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Now Reading: The Question Every Christian Should Be Asking
3 years ago
Humans are a social bunch.
Throughout history, our survival has relied on our ability to work together as part of a group. When winter comes, no one wants to the outsider who isn’t welcome around the campfire.
As a result, we’re hardwired to want to be part of the tribe; to conform to the social dynamics around us.
One (in)famous psychology experiment carried out in 1951 demonstrated the frightening extent of this desire to conform. In the study, a group of students viewed a card with a line drawn on it and they were asked to match it to one of three other lines, labelled A, B and C. One of these lines was the same as the first, but the other two lines were clearly longer and shorter, respectively.
However, the experiment had a twist. In the group of students, only one was a real participant. The others were all actors who had been instructed to pick the same wrong answer.
The experimenter would ask the group which line was the same length as the first, and one by one, the actors would all confidently point to a line that was clearly wrong. The real participant would always answer last.
The correct answer was obvious, but the experimenters wondered what impact the rest of the group giving the same incorrect answer would have on a real participant. The results were sobering. 75% of participants gave at least one incorrect answer in the 12 trials that were run.
If you’re a student of history, the result of that experiment probably doesn’t surprise you. You only have to study Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia to deeply understand how the pressure of conformity can lead humans to do the wrong thing.
I remember my parents warning me about the potential dangers of conformity from a young age. I’d come home from school imitating the behaviour of one of the popular kids in my class and my mum would ask, “If [popular kid] jumped off a bridge, would you jump to?”
As Christians, we receive many warnings about the dangers of conforming to the world around us. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2)
Conformity to the world is the constant pressure we face in day-to-day life. It surrounds and shapes our actions, often in ways that we aren’t even consciously aware of. It’s something we are exhorted to resist, but at the same time we’re hardwired to acquiesce to it.
To heed Paul’s warning requires us to live a life of consistent self-reflection. We need to constantly ask ourselves the question: Do I think about this thing the same way that society does?
There are a few obvious areas where Christians know that their values should not conform to those of wider society – issues like abortion, greed and sexual morality. However, for every one of these issues, there are a dozen societal standards that we swallow hook, line, and sinker.
Let me share an example that’s relevant in my own life right now: owning a home. Where I live, this is the big financial milestone that the average middle-class person is meant to achieve. By the time you’re in your late twenties, if you don’t own a home already, it’s assumed that you should be saving for one.
You know who didn’t own their own homes? The early church. In the book of Acts we read, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32).
I’m not implying there is anything wrong with owning a home. Certainly, the structure of Christian community today is very different to how it was in the first century and plenty of arguments could be made that home ownership is a good thing.
But have you even thought about it?
This is the point I’m trying to make. As Christians who have been warned not to conform to the world, we should think critically about anything that the world serves up to us on a plate.
Maybe home ownership isn’t relevant to you, but what about social media, consumerism, or any of the countless other things that our world just accepts without question? Have you asked yourself whether they align with Christian principles? Have you wondered what God thinks about them?
Sometimes, the result of this critical thinking will be a determination that what the world is pushing isn’t bad. In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on environmentalism, combatting racism and addressing income inequality. These are all good things.
However, there are plenty of other societal values that are harmful. Consumerism leads to a culture of waste and environmental damage. Self-promotion breeds selfishness and arrogance. Careerism leads people to prioritise work over the important relationships in their life.
We’re warned “not to love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15) because all too often, the things of this world are incredibility damaging to our relationships each other and with our creator.
The Irish poet Oscar Wilde once said, ““Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Though we aren’t often conscious of it, so much of what we think and the way that we live our lives is shaped by the world we live it.
My intention with this post isn’t tell you that you shouldn’t buy nice clothes, or have an Instagram account, or own a home. But I’d consider it a success if it makes you reflect on things you’ve previously taken for granted.
If we want to live a life that is conformed to Christ, rather than to the world, we should be constantly asking ourselves the question: Do I think about this the same way that society does?