Note from Dave: I first came across this article in 1991. It has been on my website ever since. Its timeless insights are, today, more poignant than ever.
Copyright 1991 by Integrity Magazine. Used with permission.
Many followers of Christ sort their universe into Sacred things, Sinful things and Secular things. We all know what Sacred things are. They are those things that are holy — the Holy Bible, Holy Spirit, Holy Matrimony — or, that belong to the Lord — the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s day, the Lord’s Table – or, that are otherwise associated in our minds with the spiritual. Missionary work may be spoken of as a “sacred profession” or church related topics as “spiritual matters.”
Likewise, we know what Sinful things are. They are those things that are not holy, that corrupt a person spiritually. Sinful things are also called “worldly”… which stands opposed to “heavenly,” of course.
Most people recognize a third category: Secular things. Secular things are also called “worldly,” but not in an inherently evil sense. Secular things, being merely material and temporal in nature, are valueless, neutral, and of no eternal significance. Being neither nourishment nor poison, Secular things are a kind of spiritual junk food. But there is one important thing to note: if Secular things are permitted to dominate the Sacred in an individual’s life, the result is Sinful.
Although the sizes of the categories– Sacred, Secular and Sinful– are approximate, the Secular category is by far the largest. Many religious groups like to expand the Sinful category to include more of the Universe, shrinking the other two categories accordingly. The system is commonly applied along these lines:
In professions: Preaching is Sacred, prostitution is Sinful, and computer programming is merely Secular.
In money matters: the Sunday collection is Sacred, the Vegas jackpot is Sinful, and the money in your pocket is merely Secular.
In eating: unleavened bread is Sacred, spiked rum cake is Sinful and a spreadable liverwurst is merely Secular.
In art: A tract cover illustration is Sacred, a nude is Sinful, and landscape life is merely Secular.
In music appreciation: The Antioch Christian College A Cappella Choir is Sacred, the Dismembered Death Decrepits (punk rock group) is Sinful, and the Beach Boys are merely Secular… and so on.
Note that distinct dividing lines exist between the three categories. Although people argue in a few cases about where to draw them, there is remarkable agreement that such dividing lines do exist. When everything is analyzed like this, the Secular category is the largest. Do you begin to see a problem?
Remember that secular things are spiritually neutral, until they are allowed to dominate the Sacred; then they become Sinful. But how can this be avoided when Secular things already clearly dominate the Sacred numerically? Their very profusion guarantees that the majority of an individual’s time and energy will be devoted to the Secular. Just look at the calendar: the Secular days outnumber the “Lord’s days” six-to-one.
Here we have a formula made to order for unlimited feelings of guilt. Here is the source of those infamous sermons questioning how much of an individual’s time or money is given “to the Lord” in contrast to work, sleep, family, education etc. These sermons are designed to provoke a variety of guilty self-indictments: “Perhaps I should be a missionary instead of an accountant,” “ Perhaps I should enjoy hymn singing more then jazz concerts.” “ Perhaps I should have enrolled at Antioch Christian College instead of at Secular State University,” and so on. These guilt feelings must be dealt with.
Improving the ratio
Throughout history people have tried to find ways to improve the Sacred- to-Secular ratio in their lives. They usually have chosen one of two strategies: Sacred Isolation or Secular Saturation. Here is how the strategies work.
This approach restricts diet to the limited Sacred fare by denying foods from the Secular menu. This is the ascetic approach favored by the monks of all generations. Medieval monks vowed celibacy, poverty, and social withdrawal in an effort to cut off all involvement with the Secular. Modern “monks” are somewhat more tepid –instead of renouncing all pleasures of the senses, for example, the may be content to renounce merely a few, such as dancing, mixed swimming, etc.- but they employ the same basic strategy.
