I have always been intrigued with Peter's description of us as "aliens and strangers," (1 Pet. 2:11), but until I recently re-read the entirety of 1 Peter I had not realized how this theme underlies the entire letter. At the outset of the letter, he refers to God's people as "elect," "strangers in the world," and as those "scattered" (1 Pet. 1:1). Much of the letter is a call for us to be holy, that is, set apart, both by our election by God and our behavior towards one another and nonbelievers, not conforming to the world, leaving our former empty way of life, coming out from darkness into light, suffering for doing good, stray sheep now under the care of the Shepherd of our souls.
Peter doesn't just use the term "strangers" in a descriptive way, denoting our different status, our different love, and our different hope. He uses it prescriptively -- calling us to "live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear" (1 Pet. 1:17). You might say he's called us to be strange. That's strange as in the archaic sense of being from another country, from another place, having different characteristics, even odd. Bottom line: We don't belong here, are not of the character of this place. We're literally only visiting this planet. And yet there is no call to be physically separate but, rather, separate in orientation, in behavior, in how we act and on Whom we focus. Nor is there a call to change nonbelievers; the letter is addressed to our orientation, thoughts, and behavior, to what kind of people we are to be.
Perhaps this explains why I sometimes feel estranged from life, from those around me. It's because I am not from here, and so I feel a profound sense of alienation at times. Rather than worry about it, though, I can appreciate it as a confirmation of my status in Christ, my different citizenship. And I suspect that as I grow in this Way, I will become further estranged, further alienated, and increasingly discontented. What the world offers (in the sense of status, material abundance, or sensuality) will have less hold on me. By God's grace I hope so. We're not used to using these words in positive ways but, rightly understood, perhaps we need to get used to them.
We work, we drive cars, we eat in restaurants, we buy things. In so many ways we live in the world and do as the world does. But get beneath the surface, the veneer of life, and you will discover how different in orientation you are as a Christian. Even little quips or aphorisms begin to irritate. Speaking with someone about families recently, they remarked "well, that's what it's all about." Well no, that's definitely not what it's all about, and that was a relatively benign conversation where we shared a common concern for family. It's fair to say that for a Christian life in the world just grates on you, as we're constantly rubbing up against things that reveal our foreign nature, our strangeness.
I guess we're like legal immigrants here, called to honor the authorities these people honor, to love these people (but not their ways), and to do good works among them, but never to ask for citizenship here, and never to worship their gods. We belong elsewhere. Our allegiance is to Heaven. The Shepherd of our soul awaits.
[The painting, entitled "Aliens and Strangers," is by Asheville, NC artist Carol Bomer. See more of her work here.]