Sometimes we worry about what others think…worry too much or not enough. I was thinking recently on the topic of what others think. Should we give no thought to others and totally be our own person, letting our identity come from within? We don’t want to be polluted by others opinions on how to dress and act just becoming one of many in our social circles or society at large.
On the other hand, we do live in a society and don’t want to reject wholesale what others might offer to us in making us a better person. Additionally, people view Christianity through what they see in Christians. Practically this goes for Christians watching each other in the church and as others see Christianity outside the church by how Christians live. We end up living in the tension between conformity and individualism, between community and personal expression.
I know people that have gotten married privately for a variety of reasons from not being able to wait or to get student grants as a married couple only to have the big ceremony months later when everyone else expected. If confronted with the question of what would others think if they knew, they invariably defend their actions as who cares what others think, we know what we are doing and how to keep it righteous. This is true, it is more important what God thinks than other people.
If only it was always that easy. In Thailand, we bump up against this tension regularly. As missionaries, we are viewed as the ambassadors of Christianity both by the church, who holds us to sometimes unrealistic expectations, and to the outsiders who don’t know much about the Christian faith. Thai people hold religion in a valued place in their society. Therefore, they view Christians well. That means they also expect them to live a moral lifestyle.
A few examples of this issue come from the expectations put on us from the society at large. For instance, if we stay out late with our students who are young adults, we might be seen as corrupting their integrity and teaching them to enjoy the night life…even if we are just eating a late dinner and hanging out in a perfectly safe environment. Their parents jump to the conclusion, that if they are out late, they must be up to mischievous behavior–party lifestyle stuff like clubs, dancing and drinking. I guess it comes down to people will always conclude you are doing what they would be doing in that situation even if it is the wrong thing societally.
This reminds me of the rule I had with my wife when we were dating. We were never home alone. If there was no one at her home or my home, we would stay outside. Her parents trusted us, but we didn’t want the neighbors jumping to conclusions. We didn’t want others to automatically think we were doing in private what they might be doing if they had the opportunity.
Another example in Thailand is of society watching us regarding what we wear. f we went to a jazz club to hear good music and have some fun with friends, we would be viewed as living a party life which takes away the respect others have for us. Even if we are not drinking or doing anything bad, we get codified as corrupt—and All the more so if we take others with us who are not Christian. Their parents are not happy with us introducing their child to this lifestyle even if the young person has gone plenty of times before without their knowledge. The other churches look at us as living loose with the behavior God calls us to.
As Christians, we are under the spotlight. Our behaviors magnify what others think of Christians or the church. Ideally, people should judge Christianity on Jesus and what the Bible teaches, but practically our faith gets judged by our actions and behavior. We are in that tension of living for God despite what others might think, and living in such a way that we are free of accusation or a tainting of the gospel.