Step Out from the Crowd and Be Yourself
What Paul Did
Paul's letters to the individuals in the young churches made a huge impact in their lives, and they have continued to make an incredible difference in ours. In Paul's letter to the Romans, a letter whose influence and significance cannot be measured, Paul provides excellent counsel meant for a specific group of people in a very specific context but which is valid for all of us. So, for our purposes, let's assume Paul is talking to us and take his counsel:
So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life -- your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life -- and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed form the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (The Message, Rom. 12:1-2)
What We Can Do
Paul wants us to be ourselves, to be the individuals God made. So, let's do it! Let's step out from the crowd, from the popular culture, and be our God-created selves!
Why? Because the only real way we'll make a difference in this world is if we are not consumed -- swallowed up -- by the world.
But sometimes this seems really hard to do when there are so many things and people trying to make us conform to behaviors, values, and belief systems that are not our own and are not conducive to our progress, health, and happiness.
All we have to do is look around us at school, pick up a magazine, or turn on the TV to realize: 1) there is pressure to conform; and 2) values, morality, integrity, ethical behavior are being challenged. Advertisements show way too much skin, show beer as something that makes people happy, show beauty and happiness as buyable. Sitcoms and movies portray people sleeping around as a good thing. The news reports so many different types of crimes being committed by increasingly younger individuals. And it's hard to go through school without hearing about wild parties with drugs and booze that often wind up in someone getting hurt.
Paul warns that submitting to popular cultural and social norms drags us down. So how do we maintain our identity and integrity in the midst of a culture that doesn't always show appreciation for integrity?
Paul gives us the answer (as we read above), the means to maintain our identity:
- “[F]ix your attention on God.” Rather than look at what others around us are doing, look at what God is doing. If others are cheating to get good grades, notice how God is providing you with the strength and courage to stand for principle. If others are popular because they are loose, gossipy, or dressed in the latest fashion, notice how God is protecting those who are moral, kind, and meek.
- Give everything to God. This means everything, every desire and wish -- the part we want in the play, the person we’d like to date, the car we wish to buy, the college we hope to attend, etc.
- Welcome -- “embrace” -- everything that God does for us. When we acknowledge that God is doing the work and that we are just responding to God, we will discover a freedom and a sense of dominion that is not possible if we think that we accomplish all things by ourselves.
- “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.” Sometimes we find ourselves doing or saying something we wouldn’t normally do or say if we had actually thought about it first. That’s why it’s so important to safeguard our thinking and to question anything that would make us degrade the image of God -- ourselves or others. Let’s make sure that we know why we believe what we believe, why we do what we do -- to fit in, to become popular, to get a good grade, or to be compassionate to the loner, to love others, to glorify God.
- “Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.” The words “readily” and “quickly” hold significance. When we hear what God wants us to do, it is so important to obey it immediately. If we wait around, we may miss the opportunity to do and experience the good that God has in store for us.
The reason why we want to keep in close contact with God is that it is God who maintains our identity. God brings out the best in us -- not school, sports, drugs, alcohol, jobs, media images, work, social events, or even family or friends. Deep down, regardless of what we may say or think, we all want to be our best. But because so many other things tell us we're not adequate or capable enough in one or more ways, we are tempted to settle for the world's opinion of us rather than trust in God's opinion of us. As usual, the Bible offers us wisdom to counteract such insecurity: "The fear of human opinion disables; / trusting in God protects you from that" (The Message, Prov. 29:25)
Are we ready to be our best? Then let's make sure we mature according to God's plan, not the world's. As we refuse to get sucked into all the cultural junk (anything that would destroy the image of man in God's likeness) that surrounds us, we also need to remain compassionate. Adopting a holier-than-thou attitude is not healthy or progressive. "I'm right; you're wrong!" stinks of pride and ego. It hurts others as well as ourselves. And if we're so sure that our way is the only right way, then we're forgetting to listen to God to hear His infinite ways of loving everyone.
A compassionate, loving attitude must accompany our courageous stand for integrity. So, Paul gives us more specific instructions on how to be our best (format adapted from Peterson's The Message):
- “If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else;
- if you help, just help, don’t take over;
- if you teach, stick to your teaching;
- if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy;
- if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate;….
- Keep a smile on your face.
- Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.
- Run for dear life from evil;
- hold on for dear life to good.
- Be good friends who love deeply;
- practice playing second fiddle.
- Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame.
- Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant.
- Don’t quit in hard time; pray all the harder….
- Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath.
- Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down.
- Get along with each other;
- don’t be stuck-up.
- Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
- Don’t hit back;
- discover beauty in everyone.
- … get along with everybody.
- Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do….
- …if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness.
- Don’t let evil get the best of you;
- get the best of evil by doing good.”
(The Message, Rom. 12:6-21)
As we lovingly work to keep ourselves "unspotted from the world" (James 1:27), we often unknowingly become examples for others who are yearning to be their best selves but either don't know how or just need a little encouragement or companionship along the journey to self-discovery and God-given power. Such loving work, which Paul emphasizes, is indeed a gift that will make a difference.