Culture and God’s Character
“God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”
Nicodemus was a Jewish religious leader of the 1st century. You may recall that he made an appointment to see Jesus at night. In talking with Nicodemus, Jesus brought him face to face with the focal point of this chapter: “God is light without a hint of shadow at all in His character.”
The conversation between the two had centered on the topic Jesus was discussing up and down the land—the Kingdom of God. So Jesus talked with Nicodemus about entrance into the Kingdom—salvation (John 3:3-9), and exclusion from the Kingdom—condemnation (John 3:16-18). Jesus said that Kingdom membership (relationship with God) could only begin when people acknowledge they cannot get into His Kingdom as they are. It requires a new birth, a new life from above because any product of human, earthly origin is unacceptable to God. As Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:3).
Then Jesus explained what was going on in the culture of His time (and ours, too). First, He stated the premise: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but (people) loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19).
Jesus didn’t stop there. He completed the equation by revealing the two options available to all mankind. “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:20, 21). The fear and the dread are the result of two facts. One, we are sinful. Second, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”
This declaration created the problem. The writer made it at the end of a long, introductory statement. John the Apostle announced: The beginning and the conclusion, the essence and the experience, the relationship and the message that Jesus transmitted to us is that God is light without a hint of shadow at all to His character.
If this accurately describes God, can our secular culture be the reflection of God’s character? After all, what is culture? It is simply the accumulation of values, social mores and conduct developed over a period of time by a group of people. What is there, then, in American culture that can bring people to God? What is there about our culture that is redemptive? What is there in our culture that would lead us to repentance and eternal salvation? To find the answers, we need first to understand the nature and character of God and, secondly, that of secular culture as well.
Looking at our own society, we observe that God is perceived more as the “jolly old Man upstairs.” He is a “cosmic Santa Claus for all seasons.” This gross distortion of God’s nature stems from the increasing acceptance of sin within our culture, as something that is normal. It’s all right to sin!
However, the more we sin, the more guilt accumulates within us. That guilt must be managed or released in some manner. We realize that when guilt builds up, it is psychologically destructive. To help reduce our guilt, we redefine our idea of God. Those who care to look will discover that that the human needs and wants of the moment drive a culture’s definition of God rather than His eternal character. What, then, is the process by which this definition takes place?
If I am becoming less holy in my life and I have a high view of God and His standards of righteousness, the weight of guilt becomes very uncomfortable. At this point, I have two choices: Either I adjust my life to God’s standards, or I adjust God’s standards to my life. Therefore to reconcile my guilty conscience with my sinful conduct I create a God who is quite less than perfect and holy. He is no longer the God “without a trace of shadow in His character.”
Creating God in Our Image
The process develops as follows: The farther I move away (in my conduct) from what God really is, the more I strive to shape Him into an “image” that is compatible with my conduct. The end product is a theology with a god who will approve of how I am living or at least overlook it and not condemn it. While we see this currently going on, it is not something new or unique to our day. We have noted already the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus declared that people avoid the light. That is the universal condition of all humans, in all cultures: We all hate light because our deeds are, in fact, evil.
If we don’t want our sin life interfered with, we avoid the God who is Light. We dread exposure. So instead, we design a god to fit the way we want to live. We reject the only other alternative—to come into the light of God’s holiness and adopt His standards for our lives.
In similar words the Apostle Paul sounded a warning to his young associate, Timothy. “For the time will come when (people) will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (II Timothy 4:3, 4). Our own desires (how we want to live), the apostle says, are going to dictate our belief about God. In this way we can reduce our feelings of guilt because we have removed the holy God from our theology and our thinking.
The Apostle Paul wrote much on this subject. In the first chapter of his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul described humanity’s downward spiral away from God and into depravity. He stated that God’s attributes and nature have forever been shown through creation (Romans 1:19, 20; see also Psalm 19). Regardless, Paul says, “ . . . although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:21).
Moving away from God’s light, we retreat into the darkness of our own souls. Claiming to be wise, Paul continued, “they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” (Romans 1:23). As the distance between a person’s conduct and the character of the eternal God increases, the more we seek to modify the image of God to fit our level of morality. We debase God to reduce our guilt feelings. So, Paul says, God’s glory and His holy character are corrupted to correspond to our sinful way of living.
Paul was confronting the natural, worldly tendencies of humanity across the centuries that create the foundations of secular culture! As the correct view of God is rejected, human thought and conduct become even more depraved (Romans 1:28, 29). That does not mean, however, that we are always as bad and immoral as we could be.
Nevertheless, the Apostle predicts that even church members would alter their doctrine to mirror their lives. As he wrote to Timothy, “They will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (II Timothy 4:3). Remember that Paul is predicting conditions in the church—not the world!
