Conform to Jesus or the World – You can Choose One
The pressure to conform to your culture is a poison that may be subtly crippling your walk as a disciple. It is one so insidious that it destroys your ability to detect its impact. People are social by nature. You are born into established groups and spend lots of time trying to fit in with them, whether they be your siblings, family, friends, neighbors, or the many more possible social organizations. Much of your life is spent seeking the respect and approval of those around you from your earliest age. You expend huge amounts of time and effort being approved by your parents, making friends at school, making the sports team, and impressing your boss at work. You learn the way to accomplish these goals from being with and watching others. Everyone wants to be part of something bigger and often fear going against the grain of their society, to varying degrees. As a result, rather than independently making decisions, many of the significant aspects of many people’s lives are dictated by the customs and practices of those around them. Individuals often live their daily lives as a result of the norms of their families and immediate surroundings, without ever realizing it. This is the result of social conformity at work. It is a powerful force that unconsciously shapes individuals according to the will of the group in all aspects of life. It is so impactful that identifying its temptations and rejecting them in your life will dramatically transform your walk with Jesus. It is simple to understand. You just have to compare your thoughts and actions with Jesus’ and change yours that don’t match His.
Have you considered why you act like you do? Have you examined where your goals and motivations come from? Too often for Christians, much of these answers deal with trying to be like everyone else around us and not like like Jesus.
The Powerful Pull of the World
The waiting room experiment is an example of the affect of social conformity on a person. It is a simulation designed to test the influence of the actions of a group on an unsuspecting individual. Set in what appears to be a busy doctor’s office, a test subject who thinks she has a real appointment enters a fake waiting area filled with actors posing as fellow patients. After a short time, a chime sounds in the room and the actors all get to their feet around the subject. They stand at attention before sitting back down without comment. The chime is then repeated after short intervals and the actors repeat their responses. There is no explanation offered and nothing is said or directed at the subject. Yet, it doesn’t take long for the test subject to join in the group’s behavior and start standing when prompted. Not only did the subject adopt the behavior of the group around her, but she continued to do after the actors were called from the room. This was despite the fact that the individual had no idea what she was standing for. The individual was so affected by the behavior of the majority, she adopted it to fit in.
Though the waiting room experiment has comical elements, it is important to understand that Christians are not immune from the same impulse and instinct that compelled the subject’s actions. You are surely not Pavlov’s dog responding to stimuli by reflex. God created you in His image with the ability to freely choose on your own. He also made you a new creation in Christ capable of great spiritual growth, if you are in Christ. Yet, the strong imprinted emotional “need” to fit in and/or not make waves can have a tendency to overpower the leading of Jesus in your life. Weakness in this area is probably the most common hindrance to disciples flourishing in their walks with Him.
Do you want to see what I mean?
A recent study asked thousands of committed Christians why they do not share the Gospel more. The overwhelming majority of responses had one thing in common: fear of the accepted normal. The answers varied in specific application, but underlying each of them was the reluctance to go against the unwritten rules of their group or culture on normal behavior. It was not avoiding death, injury, or imprisonment, but wanting to remain part of the crowd that stopped people from sharing Jesus. It was fear of going against the baseline of what the rest of the culture would do or not do. The most commonly given response, not wanting to look foolish, ties directly to this instinct, if you think about it. The very core of the idea of what is “foolish” in interactions is defined by the culture and learned by you through others. It also changes greatly depending on the society. It is, at root, the same pressures that led to the waiting room test subject standing and sitting by herself in an empty room.
If most Christians answered the more general question of what stops them from being all they want to be in Christ honestly, I suspect their responses would lead back to the same conflict. The desire to be like those around you or not upset the group weighs heavily upon all of us. The push towards social conformity battles so powerfully for your heart and mind that it can cripple your spiritual life in multiple areas –without you ever realizing the reason behind your struggle. You can only serve 1 master according to Jesus. If it is not Him, it will be obvious in your behavior.
Have you asked yourself why you worry constantly when Jesus tells you not to?
Have you examined why you are so angry at people who don’t agree with you while Jesus loved the same type of people so much He died for us?
Do you spend your time making money and stability for yourself when Jesus tells multiple parables with the lesson being that is a waste of time?
Have you wondered why you hate your enemy and understand the actions of the priest and Levite from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but remain perplexed by Jesus point in it?
Have you ever wonder why you are so tied to political action when Jesus said His Kingdom is not of this world?
These are all possible damaging results of allowing the temptation towards social conformity to reign in your life unquestioned and unchecked. You can find yourself thinking, speaking, and acting exactly like the lost culture around you, without ever deciding to do so or asking why.
It may feel good, be what you are used to, and may involve less resistance, but it is the antithesis of Jesus’ call on your life.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Matthew 16:24-26
You cannot put off the old man and put on the new unless you differentiate between the two.
