Last April, my husband and I had the opportunity to visit with good friends who are global workers in Central Asia. As we visited, I could not help but be struck by the extremes of the moral temperatures of the two cultures in which we both live. While in one culture a woman must be fully covered in public, in the other, women walk topless on the beach and pornography is on every street corner. While television is strictly censured in one culture, in the other, it is rarely censured at all. While in one culture “G-rated” movies are all that can be found, in the other, a movie rated “G” may include a 10 minute sex scene. While in one culture two unmarried young people walking together are immediately taken to the police station to be married because of their scandalous behavior, in the other, young couples are regularly seen strewn across the park lawns passionately having sex with their clothes on and no one says a word.
Is it possible to live in either of these extremes without being affected by them? For example, is my conscience becoming desensitized little by little because of the moral decay it is exposed to on a daily basis? Is it possible to identify with the people God has sent me to share the Gospel with, and still maintain and nurture a life of moral purity which will set me apart as a follower of Jesus Christ?
These are questions which have troubled me for some time. It started just over a year and a half ago while returning from Holland with a busload of 25 Spanish youth. The vote was on the floor for the next movie to see and the one chosen made me and a friend of mine uneasy. Its many sexual innuendoes had really troubled me when I saw it the first time and I didn’t feel like I should see it again. Since there were plenty of other perfectly good movies to choose from, my husband came to our rescue and suggested we watch another movie as that one in particular would cause a couple of the passengers to feel uncomfortable. The group understood and agreed to watch a different movie. Following this incident, one of the other sponsors of the group asked why we felt uncomfortable about that particular movie. Upon hearing our reason, he made the following insight concerning our two different cultures: Spaniards are not as sensitive to nakedness and sex as they are to violence, and Americans tend to be more sensitive to nakedness and sex than to violence. As I pondered this little insight and realized that, at least in my case, it was true, I asked myself, Is it really any better to watch the good guy blow away the bad guys than to watch an unmarried couple crawl into bed together? and why does one not bother me as much as the other? I then began to ponder the consequences of the truth of his insight as it has worked itself out in each culture. In the United States, violence is a daily occurrence and in Spain, pornography and sexual promiscuity is publicly and unabashedly displayed. Have I grown comfortable with watching violence because I have allowed myself to see it? And have I maintained a sensitive conscience towards sexually promiscuity because I have taken strong measures not to view that which is sexually impure? In essence, have I taken up the practice of selective holiness?
Several months after that bus ride, still pondering these questions, I was reading Ephesians and was struck by the following verses:
“So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. …You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (4:17-19,22-24)
In admonishing the Ephesians to walk as children of the light, Paul here tells them that they are called to be set apart, to put on the new self, and to get rid of the former way of life which is gradually being corrupted.
“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. …For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible.” (5:3-4,8-14)
Paul continues his teaching by stating that there should not be even a hint of immorality, impurity or greed. In fact, they should even be careful about their conversation, guarding against any obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking to the extent that they should not even mention those things which the disobedient do in secret. His calls them to moral purity not only in their actions, but also in their words and their thoughts. It is not a selective moral purity, but a complete one. One which reflects the character of God.
While I have spoken at length about the culture I must negotiate, I’m certain that my friend (even in her outwardly more “pure” culture) could write extensively about the subtle land-mines of her own counter-kingdom battleground. After all, is not every culture tainted by the rebellion? And does not righteousness apply to every dimension of our existence? Perhaps one of the subtle deceits of our culture of origin is to program us about what to be on guard against. “As long as I steer clear of that one, I’m doing okay!”
In that respect, those of us who live in second cultures have been given a great gift. We’ve been offered, if you will, with all its ethnic and cultural uniquenesses, someone else’s “nose” with which to sniff afresh for the aroma of righteousness or the smell of death.
But whether I live in one culture or another; whether with brand “A” of morality or brand “B”, how can I take Paul’s words to heart, to live as a child of the light? How can I arrest the desensitizing momentum of the negative influences of culture, both of the one in which I was brought up and the one in which I now live, whatever these might be? How can I put on the new self, that self which was “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness”?
Is it not possible to sensitize my conscience anew by making small decisions each day which will encourage my mind to think on those things which are holy, pure, and good? Just as, little by little, I have developed calluses to certain things, can’t I make choices which, little by little, will soften them? And why does it matter anyway? Because I once was darkness, but now I am light in the Lord (pH. 5:8), set apart by him to be the light of the world. And does it not stand to reason that as my conscience sharpens, causing my life to more purely reflect God’s holiness, the world to which we have been called to testify will be more quickly drawn to the Light which lives in me?
And is it not true that as my conscience sharpens, the Light will shine brighter in me?