When my son Simeon moved to the United States a few years ago, I was a bit surprised to learn that according to the United States Government, he was an alien. Even after getting his Green Card, which allows him to work in the USA, the correct term for his new status was not Permanent Resident or Landed Immigrant (terms that I was familiar with from Canada). According to Uncle Sam, even though Simeon has now lived and worked in the USA for several years, owns a house, has a bank account and pays taxes there, he is still an alien, and he will continue to be an alien until the day that he swears allegiance to the United States of America and becomes a United States citizen.
When we hear the word alien, for many of us the first thought that comes to mind may be of creatures from outer space. But according to TheFreeDictionary.com, the word alien can also mean a person from another and very different family, people, or place. That’s an excellent description of what it is like to be a Christian in a hostile world. We are aliens. We belong to a different family, people and place than the children of the world. We have a different king, a different government, a different identity, a different value system and a different hope. Paul wrote that our citizenship is in heaven. We are citizens of a kingdom that will totally replace the current world system when Jesus returns to restore the earth and reign openly as king. In the meantime, we are strangers and aliens in the world system, living by the values of a kingdom that most people don’t see yet. One day the whole world will see this kingdom because it will be fully manifested on the earth. With the eyes of faith, friends of Jesus see it now, even though dimly, and we seek to live by its light.
The first Christians lived in a culture that was openly hostile to their faith, and some of them suffered greatly for it. The Apostle Peter was so aware of this that he wrote an entire letter to strengthen and encourage these embattled believers. He didn’t tell them to try hard to fit in and accommodate themselves to the culture they were in (which seems to be the strategy of much of the North American evangelical church these days). And significantly, he also didn’t tell them that their assignment was to take over the power structures and change the culture by force. The Zealots had tried that in Israel, and Jesus completely repudiated their approach, as Peter no doubt well remembered. Instead, Peter told them to be different, to live lives that were in stark contrast with the values of the world around them.
These were his words :
Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.
Basically, he was warning Christ followers not to adopt the standards, values, goals or desires of the people of this age, because this would dilute their witness and had the potential to destroy their relationship with him.
My personal circumstances have given me plenty of cause to think about these things in recent weeks. For fifteen years now, I have made my living as an IT sub-contractor. Some people think that consultants make a lot of money, but that’s not always the case. Marion and I home-schooled for most of those years, so my income was the only income for the family. As a fairly junior programmer, in my first few years my income was barely enough to meet our expenses. It was always enough, but there was never a lot extra. Gradually this began to change, and in the past few years our life became somewhat more comfortable. In an earlier phase of our life together, Marion and I had lived below the poverty line as church planters for years, and our personal tastes are quite simple, so we can quite easily be content on a limited income. However, I had been given a promise several years ago that the Lord intended to prosper us both financially and spiritually so that Marion and I could be a financial and spiritual blessing to many, and this had been repeated a couple of years ago by a prophetic minister who knew nothing of our circumstances, goals or visions, but told me that I would be a storehouse like Joseph.
With these promises in mind, when my last contract came to an end almost nine months ago, I was full of confidence in the Lord’s provision. Interruptions in work are commonplace for people in my line of work, but we had a financial buffer that was more than adequate for three months. My longest layoff ever had lasted three and a half months, so I was confident that I would soon have work again. Not only that, I had numerous indications that with my fifteen years of experience, my knowledge and skills were in demand and my prospects looked quite good. There were several possibilities on the horizon. I had been journalling and seeking the Lord, and had asked him whether He wanted me to continue in the IT field or step out into ministry on a faith basis. I sensed that He was saying I should expect to stay in the IT field for a few years longer. So, based on everything that I sensed God had been showing me, and the prophetic words I had received about being a storehouse, I confidently expected that my layoff from work would be brief, and that my new contract would be financially lucrative, providing additional seed for the storehouse that the Lord had spoken of. I even had sufficient confidence to turn down a couple of contracts in the early stages of what proved to be a nine-month waiting period, because I sensed that the Lord had assured me he had something better for me.
Since then I have gone after fifteen different contract opportunities, some of them very attractive, financially and in other ways. I was well qualified for many of them. I had so many near misses that I can no longer write them off as coincidences or “the luck of the draw” (not that I really believe in these concepts anyway : for one who belongs to Jesus, nothing happens purely by chance). The Word of God tells us that it is God who promotes one and brings down another. These matters are in his hands. I can only conclude that the Lord was making me wait for a reason.