A Cruel Theology
This struggle to break the hold of the world is not a new one. It has been a huge part of the Christian battle from the beginning. Jesus’ first disciples – you know the big guns like Peter, James and John – faced the same tidal waves of cultural coercion that you do and did so with mixed results. They threw off what they were used to and what felt familiar in order to walk humbly with Jesus on many occasions. Yet, surprisingly, they too often found themselves spiritually following the world even as Jesus was physically directing them. They did not consciously choose to replace Jesus’ way with the traditions and man’s expectations, mostly, but their actions show that is exactly what they did in practice on multiple occasions…and it is ugly.
There is a way that seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death. Proverbs 14:12
A great example of this ugliness is the strange question posed when the disciples encounter the man born blind in John 9. Though it is only a short query, it highlights how completely the thoughts, hearts, theology, and deeds of even these great disciples of Jesus can be hijacked by culture to lead them away from the Lord. The pressure towards social conformity caused them to act nothing like Jesus and never seem to even realize it.
Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
The life of the man born blind was painful enough with his blindness, by itself, but the physical lack was just the beginning of his struggles. There were no books in Braille or other modern aides back then. A blind man could not work, read, or even travel on his own. The disabled were generally unable to make a living and were left to be supported by their families or to beg for themselves. This was obviously a huge, scary, and humbling burden. Yet, rather try to help these most vulnerable citizens bear such a great weight, the Jewish culture piled more on their backs. That society believed and taught that things like the man’s blindness were divine punishment on the person’s sin. They ignored the abundant love, mercy, and grace of God clearly spelled out in the Bible to arrive at a prideful and simplistic understanding of His character.
In essence, they thought bad things happen to bad people only, not to the “righteous” people like them. If a person was experiencing a bad thing it meant that person was bad.
It makes a certain amount of sense, abstractly to our human way of thinking, yet it was both theological unsound and unbelievably cruel when applied to real life. It meant that the people around the man born blind thought his blindness was proof that he was condemned by God. The leaders tended to ignore or explain away negative things that happened to them while arrogantly damning those “lesser” that they.
Jesus regularly preached against these prideful and man centered doctrines, declaring of this same generation of Israelites:
Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!
Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.
These men and women claimed to follow God, but traded in a true view of God’s character for one that suited their own desires. So not only was the blind man unable to see or work to support himself, forced to endure poverty, and compelled to be a beggar by life, he was condemned as a unclean sinner by the culture around him. He was, at best, an object lesson on what happens to those who sin against God. The sins of man multiplies a hurting man’s already huge burden and views him without pity. It was an ugly look.
Think about how this applied to this man in reality. He was blind from birth so he was seen as unclean from the very moment he was born. He could never make himself not blind so he would always be judged as marred by sin. There was nothing he could ever do to earn the approval of Jewish society. As a result, his life was really over before it ever began. He was excluded and condemned from God’s people…no matter what he ever did or what was in his heart. He would always be defined this way and therefore virtually invisible to the “respectable” people of Jesus’ time.
The man born blind stood condemned, worthless, and hopeless according to that society.
Are there folks in your particular culture who are resigned to this category? Your response to them depends on whether you agree with the crowd or Jesus?
Echoes of the World
Sadly, this is one of those times where Jesus’ people choose the crowd. You can hear echoes of the contemporary cultural beliefs through the words disciples in the passage. It appears that they are so steeped in the Judaism of that day that they don’t realize their approach towards the man is nothing like their Lord’s:
And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus taught them to love, serve, carry the burdens of, and put themselves less than men such as the man born blind. They don’t seem to even consider doing so and seem to look down upon him, just like their society does. The man is drowning and they do nothing but debate whether he or his parents brought it on themselves.
The man is suffering greatly. The disciples don’t seem show any concern about him.
The man is helpless and vulnerable. The disciples do nothing to help or protect him.
They appear to show no care for him or empathy for his pain.
The humanity of the blind man and his identity as a creation of God seems to be just as invisible to them as it is to the Pharisees. They ignore his lifetime of misery and instead seem to use him as a prop in their abstract theological discussion, just like the religious leaders do regularly in the Gospels. They display no love for the man and, for a moment, are just as much noisy gongs as those who regularly harass Jesus.
If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
It should not have been this way.
You would think the disciples would know better by this point, more than two years into following Jesus. The disciples had seen Him call the lost, broken, and sinful to Himself. They witnessed His miracles in person and saw Jesus embrace everyone from lepers to prostitutes. They heard Jesus proclaim that He came for the sick and not the well with their very own ears. They also witnessed Jesus’ scathing rebuke of the hardhearted, self-righteous, and prideful Pharisees and religious leaders. Yet, such is the power of social conformity and on weak flesh. Something about this circumstance pushed the disciples to ignore the example of Jesus and fall back into the old patterns.
