How Can We Be “In the World, But Not of It”?

In regard to my choice of college, I was fully IN the world. I attended a large state university, where students that I lived with smoked various substances, drank under-age, partied, slept around, and neglected class work. My degree required me to take several courses that perpetuated beliefs about humanity that were in opposition to my Christian beliefs. Overall, the university preached a message of success, self-help, and “doing what makes you happy.” It was a broken, worldly place.

My experience at a secular university would make a great case study of a Christian trying to learn how to remain righteous and faithful while living in a place that didn’t value either of those traits. It was a constant struggle to find the balance between engaging in the world around me, and outright fleeing from it.

 

A Biblical Basis for a Worn Expression

There are many biblical references that address how we, as Christians, are supposed to be separate from the world. Colossians 3:2, for example, tells us that we should set our minds on “things above,” and Romans 12:2 discourages us from falling into the patterns of this world, because we are to be transformed. After all, we are citizens of a different Kingdom; the Kingdom of light, and not of darkness (Colossians 1:13).

However, we can’t run from the world, and the commission Jesus gave His followers directs us to deliberately go into it (Matthew 28:19). How do we reconcile what appears to be conflicting instructions?

A worn Christian phrase that has been preached ad nauseam, is that we should be “in the world but not of it.” The advice sounds nice in theory, but doesn’t help much unless there can be practical application. Over time, and especially during university, I learned there is actually a key to being in the world but not of it—the key is to be of the Spirit while we walk in the world.

 

In the World, But of the Spirit

The tension of being a Christian at an incredibly secular university was highlighted by an experience during my first year.

Most American college students have adopted Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day as two of the biggest drinking and partying weekends of the year. Come St. Patrick’s Day weekend my first year of college, it seemed like all of my close friends were planning on going to parties, or were out of town. I had turned down similar invitations from them so often before that no one would expect me to actually join them for the reputably wild party weekend.

This left me with no plans for the weekend, and suddenly being in this world without being a part of it seemed really lonely.

Evidenced by my dilemma about St. Patrick’s Day, our time in this world is packed full of situations—significant and petty alike—where we have to make decisions that keep us from being grafted into the world and its rhythms.

Exactly how it looks to be “in the world” while not becoming absorbed in it, isn’t black and white. It’s totally plausible that during St. Patrick’s Day weekend, God could have led me into the heart of a wild college party, because He has work for His people, even in dark places. I learned that when trying to reconcile this tension, we cannot depend on our own wisdom or understanding. If we rely instead on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can be sure that we are not being absorbed into the patterns of this world, even if we find ourselves in the midst of an ungodly environment.

When learning how to be in the world but not of it, it’s vital to discern the difference between the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the leading of our flesh.

We become “of the world” when we make decisions based on fleshly leading. My temptation to join in the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations was rooted in a desire to have fun, fit in, and avoid the loneliness that came from abstaining. None of those desires sound particularly bad, but at the same time they were coming from my flesh, and not from the guidance of the One who is my helper.

Truly, as offensively simple as it may sound, we can be in the world and yet not become a part of it by following the Spirit. We can’t use our human wisdom or understanding to know every situation we need to run from, and which ones we need to armor up and charge into. That’s why Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as our advocate, who was sent to help us and be with us forever (John 14:15). He is our guide!

I knew I needed to avoid the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations because the only motivating factors were fleshly. We definitely shouldn’t head into questionable situations when it’s our flesh that’s leading us there!

As an alternative to the parties, I ended up initiating a smaller get-together with a group of people from a Christian ministry on campus. They were new friends, and it wasn’t comfortable, but it was a valuable alternative to the St. Patrick’s Day drinking parties.

 

Go Confidently Into the World!

As Christians, we can walk with confidence into situations or environments that are uncomfortable. We can dive right into the midst of them. Just as He did at my state university, the Holy Spirit is faithful to train us to do all things in faith, by His leading.

I saw this first hand as I finished my degree and started my first post-graduate job. It was in a really negative, discouraging, and draining law office. In that place, and in my daily walk, I’ve been learning the ever-growing need I have to depend on the Spirit to show me where to invest my time, when to speak, when to stay silent, when to engage, and when to draw back.

In our dependence on the Spirit, we can step with boldness into the darkness, because we know that light shines in darkness, and darkness does not overcome it (John 1:5). Looking to the Spirit for guidance in every decision is how we can be in the world without becoming a part of it, and it’s how we can bring the hope of the Gospel into the mess of a fallen world.

 

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