One of the surprising aspects of my (slow and only by God’s Grace) growth as a Christian is how often the Holy Spirit convicts me of mindsets that  I have taken up from my culture, mindsets that are so deeply rooted that it feels very uncomfortable for me to acknowledge them and change. I’d much rather be convicted about lying than a part of my foundational worldview any day. Changing part of the basic way you view the world is painful, and often feels wrong even when it is right. For example, in my time in churches and around Christians, I’m not sure I can ever remember anyone (myself included) praying for peace in global conflicts. We’d often pray for victory, or the safety of our troops, but not peace according to God’s will. It has taken me some time and thought to acknowledge that our ultimate desire in global conflicts and wars should be peace, as God wills it, not necessarily victory for our country. Years growing up in a patriotic (and at times nationalistic) culture (Christian and secular) allowed me to ignore the commands to pray for our enemies and be peacemakers.

I’m going through a similar experience right now as my wife and I listen to Tim Keller’s Ministries of Mercy, which is giving away free this month. This book has been far, far more challenging to the way I view the Christian way and the world than my realization that we should pray for peace. Keller compellingly demonstrates, from Scripture, the centrality of our call to minister to the physical needs of our neighbors. So far, it has been a healthy corrective to the antinomianism of the conservative church (which has tended to put evangelism and the right to the “fruits of our labor” above our obligation to our neighbors) and the legalism of the liberal church (which has tended to make social justice into a law) by applying the Gospel. In the past, I have always been defensive when reading the many passages in Scripture that call us to care for and defend the poor and oppressed. Having been raised in a fairly conservative culture, social justice seemed like a watering down of the Gospel, or Liberal politics creeping into Christianity. It felt wrong, uncomfortable for me to acknowledge these passages for what they were: clear calls to live a radically different lifestyle than the consumerist culture around me.

Keller is also challenging my understanding of who my neighbor is. We all tend to shape our definition of “neighbor” so that it excludes those who we view as unworthy of our mercy. For some of us those might be the undeserving poor, a certain ethnic group, illegal aliens, Palestinians, addicts, those who have made poor financial decisions, the ugly, the old, or our enemies. With skillful and biblical precision, Keller cuts through these selfish excuses and forces us to see how God’s mercy to us should be a guide for our acts of mercy.

None of these realizations have been particularly comfortable for me, but they have been necessary. And they have reminded me of the fact that because we are communal creatures, our desires, loves, and visions of the world are dramatically shaped by our culture. And part of our maturity in Christ means that we must be willing to challenge our beliefs, even when it feels wrong to do so. Sometimes that even means challenging beliefs that we think are a part of our faith, like a “biblical” justification for why we can ignore the poor around us.