The phrase ‘in the world but not of it’ is a catch phrase in a lot of Christian cultures, but what should this Christian catchphrase actually look like in practice?
John 17:14-16 I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
I’ve seen this popular phase taken to two different extremes depending on the part you focus on. If you are too much ‘in the world’ then it’s easy to get tied up on earthly desires, fitting in and seeking temporary happiness at the detriment to your character, and sinning against God in the process. That being said, some people who fear just that, can spin this phrase to mean something else; to mean isolation from the outside world, from nonbelievers or even from ‘less devout’ believers. As though sheltering themselves from parts of this world could shut out the sinful nature we all have inside ourselves. If you’re familiar with my blog then you know where I’ve seen this. I grew up in a cult, and part of our mantra was being cut off from the world.
On the other hand, I’ve see people trying so hard to be ‘in the world’ that they were finding their identity in it while still proclaiming Christianity. Where have I seen that? Oh, Glad you asked. I’ve seen that in myself, In my past, and sometimes my present. After I left the cult I was still very proud. All my life I was conditioned to not only see myself as ‘set apart’, but special and superior to other people. That part makes me feel shame as I’m writing it, knowing just how wrong we were.
As a Christian, I believe that we are ‘set apart’ but not because we have more of a right to salvation, or because we are better than other people as was a part of the cult’s teaching (implicit and explicit). The Bible says we have ALL fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) I had a sort of self righteousness still hanging over me after leaving the cult – old thought patterns die hard, and I was still thinking – whether conscious or not, that I was better than other people because of how well I followed ‘rules’ and dissociated myself from people I deemed as sinners. Some part of me believed I had earned my salvation by choosing Christianity. I wasn’t saturated in the reality of what Christianity actually is – the belief that God by His Grace had mercy on me (an unworthy sinner) and took the penalty of my sin upon His own shoulders.
God showed me the error of my belief when I realized that in self-declared ‘lesser sins’ that I was tempted in, I very often failed. I wasn’t tempted too much to sleep around but I sinned in other ways. I would hold onto the pride I felt from not giving into those self-proclaimed worse sins like the pharisee in Jesus’s story in Luke 18. Instead of asking for God’s forgiveness and grace, I was thanking God that at least I wasn’t like them.
So if not being ‘of the world’ isn’t simply adhering to certain rules or not sinning in certain ways, then what does it mean?
Matthew 5:13-16 English Standard Version (ESV)
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that[a] they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
I share those verses because I think they are crucial to understanding what the phrase ‘in the world but not of it’ should actually mean. The one thing that should set you apart is JESUS the light of the world. Not set apart because you are totally isolated OR self righteousness. You’ve been given the gift of eternal life, saved from all your sins – why hide that from the world when it is a free gift for all who believe?
Putting God first shows. When you are putting God first, your character traits start shifting and things like genuine love, humility, joy, forgiveness, and grace like the world has no context for; start shining through. It’s something that should flow from a heart saved by grace and filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s sharing with people the light you have found in Christ, in word and deed.
The featured illustration for this blog post is a contrast of then and now. Then being when I was in the cult, and was trying to follow all the man-made traditions and rules to be ‘set apart’. The second picture is now; just a Jesus loving regular sort of gal who’s been saved by grace, and learning how to share that.
That’s my take on what it means to be in the world but not of it. I’d love to hear your questions or other thoughts in the comments below!
For additional reading on the topic of being ‘in the world but not of it’ check out these scriptures: 1 Peter 2:11-12, 1 John 2:15-17, John 15:19, Romans 12:2, 1 Corinthians 5:9-10, & James 1:27