In the World, But Not of It

Bethel is the symbol of communion with God; Ai is the symbol of the world. Abraham pitched his tent between the two.” My Utmost, January 6

It was nearly half a century ago that I began to make my way through the classic, My Utmost for His Highest. It was the very first daily devotional I’d ever read. And, it had an immediate, powerful, and enduring impact.  Very quickly, I found a host of the memorable phrases of Oswald Chambers making their way from the pages of that little red hardcover book into my daily conversation:

  • “broken bread and poured out wine,”
  • “not knowing wither,”
  • “prayer is the greater work,”
  • “the strain of waiting,”
  • “we are made for the valley,”
  • “do what is not your duty,”
  • “listening in the dark,”
  • “unhasting and unresting,” and
  • “humbling my religious conceit.”

Day after day, I found his wisdom to be pungent and picturesque—enabling me to taste and see the profoundest truths of the Gospel with a potent practicality. To this day, I still do.

As a result, the thought of choosing a single passage from My Utmost is an almost ludicrous notion—it is the whole book taken together, it is the entirety of the life and ministry of Oswald Chambers, it is the compounding and cumulative effect of the complete oeuvre that has so shaped my faith. Even so, there is one entry that particularly bolsters my faith, emboldens my vision, shapes my thinking, and gives trajectory to my calling.

The passage is from the January 6 entry on “Worship,” based on Genesis 12: 8. The whole entry is probably necessary for its fullest exposition, but the opening lines of the second paragraph serve epigrammatically as a summary:

“Bethel is the symbol of communion with God; Ai is the symbol of the world. Abraham pitched his tent between the two.”

Chambers explains,

“We have to pitch our tents where we shall always have quiet times with God, however noisy our times with the world may be. There are not three stages in spiritual life—worship, waiting and work. Some of us go in jumps like spiritual frogs; we jump from worship to waiting, and from waiting to work. God’s idea is that the three should go together. They were always together in the life of Our Lord. He was unhasting and unresting. It is a discipline; we cannot get into it all at once.”

When I first read that passage so many years ago now, I was struck by the rare wisdom it contained. Indeed, all these years later, it remains rare wisdom. Finding a proper balance between heavenly concerns and earthly responsibilities is never easy. We are all constantly tugged between piety and practicality, between devotion and duty, between communion with God and calling in the world. Like tending a well-groomed garden, honing a balanced Biblical worldview involves both the drudgery of daily labor and the high ideals of faith, hope, and love.  

To pitch our tents between Bethel and Ai is such a profoundly Biblical way of describing our call to be in the world but not of it, to never quite be home until we’re all the way home, to never bifurcate or dichotomize our callings into upper story leaps or lower story slumps. It is the perfect metaphor for describing a genuinely Biblical worldview.

The truth is, the Christian view of the world and all the things of the world is fraught with evident paradox—an appreciation for both the potentialities and the liabilities of fallen creation.

We know for instance, that the world is only a temporary dwelling place.  It is “passing away” (1 John 2:17) and we are here but for a little while as “aliens and sojourners” (Acts 7:6).  Because we are a part "of God's household" (Ephesians 2:19), our true “citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).  Our affections are naturally “set on things above” (Colossians 3:2 ).

In addition, the world is filled with “dangers, toils, and snares” (Jeremiah 18:22).  In tandem with “the flesh and the devil,” it “makes war” on the saints (John 15:18).  “All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life not of the Father” (1 John 2:16).  The world “cannot receive the Spirit of Truth” because “the cares of this world choke the Word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Matthew 8:22).

Thankfully, Christ “overcame the world” (John 16:33) and then “chose us out of the world” (John 15:19).  Thus, we are not to be “conformed to the world” (Romans 12:2), neither are we to “love the world” (1 John 2:15) because “Christ gave Himself for us, that He might deliver us from this present evil world” (Galatians 1:4).  Though we once “walked according to the course of the world” (Ephesians 2:2) now we are to keep ourselves “unspotted by the world” (James 1:27).  Indeed, “friendship with the world is enmity with God” so that whoever is “a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:4).

Thus, warnings against worldliness, carnal mindedness, and earthly attachments dominate Biblical ethics.  Elsewhere, Chambers said, “The counsel of the Spirit of God to the Saints is that they must allow nothing worldly in themselves while living among the worldly in the world.”

But then, that is the problem, isn't it?  We must continue to live in the world.  We must be “in” it but not be “of” it.  And that is no easy feat. 

As John Calvin wrote in his little Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life,

“Nothing is more difficult than to forsake all carnal thoughts, to subdue and renounce our false appetites, and to devote ourselves to God and our brethren, and to live the life of angels in a world of corruption.”

And to make matters even more complex, we not only have to live in this dangerous fallen world, but we have to work in it (1 Thessalonians 4:11), serve in it (Luke 22:6), and minister in it (2 Timothy 4:5).  We have been appointed ambassadors to it (2 Corinthians 5:20), priests for it (1 Peter 2:9), and witnesses in it (Matthew 24:14).  We even have to go to “the uttermost parts” of it (Acts 1:8), offering “a good confession of the eternal life” to which we were called (1 Timothy 6:12).

The reason for this seemingly contradictory state of affairs—enmity with the world on the one hand, responsibility to it on the other—is simply that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16) Though the world is “in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19) and “knows not God, neither the children of God” (1 Corinthians 1:21), God is “in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).  Jesus is “the light of the world” (John 1:12).  He is the “savior of the world” (John 4:14).  He is the "lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  Indeed, He was made “the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world" (1 John 2:2).  Through Christ “all things are reconciled to the Father” (Colossians 1:20) so that finally “the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ” (Revelation 11:15).

A genuinely integrated Christian worldview must be cognizant of both perspectives of the world—and treat them with equal weight.  It must be engaged in the world.  It must be unengaged in worldliness.  It must somehow correlate spiritual concerns with temporal concerns.  It must coalesce heavenly hope and landed life.  It must coordinate heart-felt faith and down-to-earth practice.

And that is just what Chambers had in mind when he charged that, like Abraham, we should “pitch our tents between Bethel and Ai.”  A vision of life and faith that is both unhasting and unresting, that has ready access to both the busy, noisy world and the quiet refreshment of Heaven, will enable us to walk in the midst of this poor, fallen world, fully invested in our daily callings yet with our eyes firmly fixed on the prize of eternity. It is our sojourn between Bethel and Ai that enables us to fulfill our responsibilities here without out ever being altogether at home.  Thus, the high ideals of a Biblical worldview are happily instituted by the grace of God in our lives, our work, and our ministries. 

Between Bethel and Ai: that is where I pray the Lord would enable me to pitch my tents—until that glorious day when I am brought all the way home, where tents will be exchanged for mansions. Oh, how grateful I am that Oswald Chambers was able to articulate so clearly this balanced vision of what it means to be “in the world, but not of it.”

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