We may refer to Jesus as a “Friend of sinners,” but it doesn’t mean he became like them. In life many times there are people who influence us versus people we influence. There are people we start to talk like, and there are people who start to talk like us. The general advice of scripture is summed up in Romans 12:2a
2a Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. (NLT)
I mentioned a few days ago that I sometimes get back to sleep by recalling scriptures I memorized as a child. Back then, we weren’t so much King James Only as we were King James Default. There were other options back then, but I certainly wasn’t aware of J.B. Phillips or Ken Taylor until later on. One such verse was Psalm 1:1
1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
When I would read this verse, I always had word picture based on on council, not counsel. I imagined this verse telling me to avoid the gatherings or meetings of the ungodly. Well, it’s also saying that; the verb forms of walk, stand, and sit, but also a sense of presence; a concern for where you find yourself.
In contrast to the KJV, The Message Bible went to great liberties with this one, which is why formalists cringe when I refer to it as a translation:
1 How well God must like you— you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon, you don’t slink along Dead-End Road, you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.
Somewhere in the middle lies my own version:
Favored by God is the one who doesn’t follow the advice of those who delight in wickedness, or follow the path that sinners take, or be found in the company of the critics.
(I was tempted to make that last word trolls!)
But what form does that take in our world? I don’t have to go somewhere to get the counsel of evil people, we have something now that didn’t exist in the Psalmist’s day: Media influences. The counsel and advice of the ungodly is found in popular music, on television, in movies, in books and in a host of online and social media forms. The media culture shapes and makes our thought patterns.
In a passage familiar to readers here, Paul tells the Philippians:
Let this attitude be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.
He’s advocating for a posture of humility in a world of pride, selfishness and self-centeredness. If this is the case in his time period, how much more in ours? He’s telling his readers to swim upstream, go against the current, and differentiate themselves from the surrounding culture just as surely as the Israelites were given guidelines to help them maintain a distinct identity.
But in so doing, he’s also saying that attitudes matter. This is important in a world that quantifies religiosity in terms of actions. Yes, actions are important. Yes, actions are the fruit of a Spirit-centered life. But the very thoughts of our hearts are important. Jesus says, “You have heard it said…” and reminds his hearers of familiar guiding principles for living the religious life, but continues “I say to you…” and looks at the underlying attitudes that the individual doesn’t necessarily act out, but can be just as damaging.
In a later part of the same chapter of Philippians (2:14,15) Paul tells the same readers that their attitudinal change will result in living
so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God who are faultless in a crooked and perverted generation, among whom you shine like stars in the world.
which is reminiscent of the same sermon from Jesus we referenced which at an earlier stage (Matt 5:16) begins,
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
You can make a real difference by being friends with people who are still far from God, but if you let their attitudes and behaviors overshadow your own, you lose the distinct identity.
Proverbs 13:20 (ESV) says,
Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise,
but the companion of fools will suffer harm.
I think you can reverse this as well. He (or she) who walks with the ungodly potentially grows ungodly. (I added the one word because it doesn’t have to be the case, but it often is.)
I want to end by taking this one step further, because I’d hate to leave this in the black-and-white contrast of godly vs. ungodly, or make this a lesson in moralism, or peer pressure; partly because I know there are upright people out there who don’t hang out with evildoers and don’t mock or criticize Christian ideals, but they also don’t know Jesus. This verse in Zechariah 8:23 (NIV) stuck with me when I first heard it:
“This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: In those days ten men from different nations and languages of the world will clutch at the sleeve of one Jew. And they will say, ‘Please let us walk with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'”
This is the ultimate goal for the follower of Christ, for them to see the presence of God in both attitudes and actions; and to know who this God is. I love this passage because it’s so much the opposite of Psalm 1:1 where we began: In this case the foreigners and strangers want to walk in the counsel of the godly. It’s a complete 180-degree spin on who is hanging out with who!
Let us walk with you for we have heard God is with you. We had a pastor who concluded ten years of ministry with us by saying, “Don’t let people come to you and say, ‘You’ve got a great church.’ Rather, let them say, ‘You’ve got a great God.'”