On Celebrating A Loss Of Privacy
 
by Garrett Soucy
 

 

                I love my town. For the last 20 years, the population has hovered around 950 residents. This is almost four times the size of the town in which my parents now live. Often, when a man is describing his little neighborhood, or his tiny church fellowship, or the family-run business that employs him, he may sometimes feel as though he has to apologize for the unimpressive number of people. In some ways, this is understandable. It’s hard to get a good sized group all together with any sense of regularity and order. We are impressed with big churches, big corporations, and big cities. Somebody must be doing something right if all these people want to be here. Well . . . yes and no.
            There are so many wonderful things that the city offers which small towns would have a hard time replicating. My wife and I were in Montreal many years ago for our anniversary. I ordered Chinese take-out from the open-air video game arcade at 3:00 AM. You can’t do that in Waterville. I’ve felt the strange immensity of standing in Times Square, looking up at the nine-story-high screen. You won’t see that in Houlton. But it’s much harder for a human to go unnoticed in Maine . . . and because Christians are the light of the world, being noticed is part of the job.            
 
In Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas have gone to preach the Gospel in Antioch. The Jews are becoming increasingly oppositional to the message of Christ and Paul is basically explaining that the vineyard is being taken from them and given to a people who had previously not been called by the Name of God. This is understandably offensive to the Jews. Observe a few of the verses:
 
Acts 13:46-49 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.              
 
The line about God calling forth witnesses as light to go to the ends of the Earth and proclaim reconciliation with God — this statement is from Isaiah 49. The apostle is claiming that this verse is speaking directly of them. The riveting beauty of this is that it is the same kind of passage as the Great Commission, at the end of Matthew. The commandment to disciple the nations is given to the apostles at first . . . but the commandment to disciple the nations is not given to the apostles alone. It is a commandment that reverberates down the hall to everyone who hears their message and believes. Whether it is 1 Peter 2:9 or Romans 10:14, there are a number of passages that emphasize the fact that if you have believed on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then you have been brought into the light and sent back into the dark world as a bright witness of that light. It’s not as though the advancement of the Kingdom is akin to a theatrical company in which some are on lights, and others are on stage. In the Kingdom, everyone is on lights. It is the Light that is on stage.            
 
It is natural for someone who sees his own faults to want to avoid being the center of attention. Christians are filled with light, though, and in order to not draw attention in the dark, the Christian has to work hard at being avoided. This is disobedience to Christ. It requires our hiding the Gospel. We do this when we disallow the light to expose the evil of those deeds which are done in the dark or when we avoid naming Christ as the source of our peace and joy. Thankfully, those who live in small places have been given help in this department. It is hard to go unnoticed in a small town. Believe it or not, this is a Gospel advantage.            
 
God has sent Christians into the world as lights so that they might bring the salvation of Christ to every corner and side street on this planet. Because of this, the Christian has to rewire her thinking when it comes to the importance of whether or not her life is noticed by her neighbors. She has to not only be okay with it but embrace it. She may want to avoid this, not out of shame over the Gospel, but over reasons of personality. Even though God has written into the story some characters that are gregarious and some that are shy, every character is called to live one’s life in front of the watching world. We are not to hide the light. The gregarious person can hide it under the shadow of her looming personality. The shy Christian can hide the light out of fear that his personality might be seen.            
 
The Isaiah passage which Paul quotes is clear. God intends His covenant people to visibly enact our living and moving in the world. For the Gospel to be seen as great, then the grace which God has already extended towards sinners must be visible to those who do not yet believe. The legalist thinks you should only show the world what you ought to be. The Gospel-believer is secure in his standing before God, and so he shows the world a redeemed sinner. 
 
A small town has increased visibility. You can’t walk to the mailbox without someone knowing your business. You are obliged to greet your neighbors or run the risk of making a statement about your own unsociability. In a city, it is a given that eye contact and interaction are unnecessary. You may or may not know your neighbors. It is not required. How many young people flee their hometown for the city as soon as possible, hoping to find a greater depth of identity in the fold of its garments? Rather, the actual promise of the city is that, in it, everyone becomes no one. Finding oneself is simply another way of disappearing. This affirms with resounding clarity the truth that the cities of the world need the Gospel. They are some of the loneliest places on the planet.
 
The provincial byways, however, are often dismissed as places where one’s business is not one’s own. The caricatures of the nosy neighbor or the town gossip have crystallized in our minds when we think of rural living. It is interesting that the desire for privacy is met more in the crowd than it is in the country. The question behind all of this is, ‘Why the profound desire for privacy?’ Sometimes people desire privacy because they have been hurt by relationships with others. Sometimes, people desire privacy because other people require maintenance and a selfish life is often an easier life. Very often, however, it is an attempt to give sanctuary to sin and a desire to hide our faults that drive the obsession with privacy.
 
John 3:19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.
 
Doesn’t confession speak to this issue with such profundity? What is confession? It is the exposure of that which was hidden. It is light reaching into the corners of a room that had been previously boarded up. In the sacrificial system, animals were cut open. The things which had never been exposed to daylight, in death, would be spilled out onto the ground. The human eye would behold the fat and the blood, the entrails and the bones. When Scripture commands Christians to be living sacrifices, it is implicitly understood that this will require a level of transparency amongst our neighbors. Think Jesus’ marching orders for the Gerasene demoniac. ‘Stay here and live differently amongst your neighbors.’ In this way, the resurrection power of Christ is visibly displayed.
 
For this reason, we should be grateful to God if we live in small places. Common cultures that often force undesired levels of accountability and openness are progenitors of societal health. Shared proximity and visible function create a social fabric of accountability on which meaningful communication can be established, and human relationships can thrive. For the Gospel to be proclaimed, the accompanying glory of it must be displayed. This is done when believers live lives of gratefulness to God in the presence of their watching neighbors. This is done in high-rise apartments as well as grass huts . . . but it is a great help to the believer who may struggle with boldness when his or her habitat is already primed for curiosity and interest in what my neighbor is up to. The believer who lives in a small town or a rural context should learn to thank God for a home in which our faults and weakness are on display. Weakness is the perfect canvas for power.
 
2 Corinthians 11:30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.