This approach attempts to conquer the Secular with the Sacred, not by denying the Secular, but by expanding the Sacred to crowd it out. This is the preferred approach of our present age, which regards Sacred Isolation as being old fashioned and quaintly masochistic. As a result, options grow: instead of “socializing” or “mingling” (Secular), one may be “fellowshipping” (Sacred); instead of taking a family vacation (Secular) one may go on to a Church Family Retreat (Sacred); instead of paying a nursing home to care for Great Grandma (Secular), one may give to the Christian Retirement Home Ministry Fund (Sacred); and so on. Organized religion hopes to offer its conscience- stricken customers an alternative for every Secular item on the shelf. It’s a lot like Weight Watchers.
Both strategies appear in a variety of forms. Both of them go in and out of fashion through time. Unfortunately, neither strategy works. Often the reason the strategies were adopted in the first place was to salve feelings of guilt about spending too much time on Secular things instead of Sacred things. In this, they fail. They actually compound the problem.
The truly committed Sacred Isolationists walled themselves up in monasteries, but they still could not separate themselves from their own physical (and hence Secular) bodies. So they actually flagellated themselves in an attempt to deny their own “worldly flesh.” The result: more guilt, not less.
The Secular Saturationists today have a similar problem. With the proliferation of Sacred activities, they have that much more to feel guilty about not doing. Add to this the fact that the organizers of the Sacred activities frequently induce guilt feelings in order to get their pet projects rolling: “If you care about the things of the Lord, you’ll be here.” Add also the fact that the amount of leisure time in America has dropped considerably since 1970, yielding much less time for these activities. The result is more guilt, not less. So in the Sacred/Secular/Sinful world, even those who would live “Sacred” lives find themselves dominated by the Secular, and worried about it.
The real problem is that the system was off the track at the outset. The solution comes easily, We must recognize three simple facts:
1. The Sacred is real
2. The Sinful is real
3. The “Secular” does not exist.
The real nature of the disciple’s Universe today has only two categories: Sacred and Sinful. Originally, of course, our universe was composed of only one category: Sacred. At that time it was newly created and “God saw that it was good.” Then “sin entered the world” through the free choice of human beings.
There are no inherently Sinful objects. All objects in the Universe are still Sacred in that they have a Sacred origin in God. However, they are corruptible – “moths and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal” as a consequence of Sin. For its raw material, Sin has only God’s created things to work with. All sin really consists of is turning something God made toward a godless end.
So now we have a Sacred/Sinful world. All of it belongs to God: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalms 24:1). God will eventually burn off the Sinful corruption, restoring the Universe in a new incarnation that will once again be Sacred only:
“Let both the weeds and the wheat grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First, collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned, then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn” (Matt. 13:30).” So where did the idea of “Secular“ come from?
What Produced Secularism?
The idea of “Secular” came from narrowing the Sacred to a very small portion of reality. Many people now think of the Sacred of being only the explicitly “religious,” which means, in practice, little more than church functions and evangelism. “Secular” is a category that had to be invented to hold all the things that were thrown out: The overwhelming abundance of human activities and life experiences. The result has been the severe impoverishment of what is now called religion and its irrelevance to the rest of life in the eyes of outside observers.
If church functions are all that is Sacred, then “the Sacred” by definition has no relevance outside the church. If evangelism is all that is Sacred, the question must be asked: Just what, in this life, are we saving individuals to? Is it nothing more than frantic guilt motivated efforts to clone them in a never-ending numbers game- with no more concrete a goal than “church growth”?
Let it be said: Jesus is Lord of all. “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” -John the Apostle (John 1:3). He is not only in charge of what we thoughtlessly call “Sacred” or “Secular,” He is also in charge of what we call Sinful! The Sinful belongs to him not because he likes it or because he deserves it, but because he took it upon himself. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” -Simon Peter (1 Peter 2:24).
Jesus takes our sins off our hands so that we need not to be bothered with them anymore. He collects the bad which is nothing more than the good gone rancid- and gets rid of it. After this purge, the world will be handed over to his Father, restored:
“That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”- Simon Peter (2 Peter 3:12-13).
“Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power… When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.”- Paul of Tarsus (I Corinthians 15:24,28)
What does this mean for us in our present reality?
