Once upon a time, someone, somewhere, started a rumor among Christian church circles that sounded like this: separate from other people. After that, separate more. Then, pull back a little bit further.
Rumors are problematic like that. Even if they start from a nugget of truth, (like Paul paraphrasing Isaiah’s call to “depart, depart!” 2 Cor 6:17, Isa 52:11), rumors flatten a 3-dimensional message of meaning into a one-dimensional message of…not the same meaning.
Scripture don’t play that way.
Sure, sure, we know that walking (and sometimes running, and sometimes hurling) ourselves away from a bad situation is a good thing to do (Eze 18:31).
Paul and Isaiah would have known that too, since at the time that Isaiah was calling for believers to “depart,” he was facing a disaster. Believers were breaking up with God and following idols. However, the “depart” part of that equation was cloaked in another long-term assignment from God called: engage.
Engage with believers and unbelievers both. Engage with like-minded and unlike-minded. Engage the culture and this current generation (Gal 2:11-13, Jer 29:1-9, Gal 6:10, 1 Corinthians 9:20-22).
Why? Because disengaging isn’t the same as “departing.” Also, engaging allows God to do something we didn’t expect.
True loyalty to God manifests as loyalty to His creation, not least of which: humans. He doesn’t give up on them. He asks us to do the same.
Just as He did with Isaiah and Jeremiah, the latter who said, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…for in its welfare you will have welfare.” (Jer 29:7) At that time, the nation of Israel represented everybody who believed in Yahweh; a rich faith cultivated through a motley crew of forbearers like Jacob and also those who were not ancestors of Jacob, like Moabite hero Ruth.
It wasn’t a lineage of blood. It was a lineage of belief. They made up the nation of Israel for one reason: they believed God was who He said He was.
Enter Jeremiah and the nation of Israel was in a world of hurt for one reason: they had stopped believing. Kinda. Sometimes they still believed and then again not and sometimes they threw in faux gods for good measure. They were a mess. Meanwhile, bad-guy kings were capturing them, yanking them out of their homes and transplanting them to far away non-believing lands.
That’s where God lobbed it on them. Engage. “Build houses and live in them...multiply there and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city…and pray to the Lord on its behalf…” (Jer 29:5-8)
Famous Bible favorite, Daniel, lived out this idea by taking Jeremiah’s words to heart. He learned the stuff of the city and joined their ranks (Dan 1:20, Dan 5:29). He negotiated one step at a time to stay true to God, even while deeply engaging the culture around him (Dan 1:8, Dan 6:4).
That, my friends, was not easy!
Engaging sounds beautiful, but let’s get real here. Can I be honest? I pray my 14-year-old daughter engagingly believes, but I pray too that that girl engagingly behaves. At 14, life gets real and I’m not afraid to erect a fortress of only-think-like-me people around her.
But, in a world where we Christians are reminding the culture that they cannot rewrite Scripture to fit their whims, neither can I. God’s directive is that the church protect and build a loyalty to Him even while engaging the world, otherwise we miss growing into the selves that God calls us to be – which brings us to reason #2.
The not-like-us. “…In the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.” (Gen 1:27) They bear an image of God and if God’s church heads for the hills, we’ll miss it.
Elijah got this, but not at first. He headed for the hills. Literally. (1 Kings 19:3) But God told Elijah to stop crying about being the only believer left in all the land, and told him that God still had plans and recommended unbelieving pagan King Hazael to Elijah’s attention because that guy could help.
Abraham understood this concept too, like when God made it clear to Abraham that selling Sarah like his sister was a problem and enlisted the help of unbelieving Pharaoh to get Abraham out of it. Then, three pages later, God enlisted the help of unbelieving Abimelech when Abraham decided to sell Sarah like his sister again.
In order to do what God wants done, we need everybody, believers and unbelievers both.
That sounds nuanced. That sounds precise and agile at the same time. Mainly, that sounds like a lot of work to figure out, especially for someone like me who is looking for one-dimensional answers because I’m fearful and overwhelmed and would’ve definitely written this script another, safer way.
We tend to forget that we are our own biggest hurdle to overcome. We play a recurring toddler tune of, “I do it myself! I do it my way!”
It’s what got Adam and Eve so fixated on a piece of fruit after God introduced all the garden’s wondrous wonderful then threw in a “P.S., Don’t touch that one thing over there.”
After which, that’s all we want. That stupid piece of fruit is all we see. We are four year-olds in search of a loophole on how we can boss with abandon. Even though being left to run our lives on our own is the saddest thing, really.
We need God so much. We need all of Him. He reports in Scripture that we see Him in each other. True, also in the Word. True, also in our personal experience a la the Holy Spirit. True, also with clear boundaries and running away from revelry. True, we need all that truth to buttress the not-Him happening all around us.
We especially need truth to buttress the not-Him we nourish within ourselves, which is really what Paul was paraphrasing from Isaiah with his, “Depart, depart!” God was calling Isaiah’s crew to depart from…themselves.
He wishes we would.
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Janelle Alberts writes pithy pieces that usually feature a bit of Scripture you've never heard, but wish you had. Knowing things like even Noah got tipsy & embarrassed his kids can help a girl rally to the end of the day. Find out more about Alberts here.