It should not be surprising that this fallen world, being at odds as it is with its Creator, is a contentious realm filled with unhappiness, strife and difficulty. Peace is of God, but “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice (James 4:16; ESV).”
Christians are called by Christ to dwell in the world, but to not be of the world. He prayed concerning His disciples, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (John 17:14-16; ESV)”
When Jesus prayed for His Father to keep His followers from the evil one, protecting them from the dangers of the world, it is instructive to realize that He was not necessarily praying for an absence of tribulation or persecution. He had already promised the apostles that they would suffer persecution because of their faith (cf. John 16:33; 2 Timothy 3:12). Perhaps it is better to understand Jesus as praying that they would be kept from the temptation to succumb to the world and its ways.
A question that Christians must constantly confront is that which asks them to decide how they are going to respond to the strife around them. Christians today, who struggle with how to deal with a culture increasingly at odds with their own values are not the first to deal with this issue. This was a question the church of the first century had to wrestle with as they responded to governments and religions at war with the faith, and a culture literally willing to kill and punish any who offended. The natural temptation in such a situation is to respond in kind, with angry words, harsh rhetoric, and even a vigorous martial defense in the protection of self and others. Yet, to respond to the world with the tools and weapons of the world would defeat the prayer of Jesus for His followers, that they be kept from the clutches of the evil one. And, as the apostles and prophets of the early church led the church in the path Christ wanted them to follow, they advocated a different way.
James wrote, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:17-18; ESV)”
The apostle Peter likewise encouraged his readers, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:14-16; ESV)”
And then there is Paul’s message to the Philippian church: “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:5-7; ESV)”
The word the ESV translates as “reasonableness,” in the above passage denotes a gentle, forbearing attitude which strives to be equitable and fair in all its dealings, yielding to the desires
of others. And it showcases that in each case, when the apostles tried to teach men concerning how to respond to an evil, unreasonable world, they advocated for gentleness. In this they were doing nothing but following the command of Christ, who told His followers, “Love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you (Matthew 5:44).”
When Christians respond to the world with the tools of the world, anger, hatred, vitriol, violence, and the like, rather than having been kept from the evil one, they have instead been joined to the evil one. Only when Christians respond to an unreasonable world with love, gentleness, patience, kindness and reasonability do they truly win the victory, for it is then that they have followed in the footsteps of Christ, who Himself, though crucified, was triumphant over sin, and ultimately over death itself.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.