In a world where evil exists, there are ways that we can protect ourselves from evil.
Here are a few stories from the Bible that suggest some insights into what it means to be in the world but not of the world:
Abraham. In Genesis 12 we have God calling Abram out of “his father’s land”—a very important and unsettling move in those times—to “a place I will show you.” Obediently, Abram and his household move, and keep on moving. They are taken away from the powerful center of learning that Ur of the Chaldees was, with its libraries and temples and architectural wonders. Out in the quiet places of nature, Abram and Sarai learn about God and His true worship. They receive promises, visits from God, and even new names. They become progenitors of a whole new nation, chosen to be priests for God to the world.
Moses. First raised in a humble home, Moses by God’s miraculous intervention becomes part of the first family of the nation. Then, when he has received a palace education, he is taken away from it all and retrained by 40 years of shepherding. It is in the wilderness that God speaks, even naming Himself to Moses, and calling him to become one of the greatest leaders and lawgivers of all time.
Ruth. A Moabitess who was presumably raised in an idolatrous home, Ruth is called to leave her homeland and go to the small town of Bethlehem, where amid scenes of the simple duties of home, she will learn to love the one true God—and, little though she knows it, will become an ancestor of the Messiah!
Elijah and Elisha. By and large all the prophets, including Elijah and Elisha, are called to live simple lives, moving from town to town, giving whatever message God has entrusted to them. Elijah even lives by a brook for an extended period, fed by wild ravens. In the wilderness, he learns to hear the voice of God, and nearing the end of his work, when he becomes burned out and discouraged, the lesson is impressed on him even more firmly than before—God’s voice is still and small, and best heard in the quiet places.
Preliminary Conclusion: Clearly, following God and being “not of this world” means going out, away, living alone or possibly in a small, like-minded community. Over the centuries, thousands of God’s earnest followers have done, and still do, just that. But, there are exceptions.
Joseph. Here is a boy who was raised in the time-honored nomad tents and then picked up and dropped in Egypt, of all places, the most decadent of the ancient societies—so degraded that its name became a byword for sin, just as Babylon’s did later. Joseph is not only taken away from his quiet outdoor life, he is immediately transplanted into the home of a high official and subjected to temptations that could have cost him his life whether he gave in or not! From being Potiphar’s most trusted steward, he goes to prison. But again, he rises to the notice of high officials. Now he’s the steward on the inside! And, next thing you know, Joseph is a kind of deputy pharaoh, in charge of the whole department of agriculture and married to the daughter of an idolatrous priest. Does Joseph feel he is placed in a position that is incompatible with his faith? No, in Genesis 45:5-8 and again in 50:20, Joseph says God sent him to Egypt, to save lives.
Daniel. It is one of the low spots of the Old Testament. The people of God have been so rebelliously determined to worship their own gods their own way—and refusing to obey their Creator—that they are about to find out what happens when God’s patience comes to an end. Teenage Daniel and his three friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, are captured and borne off to Babylon and a genteel sort of slavery, probably as eunuchs. In some ways, Daniel’s story parallels Joseph’s. Both are among the few Bible characters for whom no sin is recorded (which is not to say they were sinless). Both are imprisoned (one with lions) for adhering to their faith even in adversity and temptation. Each becomes assistant governor of a major ungodly nation.
Daniel’s story doesn’t have the kind of exciting finale in which he saves his nation. (Although he was certainly highly instrumental in what is probably the greatest recorded change of heart in a pagan king.) He, in fact, has to live through the conquest of the nation he’s been serving his whole life by the next nation on the prophetic chart, as he is in a unique position to recognize. Daniel has already retired by this time, but is brought back into the public eye to serve the next administration with the same kind of unswerving righteousness. This is no wilderness sojourn! Apparently one can serve God just as well in the bustle of high civic life as in the desert. And apparently, He sometimes asks someone to do just that.
Esther. If ever a person in the Bible is placed in a questionable position, it is Hadassah, the niece of Mordecai, whom we refer to by her Gentile name, Esther. The seventy years Jeremiah had promised are long over, and many refugees have returned with joy and singing to the Promised Land. They are rebuilding and facing the trials of inhospitable neighbors, learning and relearning new lessons about how to worship.
Yet many have stayed. Why did Mordecai stay? We are not privileged to know. Does he wish he hadn’t when Ahasuerus makes the decree demanding that all beautiful virgins be brought to his harem? Surely Mordecai is horrified and wishing he and Hadassah were far away and out of reach. He may even have tried to hide her. We don’t know that either.
What we do know is that every virgin whom the overseers think worthy of the king’s notice, including Hadassah, is collected and taken into the custody of Hegai, at the royal harem. For twelve months, they are given beauty treatments and possibly trained in ways of being pleasing concubines. Then they each have one night with the king. At the end of the night, that girl is taken to the “second harem,” to the custody of Shaashgaz, who has charge of the concubines (Esther 2:8, 14). She will never be called to the king again unless she “delighted” him. Her dreams of a husband and family of her own are over forever. She is now a concubine of the king, imprisoned inside the petty life of a harem, for life. Esther does delight this jaded king, and is chosen as his queen. Most startling of all, she is cautioned by Mordecai not to let on that she is a Jew. Can this possibly have been God’s plan? No matter. There is no escape. Yet the day comes when Mordecai tells Esther she might have been brought to this place “for such a time as this,” and that the fate of her entire nation is in her hands.
Once again, God brings human plans for evil to good, though there is still sin and ugliness and bloodshed in the end of this story. And once again He does it right in the palace of the king.
Conclusion: What, then, can we say? Some followers of God have been called out of the world and into a simple life, learning to be faithful and true in the company of nature and nature’s God. Others have been called into the world, learning to be faithful and true while also being faithful to high-status business and politics, though these always remain second place to God. What does it mean to be “in the world, but not of the world”?
In each of these stories we see God working to place individuals where they need to be, in order to learn what they needed to learn and to minister effectively. We can trust Him to do the same for us.*