No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it. 1 Corinthians 10:13
Every one of us is vulnerable to this same mistake and its ungodly results. It is never pretty when the followers of Jesus act nothing like their Master. This is obviously not what you want for your life as a Christian. Yet, it is exactly what you reap about when you choose to sow with what is easy, what you are used to, what is less scary or more comfortable over the example of Jesus.
The One Pattern to Follow
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Romans 12:2
Thankfully, Jesus never conforms Himself to the patterns, trends, or dictates of the world. His interaction with the man born blind is no exception. His thoughts, deeds, and treatment of the man not only reject the accepted cultural norms, but completely upend the entire structure. He offered abundant mercy, love, and grace rather than pride, condemnation, and cruelty. God valued the weak and hurting rather than the prideful and self reliant.
Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth.
Jesus saw the man. Despite all that was going on that day for Jesus, a crowd just tried to stone Him to death, His enormous role as Messiah, and the cultural prejudice, Jesus truly saw the one poor man as a person, more than just a tool to teach a theology lesson. Jesus knew all the man had suffered, every word of judgment against him, and every moment of the man’s hopelessness. Jesus knew ho everyone, even His own disciples, condemned the man and viewed him as worthless and unclean. Yet, Jesus took time out of the very limited time He had in His earthly minister care for this one lost sheep. Jesus showed the man God real heart, no matter what else was going on or what others thought. The man born blind was the very type of person Jesus came to make whole- both physically and spiritually. He is El Roi – the God who sees me.
Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God who sees me” Genesis 16:13
He not only stops and sees the man as no one else did, Jesus then intercedes on his behalf. Jesus speaks up and defends the man. Jesus takes the blind man’s side to not only reject the culture and protect the man, but to give him value.
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him. I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Jesus will heal this man in this passage and that is wonderful. Yet, a true encounter with the Lord is not limited to just being made physically better. Jesus brings so much more to this hurting person.
The blind man had been condemned his entire life. He was viewed as tragic, broken, ruined, and worthless from birth. It was agreed that a man such as he surely had nothing to offer God, even the disciples are in agreement. This was his appointed lot in life and there was no hope for anything different…until he heard the voice of Jesus.
Jesus never sees the man as hopeless or worthless. He never sees you this way either.
Jesus not only emphatically rejects society’s view of the man, He turns it entirely upside down. “Neither the man nor his parents sinned”, declared the Righteous Judge and in one sentence, Jesus wiped away a lifetime of condemnation. Can you imagine the great relief of the blind man? His life need not be perpetually under a cloud of judgement, no matter what anyone claimed.
You may need to hear those same words of Jesus in your life. No matter what you have done, the weight of your failures, or what your “culture” says about you, you are never condemned in Christ. He always brings hope.
Jesus goes further with the man, as He always does. Jesus rejected man’s definition of the man as condemned, a worthless sinner, and invisible, and replaced it with His own; The blind man was being used so that the work of God could be revealed in Him. He had a purpose from the Lord and it was glorious. You know from the rest of the passage that is exactly what happened.
When He had said these things, He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And He said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated, Sent). So he went and washed, and came back seeing. John 9:1-7
The man hears the command to go and wash. There is no indication that he knows what will happen or that Jesus is the Messiah. The meaning of the name of the pool points to root of the glory being revealed – Siloam means sent. The wonderful works of God are revealed when broken sinners are sent by the perfect One, listen to His commands, and are healed. There is nothing special about the man born blind, in himself. He is a sinner, just like you and me, but he is one who hears the voice of the Lord and follows it boldly, even when society punishes you for doing so.
You may be suffering physically like the man with his blindness and wonder if God is angry with you. You may be spiritually or emotionally in great pain and wondering if you are under a curse. You may feel like a failure. You may be treated like you are invisible. You may simply be crying out to God in pain and asking whether there is a point. Jesus’ words to the man born blind gives you the answer:
but that the works of God should be revealed in him.
Society may not pay much attention to you, but Jesus does. Your culture may see you as an outcast and unworthy of attention, but God sees you. Others might see you as too far gone in sin and cluck their tongues in self righteousness as they pass you by, Jesus stops and ministers to you. You may be invisible to some people and even think you are useless, but this is never, ever true with Jesus.
Jesus is El Roi, the God who sees me and that makes all the difference.
He sees you. He stops and takes note of you. He loves you. You are worth His attention. No matter where life and your decisions have you right now, He made you for a clear purpose – to reveal the works of God. You are here to shine a light in this dark world and to open the eyes of the blind.
To accomplish your job, though, takes one simple thing – saying no to the person world wants you to be and be willing to be patterned into His.
Are you willing? The results will be spectacular when you do…