I caught myself doing something I’m not proud of a few weeks ago. I was talking with someone about why I’d been traveling last month for the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) and made a comment about the “weird religious things” I do. I felt bad about it immediately, repented and asked God’s forgiveness, but it still kept bugging me. Why was my first reaction to downplay rather than to explain my faith?
Just a few weeks later in a sermon, I heard a speaker at church using a similar phrase in the context of explaining our “weird religious stuff” to people who have no background with our faith. I’m not the only one doing this, and I think I know why. We recognize that our faith is very different than what the world thinks is “normal” and that’s becoming increasingly apparent. Religious people are no longer the majority in the United States. According to Gallup, “In 2020, 47% of U.S. adults belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque,” which is 20 points lower than it was in 2000 (“U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time“).
When you’re going to church on Saturday and keeping God’s holy days (as I do), then you have some very visible differences from other Christians as well. We laugh self-consciously at the King James Version of 1 Peter 2:9, which says “ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people,” and agree that we’re certainly peculiar. We know we’re odd, and so we laugh at ourselves before someone else can.
The thing is, “peculiar” comes from the Latin word peculiaris, which relates to private property (Oxford Languages via Google). That’s why modern translations say things like, “you are … a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9, WEB). Our peculiarity isn’t because we’re strange and odd; it’s because we belong to God. That will make us look strange to the world that we’re living in without being a part of it (John 17:14-16), but that doesn’t mean we should think of ourselves as weird.
Being self-effacing and deflecting conversations about your faith in certain situations isn’t necessarily a sin. You don’t always have to engage with people who are actively hostile or have zero interest in learning about God. But evading or downplaying is not the best thing to do. Especially if it might come across as you being embarrassed about your faith or unwilling to confess that you follow Jesus Christ, because then we are getting into sin territory. God wants us to be lights in a dark world, not cover up the light He’s shining through us. He wants us to speak about Him boldly because we love Him too much to stay silent and we respect Him too much to downplay His importance.
There’s a story in the Old Testament that comes to mind when I think about the value we place on God’s gifts. Part of God’s law includes a special place for the firstborn. He told Moses to write, “Sanctify to me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of animal. It is mine” (Ex. 13:2, WEB). Culturally and theologically, the firstborn had a special role in the ancient Biblical world. They were set apart for God’s own use, and they inherited a more significant blessing from their father. Even before Exodus, we see this pattern in the stories of the patriarchs. There were rights and privileges that should belong to the firstborn. We also see this disrupted several times–Isaac was the son of the promise, but not Abraham’s firstborn, and Joseph was chosen for special blessings over his older brothers. That disruption also happens for Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau.
Jacob boiled stew. Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Please feed me with some of that red stew, for I am famished.” Therefore his name was called Edom.
Jacob said, “First, sell me your birthright.”
Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die. What good is the birthright to me?”
Jacob said, “Swear to me first.”
He swore to him. He sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew. He ate and drank, rose up, and went his way. So Esau despised his birthright.Genesis 25:30-34, WEB
This didn’t turn out so well for Esau. He lost the firstborn blessing and it was his younger twin Jacob who became the patriarch of Israel and is part of the lineage of Jesus Christ. But what does that have to do with us?
Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through it many become defiled. And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal.Hebrews 12:14-16, NET (italics mark allusions to Deut 29:18 and Gen 27:34-41)
There’s a danger that we could also become like Esau. The writer of Hebrews warned about it strongly. We’re to diligently follow peace, holiness, and grace, avoiding things like bitterness, immorality, and godlessness that’s here exemplified by Esau selling and despising his birthright. He didn’t value that gift and so he let it go in exchange for something relatively worthless. There’s little chance Esau was actually “about to die” after a day of hunting in the field, especially when he had a tent to go back to where his whole family lived. They likely had a whole household and if there wasn’t other food available right that moment there would be later. But he didn’t consider consequences or think through his options. He wanted immediate gratification of his hunger more than he wanted significant, long-term blessings.
Firstborn Inheritance with Jesus
There’s another question earlier in Hebrews that also seems relevant to this conversation. Near the beginning of this book, the writer reminds us of God’s revelation through Jesus Christ and of how important it is to properly reverence and appreciate Him. Then, he says this:
Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.Hebrews 2:1-4, NET
For Esau, the problem was that he despised his birthright. Here, the danger is that we might neglect the great salvation offered through our elder brother Jesus Christ, who is sharing His firstborn inheritance with us. In both situations, improperly valuing the gifts, inheritance, and roles that God gives you leads to a poor outcome.
And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears.Hebrews 12:16-17, NET
God offers abundant forgiveness for sins, but sometimes you still have to deal with the consequences. In Esau’s case, he couldn’t get his birthright back. In our case, continual and deliberate neglect of God’s word and despising His gifts can have eternal consequences.
Living With Joyful Integrity
The question of whether or not you can “lose” salvation is hotly debated in Christian circles. At one extreme, some say that anyone who confesses Jesus is permanently saved regardless of how they live after. At the other extreme, some say you can’t have any certainty that you’re saved until the very end and live in fear that they won’t measure up.
Bible writers strike an interesting balance between the two–teaching and displaying both a sense of urgency and a sense of confidence. Paul, for example, said in Philippians that he was still striving “to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8-16). He hadn’t been perfected yet, but he was confident God could get him there and by the time he wrote 2 Timothy he was sure that God would reward him for his faithfulness (2 Tim. 4:6-8). Similarly, Jesus promises that His father wants to give His children the kingdom and that no one will ever take them out of His hand (Luke 12:32; John 10:28-29) while also warning that people who claim to follow Jesus without sincerely doing God’s will won’t inherit the kingdom (Matt. 7:21-23; 25:1-13; 31-46).
Basically, if we do our best to follow God, obey Him, honor Him, and keep growing closer to Him then He’ll make sure we succeed. He even calls us perfect so long as we’re heading that direction. On the other hand, if we “deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth” and show “contempt for the Son of God” then we’re not on a path toward eternal life in His kingdom (Heb. 10:19-39).
This might have taken too harsh a turn from our starting point of referring to some aspect of your faith as a “weird religious thing.” However, if we’re downplaying the importance of our faith in a little thing like that, will we be faithful when we’re confronted with choosing between our faith and fitting in with the world for a larger thing? It’s a question I ask myself, especially when I read stories of people being persecuted and killed for their faith. If someone put a gun to my head and told me to deny Jesus or die, I intend to stay faithful. But what if the compromise is easier to justify, such as staying quiet about a moral issue so you can get a promotion? Can I really expect to respond with faith then if I’m reluctant to express how important He is to me now when there aren’t even any negative consequences?
We need to live with integrity, aligning the way we talk about our faith and live our lives with the value that we say we place on following Jesus. In writing this, I’m speaking to myself as much as (and perhaps more than) anyone else. I pray this study helps keep me on-track. I pray the next time I could describe my faith as weird, I instead let others see how much joy following Jesus brings me. And I hope this gives you something to think about as well, even if you are always honest and joyful about your faith when talking with other people.
Featured image by Matt Vasquez via Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “What Do I Know Of Holy” by Addison Road