Many years ago two Christian friends and I were listening to comedy on a Steve Martin record. I had heard it before and knew that some of it was racy, so I monitored the volume knob, muting out what I considered to be the bad parts. This prompted one companion to glance at me with incredulity and laugh. She thought it odd that I would try to spare her from hearing Steve’s blue humor. That’s when I realized, that in some people’s eyes, I was a card-carrying member of the Christian “fuddy-duddy” club. Fuddy-duddies are people considered to be too uptight and legalistic; overly scrupulous about minor matters. Fuddy-duddies should loosen up and have a good long soak in a warm tub of grace.
Are the critics right? Let me start by admitting that it is possible for believers to be all of the above. Anything good that God gives us, including His commands, can be distorted and misused.
Yet, a question still remains to which there is often no quick and easy answer: What does it mean to separate ourselves from sin? In 2 Corinthians 6:14, Paul says: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers”. He finishes this section by concluding: “Therefore come out from them and be separate says the Lord. . . since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.”
This describes the Christian doctrine of separation. We’re called to pull back from overly close association with sinful people and sinful practices. Why? It’s because sin is seductive and packed with destructive potential. Sin can destroy our lives, our reputations, our relationships, our testimony, and our walk with God.
Separation is tricky, though. As I just mentioned, we live in this world. We’re surrounded by sin. Furthermore, everyone we care about has a problem with sin. Oh, and did I forget to mention – we’re sinners too? So how can we be separate? Even if we lived in a bubble our sin nature would follow us inside. And how can we help our fellow-sinners if we refuse to associate with them?
There are no neat formulas here-no “one-size-fits-all” set of rules (although one can find churches and individuals willing to give them). Each of us is different in how we respond to sinful people and situations. Nevertheless, our holiness is either aided or sabotaged by our approach to separation. Let’s begin by trying to define more carefully what it means to be separate from sin.
What a healthy separation from sin isn’t
1. Healthy separation doesn’t mean that I cut off all relationships and friendship with sinful people
Jesus ate meals with tax collectors and sinners (Matt. 11:19). He allowed a woman with a bad reputation to wash his feet (Luke 3:36-39). Everyone, in fact, that he associated with, even His disciples, had sin problems. You and I also are meant to interact with our fellow sinners; to show them God’s love, to lead them to Christ (Matt. 28:19).
2. Healthy separation doesn’t mean that I remain ignorant of the world I live in
How are we to reach our world if we remain uninformed of what’s going on around us? We should wisely choose to screen what we take in, but if we’re to interact with those around us and exercise a godly influence on society we need at least some familiarity with it. Paul, for instance, quoted Greek poets in his speech at Athens (Acts 17)
3. Healthy separation doesn’t mean that I need to be intimidated by sin’s power
Jesus lived a perfect life in a sinful world. We too can be holy, in the midst of unholiness, with His help. Sin is not stronger than the Spirit of God. While we should have a healthy caution about its potential to seduce us, we can also walk with confidence in Christ despite the sinful climate all around us. We’re tough spiritual warriors.
What healthy separation from sin is
I’ll develop this more in a moment, but basically, healthy separation from sin means that I interact with it in a way that protects me from becoming vulnerable to its seductions, deceptions and influence. In other words, I’m able to stay holy in an unholy world. Why does that matter?
Why is holiness such a benefit?
There’s a real paradox here. What our world calls “freedom”, by which they mean the ability to do whatever we want, is not actual freedom. We live in a world overrun by an extremely powerful force called “sin”. None of us are immune to its influence. Paul, in fact, calls those who aren’t believers “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6). So, apart from Christ, there is only the illusion of freedom. And, as already mentioned, sin is destructive. True freedom, as St. Augustine pointed out, is the freedom to be what God made us to be; the freedom to be in sync with God’s “good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
God-given holiness, while it doesn’t make life easy all the time, opens the door to first-rate living. We have increasing victory over sin and Satan. We’re transformed into the beautiful character of Christ. We’re able to benefit the lives of others in eternally important ways. Our lives bring glory to God. This is truly living, and if you’ve ever gotten a taste of it, the pleasures of this world, apart from Christ, seem bland and unfulfilling. In summary, healthy separation from sin is totally worth whatever effort or even suffering that it might cost us.
How can I maintain a healthy separation from sin?
1. I maintain a healthy separation from sin when I develop a whole-hearted love for God
This is the at the center of the matter. We were made to enjoy a deep love relationship with God (Matt. 22:37). When we are bathed in His love, and return that love, our relationship toward sin is radically altered. Because we love God we learn to love what He loves. This leads to the next suggestion:
2. I maintain a healthy separation from sin when I learn to love holiness
The best way to avoid what is bad is to love what is good. A positive motivation – wanting to be holy, is more powerful than a merely negative motivation – seeking to avoid sin. And, truth be told, holiness blows away unholiness. It’s far superior. Anyone who’s truly experienced God’s ways knows that this is true. But holiness is an acquired taste for those surrounded by sin – like learning to savor vegetables more than cheesecake. The Spirit can help you to acquire this healthier craving.
3. I maintain a healthy separation from sin when I remain conscious of my spiritual state
How closely I can interact with sinful situations/people is partly determined by my spiritual condition. Sometimes I’m solid as a rock spiritually and, at other times, I’m fragile as balsa wood. Without becoming paranoid we can learn to recognize when we’re at a spiritual tipping point and need to get extra distance from certain temptations. Be ruthlessly honest –a lot of sin sneaks in under the umbrella of rationalization.
Tune in next week to continue this discussion.