“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 from the inside out” (Rom. 12:2, Message).1
Moving from one’s home country to live in another country may open the possibility for holding dual citizenship. Holding multiple citizenships can present situations of conflicted loyalties. Every Christian knows the experience of citizenship in this world as well as in the world to come. The challenge is to know how to live “in the world” without being “of the world.” This requires clarity as to character, culture, and purpose or vision.
Brooklyn Bridge arches the East River, thus linking the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York City. At the time it opened, in 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world—50 percent longer than any bridge previously built. For several years, its two towers were the tallest structures in the Western Hemisphere.
When the bridge opened there were many who predicted it was not strong enough to bear traffic and before long it would collapse into the river. To quell fears about bridge strength and perhaps to sell tickets, P. T. Barnum, of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame, arranged for Jumbo, the biggest circus elephant, and 21 other elephants to cross the bridge at one time.
The architect designed the bridge to be six times stronger than necessary. It was designed before the time of testing for storm stress on such bridges. Yet for 127 years it has stood as a major transportation artery.
All that is seen of course is that portion of the bridge that is above the water line. However, the engineers and construction team did their most painstaking and daring work where no one could see it: on the tower foundations below the waterline.
The Brooklyn Bridge illustrates a great principle in life: the work done below the waterline, in a person’s heart and mind, where no one can see—determines whether he or she will be able to withstand the storms and traffic of life. This work is called character—the sum effect of foundation-building choices that we make.
Building Kingdom Character
“On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37, 38, NKJV).2
This statement by Jesus may not always be viewed as referring to character. Yet it does so in a remarkable manner. What Jesus is saying is that if we want our lives to be useful the first thing we need to do is to get connected to Him. When we do this He promises that a beneficial influence, “living water,” will flow from us. A river touches shores that may be far from its source; it nourishes parched ground beyond the horizon of its origin. In like manner, the influence of a Christlike life brings blessings that cannot be fully measured or fully known.
One may not even be aware of the ways in which his life is a blessing nor is such knowledge necessary. The most important thing is to know that when you guard your secret life with God, your public life will take care of itself.
The effect is produced by the cause—connection with a divine source transforms and sustains character. As in the Bible story of the paralytic (see Mark 2:1-5), when people know that Jesus is in your house, they will break down the walls to get in.
It is a false assumption that says our influence in life is dependent on gaining position, power, education, or experience. Undoubtedly these have some role, but a much lesser role than that of character. Sixteenth-century Reformer John Knox understood this well. He remarked, “When I think of those who have influenced my life the most, I think not of the great but of the good.”Character counts—in relationships, in business, in professional life, in self-worth and identity, in the way we experience satisfaction in life.
Building character is intensely personal work. Unless you plan to live your life blown here and there by every wind regardless of direction, unless you plan to simply take the path of least resistance in every situation, unless you find satisfaction in mere existence rather than real living—you will have to contend with the defining question of “Who am I?”
When you are lost in the forest, the pressing question is “Where am I?” When you are lost in life, the pressing question is “Who am I?” The answer to this question lies deep within you—it is your choice, and your being prepared for all things depends a lot on the choice you make.
One might think that character is developed in the crisis moments of life. However, crisis doesn’t build character so much as it reveals character. Careful cultivation of Christian values in life is important because in the crucial moments of choice, most of the choosing has already been done—determined to a large degree by seemingly lesser choices made in the quiet private moments of our lives.
Watch what happens in the life of individuals and communities. You will find that character counts. Integrity pays. Virtue rewards. Honesty is the best policy. Purity of moral behavior carries huge advantage.
Learning Kingdom Culture
The imprint of culture is accomplished subconsciously with the result that we tend to think of our culture as normal and other cultures as strange or abnormal. Culture wields tremendous power in a person’s life. The reality of God’s kingdom presents a challenge to every earthly culture.
Three Bible stories provide some insight into dealing with differences in cultures.3
The story of Esther is situated during the Jewish exile in Persia. Esther, while having primary loyalties quite different from Persian culture, demonstrates an embrace of foreign ways, habits, and lifestyle. She condones Persian culture to the extent that she lives as an insider. She disguises, or at least hides, her true identity. Perhaps she was fearful of being peculiar and instead was eager to win affection. She adopts many of the fashions of the day, enrolls in a beauty contest, and wins her place as queen of the realm.
Little does she realize that maneuvers are under way to destroy her and her people. In the nick of time she is awakened to the ambush being set for her and her people. And she risks her life to preserve her people and her culture. She demonstrates a new way of living in exile.
Esther’s story illustrates an important principle about relating to culture: Be careful lest your primary loyalties get lost beneath the day-to-day pressures of being in the crowd.
Esther, at least for a period of time, condones foreign culture; Jonah condemns it. Jonah is called by God as missionary to Nineveh, to a people poised as a threat to his own nation. But Jonah is reluctant about the mission and resentful toward outsiders. He would rather be left alone, let others go to ruin. So he flees, not wanting to get involved.
But God does not accept Jonah’s evasive behavior. After experiencing a personal and miraculous rescue, Jonah proceeds grudgingly to Nineveh, pronounces doom, and waits to behold it. When God shows mercy, Jonah throws a tantrum.
God wants Nineveh redeemed; Jonah wants Nineveh rejected.
God wants Nineveh reclaimed; Jonah wants Nineveh renounced.
God wants mercy; Jonah wants judgment.
God wants conversion; Jonah wants condemnation.
Jonah is dogmatic and fanatic. He is angry with God and fiercely protective of his own culture and views. His behavior reminds us that often “fanaticism is overcompensation for doubt.”4 He is angry that the Ninevites responded to his messages of warning and rebuke. He finds God too hard and too soft—hard on His chosen ones, soft on their enemies.