Along the way, I did a lot of journalling, bike riding and prayer walking. I prayed alone and with Marion. I fasted. I worshipped. I wrote songs. I studied the Word and listened to many excellent Bible teachings which have had a profound impact on my relationship with God. I read through the Book of Psalms over and over again. I knew that God was doing something new in my life, preparing Marion and me for a new season. I found the extra time with God extremely beneficial, even though I found the waiting (without a defined end date in sight) to be a significant trial to my faith. In my times of seeking the Lord, I cried out to God; I argued with Him; I asked Him questions; I humbled myself and surrendered time and again. Many times I would ask him the same questions over and over again. “Have I been hearing you correctly? Is there anything I am missing? Is there anything else you want to say to me? When will the provision come?” And as I journalled and prayed, over and over again I received the Lord’s assurance that His provision would come at the right time, and that when it came, it would be just right.
In the end, I took a contract that was financially less lucrative than any of the other fifteen that I had pursued or been offered at one time or another over the past nine months. I am now going to be compensated at a level lower than I have been at for seven years. Some of my colleagues tell me they have not had a contract at these rates since the late 1990s. In fact, many of them would refuse to work for these rates, and some have implied that I should not take this contract because I am selling out. Yet, I have the Lord’s assurance that this is His blessing and provision for me. Along the way I have seen promises broken and colleagues blessed with positions that I can legitimately say I should have had. When I have prayed about this, the Lord has reminded me that these people don’t have the blessing of a relationship with Him, so I now have an opportunity to pray for them to see God’s goodness in their circumstances and turn to Him. I also will have the opportunity to work in an environment where I have worked before, with at least two people (a manager and a team leader) who are potentially open to the gospel but have not yet received the Lord. This too is an answer to prayer, but I can only be a blessing to them if my own heart is in a place of gratitude and contentment. So the Lord has given me an exquisitely designed test. No-one is able to design more elegant tests than the Holy Spirit.
Suffice it to say, this has been a time of humbling for me. I realize now, with the 20-20 vision that hindsight sometimes affords, that when the Lord told me the provision was going to be just right, he wasn’t primarily thinking of finances. Marion and I know how to budget, and the financial provision will be more than enough. It always is. And since finances are not my primary goal anyway, it really doesn’t matter. We’ll have less excess to give away – at least from employment income – but that’s up to God, not me. If He wants me to be a storehouse, he’s not limited to employment as a way of getting me there. Joseph didn’t get raised up to be the second most powerful man in Egypt through his own efforts. It was entirely through God’s grace and mercy. But he did have to go through a significant period of humbling, and he had to be faithful. In the end it was his faithfulness, integrity, and spiritual perceptiveness that drew the attention of the king.
This chain of events has served to remind me that as a Christ follower I live by a different value system than the world around me. I knew this of course, but when you work for years with the children of this world, it can affect you without you even realizing it. The nine-month layoff provided sufficient time for the gestation of a new ministry vision. It allowed me the opportunity to take my hands off some things that I had looked to for security, which the Lord told me to sell to provide for our needs while waiting for work. It provided a time for me to refocus and get my eyes onto Jesus again. I didn’t think I had taken my eyes off of him, but I have seen that I had become more dull and compromised than I had realized, and the Lord wanted to sharpen me, humble me, make me tremble again in His presence. There are things He wants me to do in the years to come, and to fulfil his purposes for the remainder of my earthly journey, I need to be a sharp instrument in His hands.
Like my son, who is a Canadian citizen living in the United States, people who belong to Jesus are citizens of a different kingdom. We are in a war with our own fallen nature, the world system and the Prince of Darkness, and that war will continue until the Lord Jesus returns to claim his Bride and rule the earth openly.
In the meantime His people look for his kingdom as from a distance, and live by its light in the shadows of a mostly dark world. That’s what it means to be a city on a hill. We are called to be different, not motivated by earthly power or the world’s approval but motivated by the smile of Jesus, the crucified one, our lover, our friend and our king, who is coming to reign.
The experiences of the past nine months have shown me again that I am an alien and a stranger in this age. I am looking for a heavenly kingdom that is coming to earth, and I belong to a king who is a passionate lover of my soul, and who will tolerate no rivals for my affections. A financial loss – which He is well able to replace – is a small price to pay to have my vision refocussed, my heart reawakened and my priorities clarified again. Thank you Jesus.