Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

We close out the week on the Ask Pastor John podcast with a question from a female listener, who writes in: “Good morning Pastor John! I’m reading your powerful book Don’t Waste Your Life. In chapter 7, ‘Living to Prove He Is More Precious Than Life,’ under the section title ‘Consumed with Clothes,’ you write this: ‘My plea is that you be more like a dolphin and less like a jellyfish in the sea of fashion and of contra fashion (which is just as tyrannizing).’ Could you explain more of what you are saying in that sentence? Thank you!”

Riding the Tide

Well, let’s do it in two parts. The dolphin part and the fashion, contra fashion part. First, I love the dolphin, jellyfish analogy. The assumption is that oceans of culture have very powerful tides and these cultural tides almost always pull us away from deep allegiance to Jesus.

As you swim in the culture, be a dolphin that cuts through the currents, not a jellyfish that goes with the flow.

So if you are going to swim in the cultural oceans and be a Christian, you better be a dolphin, not a jellyfish, because a jellyfish just goes with the flow and dolphins can cut through the tidal currents and swim toward the truth and swim toward holiness and heaven in spite of cultural tides.

Of course, there is no if about it, like, “if we are going to live in these cultural tides . . .” No, there is no if about it. We don’t have any choice. We do swim in the cultural oceans of this planet. To be alive is to be a culture shaped by the world.

So Jesus prayed in John 17:15, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” So he was very aware. My disciples are stuck there and they need help. They need protection. They need to be able to swim like a dolphin.

Fighting the Tide

The New Testament calls us to dolphin-like counter-cultural efforts over and over again. Here are a few examples:

  • Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
  • Ephesians 4:17, “You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.”
  • James 4:4, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
  • 1 Peter 1:18, “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.”
  • 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

And so on. So that is what I mean by being a dolphin — being so full of Holy-Spirit joy, Holy-Spirit courage, Holy-Spirit wisdom, that you have the strength and the wherewithal to swim against the current of the culture. That is what it takes to be a Christian.

Fish out of Water

Another name for dolphin in the New Testament is exile and sojourner. This is 1 Peter 2:11: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles [dolphins] to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”

“Be so full of Holy-Spirit joy, courage, and wisdom that you have the strength to swim against the culture.”

That tide is taking you down there to be eaten by the sharks if you don’t swim against this tide heavenward. We have a homing device within us called new birth and the Holy Spirit against these cultural tides taking us home.

A Sea of Change

Now there is another side to this; namely, Christianity does not destroy earthly culture even when it is rightly being embedded in it. It transforms it, but doesn’t destroy it. So it adapts to a hundred things in the culture.

Most real Christians in the West drive cars, use cell phones, live in houses, wear clothes that look more or less like everybody else around them, and so on. We fit in in that sense. The New Testament makes clear that this is so. And this is right. And it does it in several ways.

One is the great battle over circumcision. Is circumcision going to be required? Are these Gentiles with their pagan uncircumcision going to fit into this largely Jewish church? The decision was finally made: No.

That cultural demand is not going to be made. Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

So those are a couple of pointers: The fact that we are a people who always have two impulses at work, like Andrew Wall says. There is the pilgrim principle. That is like exiles and aliens here. And there is the indigenous principle, which means we do adapt. We don’t require neutral things to be shifted around in order to be a part of the Christian community.

Finding Fashion

Now the other part that this listener may have been talking about is what I meant by fashion and contra fashion, and I am not sure that is what they wanted me to talk about or whether it was just the dolphin — I don’t know. But I want to make a go at it anyway.

“Christianity does not destroy but transforms earthly culture when it is rightly embedded in it.”

They said (quoting me), “My plea is that you be more like a dolphin and less like a jellyfish in the sea of fashion and of contra fashion (which is just as tyrannizing).” And they want to know, “What do you mean by that?” I think.

I simply mean both men and women today are pressured in dozens of ways to conform to the way the world dresses and thinks about dressing or about makeup or about hair. It is becoming even stronger and stronger for men.

I was jogging this morning down Washington Avenue at 5:00 in the morning, and I passed this big glass front of a new building called “Men’s Spa.” And the title is: “Ultimate Male Grooming.” I thought, “Really? It sounds like a dog.” Okay, that is another issue. We are going to do dog grooming another time. But I am just saying that to say, we usually think about women when this issue of pressure to dress a certain way, but more and more, I think, male grooming is a pressured thing.

So here is the kind of pressure she might be under. Can a woman find a fashion in stores that she feels comfortable with on some items? I have talked to mothers who find it difficult shopping with their young daughters, because there is scarcely a choice out there for one that she or the mom or both would feel good about in terms of modesty.

Contra Fashion

And what I mean by contra fashion is that a person can be driven by what is so popular or can be driven by what is not popular that there is a whole culture luring people to conform to nonconformity. How else can you explain the manufacture of jeans with holes in them, right? I mean, the manufacture of jeans that are tattered with holes. What is that?

This is the mainstreaming of contra fashion, which, of course, will lead to a contra contra fashion and so on. And the point that I was trying to get at was, you can be a jellyfish by craving to look preppy or you can be a jellyfish by craving to look anti-preppy — either way. You are not free when you conform to all your grunge friends. That is not freedom. That is just rebellion in a new conformity.

So thumbing your nose at culture may feel like a dolphin, but you may wake up and find you are just a jellyfish like all the others floating with a million other not so radical grunge lovers.

Transforming Culture

So I think the best text for men and women, even though it is written for women in the New Testament, is 1 Peter 3:3–4. I have been memorizing 1 Peter and this is really powerful for men as well as women. It says, “Do not let your adorning [these men can say grooming] be external — the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear.”

“Put your energy into becoming a holy, wise, loving, courageous, Christ-exalting person on the inside.”

Now pause there and note. He cannot mean braids, per se, are wrong, jewelry, per se, is wrong, because if he did, he would have to mean clothing, per se, is wrong, because the last one is just clothing. “Don’t let your adorning be clothing.” Oh, really? Well, what do you mean by that? It means what he says in the next line. He says, “but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”

In other words for men and women, the focus and the drive and the craving shouldn’t be, “I want to look a certain way. I want to look a certain way.” But I want to be a certain way. I want to be beautiful in my spirit of humility and kindness and love and gentleness and meekness and self-control. So for men and women: Put your energy — let’s put our energy — into becoming a holy, wise, loving, courageous, Christ-exalting people on the inside — a dolphin from the inside. And the fashion, I think, will take its appropriate secondary place.


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