Magazine Article

The Difference That Makes a Difference

Being unique is not an end in itself; it’s a means to an end.

Richard Rice
The Difference That Makes a Difference

Growing up Adventist, I was aware of how important it was to maintain our distinction from the world. For most of my elementary education I attended a two- or three-room school with 50 or so other students, that stood next to the Adventist church. At the end of the street where the church stood was a road leading into town: where the “world” began, with all the influences we should be wary of.

My grandparents on both sides were staunch Adventists; all of them had served the church in overseas fields. I was inspired by their example and did my best to fulfill their expectations from my youth up. I embraced the church’s mission, and I did my best to live up to its high standards of Christian behavior. I knew there was a distinct difference between the church and the world, and I knew which side I wanted to be on.

Sabbath Difference

Our family moved to the Southwest when I was 13, and I found myself attending a large public high school with 2,500 students, in Tucson, Arizona. Quite a contrast to what I was used to! One of the attractions of a large high school was its marching band. It had 125 musicians in it, and I was happy to be one of them. However, there was a major complication. One of the band’s major responsibilities was performing at halftime during Friday night football games.

When I explained the Sabbath to the band director, he graciously excused me from those Friday appointments. Now and then fellow band members asked why I wasn’t with them on weekends, and when I told them, they always expressed admiration for my religious dedication. At the same time, no one ever said, “Sabbath sounds like a great idea. I wish my family kept Sabbath too.” They respected the difference that Sabbath made in my life, but that was it.

Years later, when my wife and I were living in Chicago, we became close friends with a couple who gave us a new perspective on the Sabbath. They worked in the city and lived in the suburbs. And though they went to church on a regular basis, their weekends were filled, before and after church services, meeting their home responsibilities.

In contrast, they noticed that Sabbath for us was strikingly different from the rest of the week. We not only took a break from our weekly occupations—we took a break from other responsibilities to enjoy time for worship and fellowship. Our friends admired that. They not only admired it: there were times they wanted it. When we were planning to do something with them on a Saturday evening, they would typically say, “Could we come to your place a few hours earlier and share some of the Sabbath with you?”

They saw Sabbath as a difference that could really make a difference. Their appreciation for the Sabbath helped me see that one of the most distinctive things about our faith is the difference it makes in our lives. Sabbath is one of the things that gives life meaning and value.

Sabbathkeeping goes beyond keeping a commandment. It contributes meaning and purpose to our lives in ways that nothing else does. Sabbath protects us from the drudgery of endless work. It reminds us that our true identity is entwined with our relationship with God, and that God values us for who we are, not just for what we may accomplish. Work is a blessing, to be sure; but there are greater blessings, and the Sabbath is a welcome reminder of them.

While the Sabbath takes us out of the world in one sense—to a renewed appreciation of our true value—in another sense it takes us into the world. The Sabbath is a reminder of how important the world is to God; how much He values the world. It sanctifies what we do during the week to make the world a better place by extending and demonstrating God’s care for the world.

Second Coming Difference

Another important doctrine that moves us between heaven and earth, so to speak, is the hope of Christ’s return. It nurtures us and encourages us to look forward to the time whenGod’s purposes for us will be fulfilled and the sorrows and sufferings of this life will be distant memories.

Our belief in Christ’s return reminds us of the world to which Christ is returning: a world God brought into existence with divine hopes and dreams of all that creation would be; a world to which God remains committed through all that has happened since then; a world that God continues to serve, and invites us to serve with Him.

In His last night with the disciples, Jesus asked the Father not to take them out of the world but to be with them as He sent them into the world (John 17:15, 17). “In the world, not of the world”: this is the paradoxical place that Christians occupy.

When I was a youngster, I had one line in a play some people in the church were performing about the soon return of Jesus. I don’t remember what I had to say, but the play made a lasting impression on me. It depicted in a vivid way early Adventists’ fervent assurance that this world was soon to pass away and they would be with Jesus forever.

A few years later I remember a devout aunt proclaiming to me with great conviction, “Ricky, time cannot last more than five more years. There’s just no way.”

To live in lively expectation is a remarkable element in the Adventist experience.

Service Difference

This movement between heaven and earth is something we see in a variety of places. One is the last sermon Jesus preached, according to Matthew’s Gospel. It began with Jesus’ descriptions of turbulent, cataclysmic events, and urgent warnings of the difficulties God’s people would face. Toward the end, however, it talks about the things God’s people should be doing to face these ultimate upheavals.