Jonah avoids, caricatures, and condemns culture that is different from his own. In doing so, he illustrates another important principle about relating to culture: Be careful that you do not limit the grace of God to the boundaries of your own culture. While rejecting the values and behaviors of another culture, one must not thereby depreciate and reject people within that culture. People of all cultures are in the eye of God’s love and grace.
A third Bible story that illustrates cultural conflict involves Daniel and his three friends. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, conquers the city of Jerusalem and carries off its most valuable treasures. He takes some of the citizens as captives to Babylon. Among them are a young man named Daniel and three of his friends.
Imagine the scene. Disaster has struck. A time of cataclysmic change is in the air. Routines have ended. Normal structures of daily life are in disarray. No more Temple, no more sacrifices, no more priests and ceremonies, no more religious education classes. Times have changed.
What becomes of us in changing times? How shall we maintain our existence as the people of God when disaster strikes and the scaffolding of our identity is torn away?
Seventh-day Adventists carry a mental picture of end-time events characterized by chaos, confusion, disarray, and disaster. Indeed, the earth waxes old as a garment. And do we not have similar questions as the Jews in Daniel’s time?
What happens to us when political and civil disasters strike? How will we carry on when systems of human organization and commerce collapse? What will become of the Seventh-day Adventist Church when we can no longer have regular Sabbath services, operate denominational institutions, hold Executive Committee meetings, approve annual budgets, establish policies, and share resources across international boundaries?
Daniel lives first in Babylonian and then in Persian exile. He has to sort out his place in an alien culture, deciding what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. He learns a new language, attends a new educational institution, serves in a new political environment, accepts a new name, and adopts a new style of dress. Where Esther condones culture and Jonah condemns culture, Daniel confronts culture.
It is as though Daniel and his friends are saying, “Let them make us Chaldeans in all the ways that do not matter. Let us be vigilant in the ways that do matter.” The nonnegotiable elements in Daniel’s life are based on one idea: the worship of God.
Daniel and friends are young people, lay members, not leaders or officers, possessing no experience in denominational systems and policies. They are prime candidates for Nebuchadnezzar’s purposes because he doesn’t know their true mettle. The urgent lesson for us to learn is that in changing times, in moments of crisis, the strength of the church is not in its infrastructure, but in the spiritual disciplines of its members. Not in bricks and stone, institutions, policies, organization, or size of membership—but in people who have a keen sense of kingdom culture and kingdom character.
Having Kingdom Vision
People with a compelling purpose know how to make decisions. Their clarity of vision or purpose informs their actions. Vision can transform life and harness energy and fortitude in the most formidable circumstances. “The only thing worse than being blind is to have sight but no vision.”5
Catalina Island lies in the Pacific Ocean about 22 miles off the coast of southern California. Florence Chadwick had become the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions. At age 33 she had a goal to become the first woman to swim from Catalina Island to the California coast.
On the Fourth of July in 1952 the sea was like an ice bath, and the fog was so dense she could hardly see her support boats. Against the frigid grip of the sea, she struggled on—hour after hour—while millions watched on national television. Her body was numb with cold and exhaustion.
All she could see was fog. After 15 hours and 55 minutes she felt that she couldn’t go on and asked to be taken out of the water. She was less than a mile from her goal.
Still warming her chilled body several hours later, she told a reporter, “Look, I’m not excusing myself, but if I could have seen land I might have made it.” It was the fog, not the fatigue, that defeated her. She was unable to see her goal and felt as if she were getting nowhere.
Two months later she made a second attempt. Again the water was cold and uninviting. Again a thick fog gripped the surface of the water. Sharks were an ever-present danger. But this time after 13 hours, 47 minutes, and 55 seconds, her feet touched land, and she walked ashore, breaking a 27-year-old record by more than two hours and becoming the first woman ever to complete the swim.
She attributed her success on the second attempt to having focused on a mental picture of the shoreline. This, she said, enabled her to keep going until she accomplished her objective. Her vision made the difference!
Jesus had a compelling vision. Near the close of His brief ministry on earth He could confidently declare: “I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do” (John 17:4, NKJV).
How could it be true that He had finished His work? When Jesus made the claim, not all sick people were healed. There were still blind people, poor people, corrupt leaders, faulty religious systems, and all kinds of fallen humanity at every turn. He had barely gone beyond the borders of His own nation, let alone the whole world. There is no evidence of His having visited ancient civilizations elsewhere on the globe. Yet He declares, “I have finished the work You gave Me to do.”
Surely the secret to understanding this bold statement lies in the adjacent declaration, “I have glorified You on the earth.” It is a qualitative claim more than a quantitative one. Jesus lived and served with a singularity of purpose.
Although the role given to us is different from that given to Jesus, this should be the compelling vision for our own lives: The defining purpose of everything we do is to glorify God.
With kingdom character, kingdom culture, and kingdom vision we shall know how to live with dual citizenship. “A pure heart and a strong, fearless hand are wanted in the world today. . . . Our hope of happiness in two worlds depends upon our improvement in one.”6
1.Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
2.Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3. I am indebted to Mark Buchanan, a pastor and freelance writer in British Columbia, Canada, for some of these insights regarding the life of Esther, Jonah, and Daniel. Cf. “Sex and the City of God,” Leadership (Winter 2006).
4. Robertson Davies at www.giga-usa.com/quotes/topics/fanaticism_t001.htm.
5. A statement by Helen Keller, who at the age of 19 months became deaf and blind as a result of disease.
6. Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home, p. 301.
Lowell C. Cooper is a Vice president at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Maryland. In his local church, though, he is known as a master children’s storyteller. This article was published December 9, 2010.