Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Christian Chameleons


Chameleons have an amazing ability to change the color of their skin in order to better fit their circumstances. Christians also have the potential to change the way we look to the people around us. Sometimes it is a bad thing, and we must learn to avoid hypocrisy. But sometimes it is a necessity. We must be able to alter the ways we present the truth in order to be able to reach people with it. So the chameleon is a cautionary tale or a role model, depending on which aspect you have in view.

While discussing the ascension of Jesus last week, I mentioned that Christians need to have a “chameleon existence.” What I specifically had in mind there was the way chameleons see. Their eyes can look in two directions at once, which is something we have to do from a spiritual standpoint. If we are solely focused on Christ’s return, then we will be “no earthly good.” On the other hand, if we only think about the things of this world, then we will not seek the Lord’s kingdom. Both aspects need to be present in us.

Chameleon Traits

Chameleons do have very unusual vision, but I doubt that is what most people think of first when they are mentioned. It isn’t their long tongues or their awkward movements, either. No, the primary characteristic of the chameleon is its ability to change its skin color.

The jury is still out on why they do that. We usually assume it is for camouflage, but there is good evidence to suggest they also do it to send signals to other chameleons, and to regulate body temperature. Considering some of the colors they use are not exactly suited to hiding, that makes a lot of sense.

For whatever reason they do it, they stand as a testament to the creativity of God’s designs. But that ability also has analogous applications to the Christian life. We can live in such a way that our appearance changes according to the needs of our circumstances. This can be both a negative and a positive.

Changing for the Worse

The negative meaning has to do with hypocrisy. Remember that the word “hypocrite” is an analogy itself. Ancient Greek stage actors would often play multiple parts in a production and they would switch masks in order to show the audience who they were pretending to be at a given moment. The word for those actors eventually came to be applied to people who were two-faced in their relationships with others.

This is something Christians are called to carefully avoid. Some of the most stinging rebukes Jesus ever uttered were directed at hypocritical people (Matt. 7:1–5; Matt. 23:13–36). That has a lot to do with judgmentalism and with the human capacity to ignore our own flaws. However, for Christians, it also has to do with our split nature. The flesh, our sinful self, is at war with the life given to us by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 7:14–25).

That is the bad news. The good news is that we can be winning that fight. I am not one who believes in the perfectibility of man on this side of glory. However, there is constant room for improvement as we learn to rely on the power of God in us and as we lean on His presence with us. Every day brings new opportunities to repudiate the old self and to take up the new (2 Cor. 4:16).

“Holistic living” and “holistic care” are sometimes treated as New Age concepts, but they are more Christian than anything else because we have access to the truth that actually makes people whole. Our goal is to bring body, mind, and spirit into line with what God intends for us, and through His word and His indwelling, we have access to do so more and more. Obviously, that does not preclude the use of medical and psychological care. It simply recognizes that every part of us works best when it works together with the others and when they all do what they ought to.

And that is why we do not want to be like chameleons. We do not want to have one skin at church and another at home, or one appearance at work and a totally different one with friends. The differences do not necessarily mean we are being fake. We might just be representing the real split in ourselves. But it is certainly unhealthy. Our desire should be to have one face that reflects that of Christ regardless of the situation. We may fail to do so at times, but we must never be satisfied with that.

Changing for the Better

There is, however, a way that it is good to be like a chameleon. Sometimes, we do have to change with the circumstances. We want our nature to be consistent, but our approaches need to be flexible.

The Apostle Paul talks about this in 1 Cor. 9:19–23. As Christians, we exist in a multitude of contexts. Being the same person at all times does not mean being robotic. Adaptability is a necessity if the message of Jesus is going to reach people. The way a church service goes needs to be different now than it was 20 years ago. The language and the stories missionaries use cannot be the same in China as they are in the Congo. You have to be able to talk to Millennials with emphases that would not matter to Baby Boomers, and vice versa.

If we become too locked into one way of doing things, then we will lose all effectiveness. That is how faith turns into tradition, which is another way of saying how strength turns into frailty. Before young people get too excited, though, that is not saying old ways of doing things are bad. It simply means they cannot be the only ways we are willing to do them. We have to have the willingness to see what works and what doesn’t, because the only thing that matters is reaching people for the Lord. Novelty for its own sake can be just as destructive to that end as tradition for its own sake can be.

I still believe the most succinct way to think of this comes from Tom Clegg (or at least, that is who I heard say it). “Keep a tight grip on the questions and a loose grip on the answers.” Life’s big questions don’t change; why are we here, how should we live, what comes after death? Neither do the answers ultimately, since they all find fulfillment in Christ. The way we answer them, though, that has to change. We have to have a shifting approach that allows us to be heard when we share eternal truths.

They say a leopard can’t change his spots. That’s true enough, but it is often used as an excuse. It is a way of saying, “This is the way things are and there is no point in trying to change them.” That is a defeatist attitude, and it all too often finds its way into the church. We have to look for where it has and pray for the courage to do better. Whatever the circumstances, let’s have the flexibility to respond to what is in front of us. Christians can’t be leopards. We need to be chameleons, instead.

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