They involve serving the Master faithfully in their appointed tasks, caring for those who suffer, for those who are downtrodden, for those considered outcasts and neglected by society. To be ready for the Lord to come is, evidently, found in doing what God has asked us to do, working with Him in meeting human needs.

This commitment to human service is something we see in the early history of the Christian church. When Christians in the Roman Empire were no longer the object of persecution in the waning years of the Roman Empire, they became a remarkable force for good. One historian remarked that a conspicuous feature of Christianity from its beginning was an emphasis on charity as the paramount Christian virtue. Christianity’s corresponding affirmation was that human beings have unique dignity and unqualified value, whatever their social status or physical condition.

Early Christians, following the example of Jesus’ life of self-sacrificing service, were open to people of all classes and cultures. Members of the community devoted themselves to the welfare of others, including those who were diseased and destitute. This contribution to human values was revolutionary. Nothing in the world of late antiquity, nothing in classical culture, compared to the willingness of Christians to jeopardize their own well-being in serving others. Greek and Roman paganism acknowledged no such duties.

Institutional Difference

Christians not only cared for people individually, but established institutions to provide for care: hospitals for those who were sick and welfare centers for those who were needy. Indeed, says the same historian, “Christianity planted the hospital.” As time went by, Christians established hospitals throughout the empire, and they all shared a common ethos of charity.* What Christians believed made a real difference in the world.

Another example is the active involvement of Adventists in the temperance movement, the largest, most inclusive attempt during the nineteenth and early twentieth century to transform American society for the better. Adventists promoted personal abstinence from alcohol, along with its legal prohibition, and developed their own organization to promote these objectives: the American Health and Temperance Association.

Ellen White spoke widely about temperance, and encouraged church members to cooperate with such organizations as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WTCU). She also strongly urged Adventists to vote in favor of prohibition.

The record of Adventist involvement in the temperance movement presents us with the fascinating spectacle of people who believe that human history is fast moving toward its end, yet devote themselves diligently to improving human life in the short time remaining, and doing so in a variety of ways.

Adventists are widely known for our educational system, our various medical institutions, and for our willingness to serve in areas where human needs are most pressing. We are deeply committed to improving human lives here and now while we fervently anticipate the life to come. Is there an inconsistency here? Are the two in competition with each other? Should we choose between being this-worldly and other-worldly?

To the contrary, they go together. The prospect of a life to come does not detract from the value of life here and now. In fact, it enhances it.

Several years ago I invited a retired physician to speak to one of my religion classes. He almost lived during three centuries. He was born in 1900 and passed away not long after the twenty-first century arrived. He had been a lifelong Adventist, and after he told the students what medicine was like in the early years of his practice, I asked him about his personal faith. “Which of the various things Adventists believe is most important to you?” I asked.

His response was immediate. “Why, the second coming of Christ, of course!”

“You’ve been looking forward for Christ to come longer than anyone I know,” I said. “Do you think you’ll live to see it happen?”

“I hope so,” he replied. “But if I don’t, if my life comes to an end before, I know that Jesus’ face is the first thing I’ll see when I wake up.” The good doctor spent his life in faithfully serving others, but he never lost sight of the goal to which all history moves.

Change Difference

If we wonder how to connect these concerns, how to find a balance between them, we may find some help in the famous prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr, one of America’s best known theologians.

“God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”

We need serenity, Niebuhr suggests, because there are things about the world we live in that we cannot change, and it would be self-defeating to try to do so. At the same time, there is much we can do to make this world a better place, to help the people around us flourish and thrive, and we need the courage to pursue them.

Sharing the gospel is the most obvious, but seeking to live generously and helpfully—loving our neighbors in any way we can—is important as well.

Then we need something else: We need wisdom to know what’s worth trying to change and what isn’t. Some objectives are simply too idealistic. It would be a waste of resources to attempt them.

Perhaps here, we need to remember something else Jesus told His disciples, when He sent them out to witness to the world they lived in. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

To live in the hope for a future filled with meaning and to confront the challenges of this world with realism and determination reflects the Adventist spirit at its best. It’s the difference that makes a real difference.

*  Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), pp. 87, 88.

Richard Rice, a theologian, is a member of the Biblical Research Institute Committee of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Richard Rice