Effects of Jesus’ Work
For the believer, the effect of Christ’s work is that there is no area of life that is not Sacred. Every aspect of life is “set apart for the Lord” because the life itself is set apart for him. Sin is to be shunned and gladly handed over to Christ. But everything that is left not — just “religious “ things but the full abundance of life and being is Sacred. It belongs to the One who brought it forth, and who bought it back when it was threatened! Now all believer’s actions — not just a few — are done for the glory of God: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” – Paul of Tarsus (Col. 3:17)
In response to this, Sacred Isolationists protest that we are to “die to this world.” Unquestionably, we must. But we “die” not to things of which this world consists – indeed this is impossible – but to the corruption that over powers them. The Bible often speaks of “worldly,” meaning only the power in it that causes destruction. But the vast physical “world” of God’s creation is supposed to be received with thanksgiving, not repugnance.
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant, not to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” Paul of Tarsus (1 Timothy 6:17)
When Christ empowers us, we see created things for what they are – the work of the Creator. Only then can we truly appreciate them. When received and used with thanksgiving, the physical things of the world acquire an eternal, spiritual significance that outlasts the objects themselves:
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you where bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your body” -Paul of Tarsus (I Corinthians 7:19-20)
A Sacred Perspective
When taking a Sacred perspective of the world around us, we believers will better understand certain concepts. First, we will know that God is the King of the Universe. He is not a small deity, Lord of a narrow range of doctrinal subjects that have little application to daily life. He is profoundly immense, and his Son is absolutely powerful. So we will keep God infinite in our minds “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.” (Psalms 57:11) We will also abandon any idea that the King of the Universe is only the king of our particular sect. The Most High God is not a super sized version of a sectarian man: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). We will not imagine that God somehow resides “at church,”- what J.B Phillips called the “God in-a-Box” syndrome.
When taking a Sacred perspective of the world around us, we will understand that any activity called “Sacred” when it has “Official Church Function” stamped on it is activity that, when done by believers, is Sacred anyway. Generosity, evangelism, recreation, and mutual encouragement need no organized corporate program (usually with a marketable brand name) to make them worthwhile. These things and many more are already Sacred because they are done by believing individuals. The believing individual is “ the salt of the earth;” his presence is a preservative, sparing the things of the earth from corruption. If the money in our wallets is truly “ours” instead of God’s then the money in the collection plate would be the “church’s” instead of God’s. But we know that, since all of it is God’s, our responsibilities are the same no matter where it goes. In fact, we may well be proving ourselves more responsible when we put it toward childcare than toward church care.
When we hold a Sacred view of our world, we will no longer concern ourselves with the “Secular” nature of our activities. Such talk is nonsense to disciples whose very lives are Sacred professions. A manager who serves his supervisor as if the supervisor were Christ is serving Christ. An honest accountant is shining a light. Since God brought forth stones as well as Scriptures, the believing geologist is learning about God in a way as real as the theologian. The believing artist knows she brings forth beauty in her work as God brings forth beauty in Nature. Whether a field’s main subject of interest is “religious” or not is irrelevant. It is Sacred to the individual who discerns the Creator behind the created thing.
Remember the two tax collectors: Mathew left his job for a special ministry; Zacchaeus stayed in his job but performed it honestly, glorifying God. Jesus never called one man’s work Sacred and anothers “Secular.” Of Zacchaeus Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Both men honored Jesus, and Christ accepted them both.
In this age of broken homes, we will never suggest that parents vacationing with their children or a husband and wife making love to one another are engaged in anything less than the most Sacred activities.
Can there be any doubt? If preaching and singing can be done to God’s glory, then so can swimming, farming, driving, building, governing, digging, fishing, reading, marketing, repairing, writing, exercising, meditating and woodworking. In short, the whole range of human experience:
“Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God which is your spiritual worship.”- Paul of Tarsus (Romans 12:1)
Some people have a very restricted notion of God’s “authorization” of human activities. But the wise will consider the rich authorization in a passage that reads:
“Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Colossians 3:17) Whatever and whatever you chose to call it, “ Do not call impure anything that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15)