walk over and talk to his younger brother, he’d learn that HIS BROTHER ALREADY KNOWS that living only in the world leaves you empty, broken, and separated from God. In fact, the younger brother is most definitely relieved that his Father is not like his older brother…
PHEW. Too harsh? I’m no theologian; however, I do have lengthy experience in knowing how very wrong I have been in thought, word, and deed; by what I have done, and by what I have left undone…
So I’m asking the Spirit to change how I typically approach and engage with the world. I’m starting to see now that when my mom said we are “in the world and not of it,” she meant it as an encouragement. She knew the Gospel: “For God SO LOVED THE WORLD that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
Jesus doesn’t act like the world; but His actions show He truly likes the world.
Jesus ate with sinners, and touched lepers, and attended wedding banquets, and turned water into wine. He had no hesitation to cross over to the “wrong side of the tracks.”
It’s no wonder, then, that mom loved to explore and travel; if Jesus can love “the world,” can’t we also see the world through His eyes of redemption, and love it, too? And whether that new perspective takes us to the other side of the planet or the other side of the street/cubicle/political aisle/whatever!–we will begin to see the “leather-wearing bikers” of this world as image-bearers of Christ.
And then, let’s engage them in conversation and listen to them, not for the purpose of calling them out and making sure they know the Law, but instead, for the purpose of inviting them into a relationship of reconciliation made possible through the holy work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
I know that’s what my mom would do.
By the way, I actually tried to find where in the Bible the phrase “we are in the world, but not of it” originated from. It turns out: I have no clear idea. For sure there are verses that are somewhat similar in verbiage in John 17:14-19, and the start of Romans 12 expresses a similar idea. For now, I might label that phrase more of a colloquialism with a scriptural “ring to it,” than a biblical quote with a clear answer to a question I grew up asking: “What does this mean?”