Sin in The 21st Century
Now let’s translate all this into our own time. It is a strange paradox we see in North America today. We hear glowing reports of evangelical strength and activity in our land. Many churches are claiming record-breaking membership statistics, even creating a new standard to measure church success: The Mega-Church! That suggests the worship of a new evangelical deity, “Mega.” So today, it has become fashionable for presidents and other politicians to profess they are “born again.”
But right along with the apparent growth in church membership and public acceptance of evangelical faith, we see a tidal wave of secularism, egoism, materialism, sex and violence swashing over our culture. Although the church claims to be stronger than ever, its influence on morality has never been so anemic. We have more evangelical Christians than ever with more people “believing in God.” Nevertheless, as the church grows, we see that sin both inside and outside the church is looked at with less and less disfavor. How can that be?
To get more answers, let’s review some Scriptures we looked at. Jesus told Nicodemus, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world but (people) love darkness instead of light . . .” (John 3:19. The Apostle John announced, “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5). And from his statement about John the Baptist, “He came as a witness to that light, so that through (Jesus) all men might believe . . . he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.” (John 1, 7-9). God’s character obliterates all other sources of light as a trustworthy guide for Christian living. Nothing short of God Himself is reliable. Mankind’s natural interest, Jesus told Nicodemus, is toward darkness and evil. That is the source for our secular culture.
The Cause of the Conflict
As we read these declarations about light and God’s character, the reason for the clash between God and secular culture starts coming into focus. God’s holiness and humanity’s sinfulness are not compatible. The two are not going to get along unless something changes. We can only have one of two outcomes: Either humanity and God become satisfied with the character of each other, or we will separate and be at war. Since the essential nature of God is light (holiness, I John 1:5) and eternal (Isaiah 60:19-21), He cannot and will not change (Leviticus 11:44, 45; Joshua 24:19; Isaiah 6:3; I Peter 1:13-16; Revelation 4:8). God cannot change and still be God! (I Samuel 15:29). So the battle is on. We are at war!
This is where our worldly culture comes in. The constant effort of humanity, with the support of Satan’s demonic forces, is to produce a culture that neutralizes the conflict with conscience without submitting to God’s authority. If our cultural environment can make us feel morally secure and comfortable with being less than holy, we have discovered a way to reduce the stress generated by a guilty conscience.
Notice how the Apostle Paul describes that idea to his associate Titus: “In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.” (Titus 1:15). Corrupt minds and consciences cannot produce a culture that is holy. Not only is our secular culture spiritually unreliable, it is detrimental to holy living. The only possible product of corrupt minds and consciences is a corrupt culture. Does that always mean totally and completely corrupt? No. But the final and inevitable result is intentional movement away from God.
In our day, that movement takes on the form of culturally acceptable attitudes that have invaded the church. Our American culture insists on acceptance of all religious beliefs, situational ethics, and pragmatic business practices (if there is no law against it) and it’s what everyone else is doing so it’s OK. In short, our culture is aggressively secular! It has produced a soothing climate that reduces the conflict with conscience. Our secular culture tells us, ”If you feel no guilt, you haven’t sinned.” A more popular version is, “No harm—no foul.” Gradually, cultural accommodation waters down eternal truth.
Paul raised this point to the Corinthians when he wrote, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me . . . He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.” (I Corinthians 4:4, 5). While our secular culture may produce a feeling of wellbeing in individuals, God determines reality Himself. The Apostle was saying, “I do not even allow my own experience to determine my belief system. God alone sets the standards.” (I Corinthians 4:3). “Am I now trying to win approval of men or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men (as he had once done) I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:8-10).
Culture is Not Redemptive
Our world’s culture is the product of humanity apart from God. It rises from a corrupted center. John the Apostle sharply contrasted the distinction between the world and God’s perspective. He wrote, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world . . . comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires passes away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” (l John 2:15-17).
Therefore, to adopt our culture’s standards or rely on our culture’s methods is not only dangerous—it is sin, as John said. We are not following the will of God. It is God’s intention to bring to Himself a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (I Peter 2:9). Yes, He has called us out of darkness into His light! We are to declare Him to a world still in darkness.
God’s light penetrated the darkness of our world to rescue us. He is our Source. Jesus provided the means to redeem us through His death and resurrection. He is our Savior. The Holy Spirit regenerated our lives and empowered us for Kingdom service. He is our Strength.
What is left that a secular culture can add for our redemption? It can only detract and take away. It can only introduce compromise and confusion into the life of the individual and the church. Used as a compass for ministry, it will lead us back to the Devil’s camp. Culture is not redemptive. It is only the reflection of fallen humanity that has created it.