City Life: Serving God in a Pagan World
July 14, 2002
“Without God, the more power we have the sooner we destroy ourselves; without God, the richer we are the sooner we rot.” W. L. Watkinson
The first few chapters of Genesis are marked by a very clear logic that goes something like this:
In the beginning God
Adam and Eve
The Serpent and the Temptation
Sin and the Cover-Up
Judgment and Expulsion
Cain and Abel
Murder and Cover-Up
Judgment and Wandering
You can’t help but be amazed at how quickly things go downhill from a very promising beginning. To borrow an old (and apt) expression, it seems that as soon as God finishes the work of creation, things “go to hell in a hand basket.” Trouble breaks out almost immediately, paradise is lost, and the human race slides headlong in the pit of sin. And we can see along the way the progress of sin as things get worse and worse:
The serpent had to talk Eve into sin.
Adam sinned deliberately.
God couldn’t talk Cain out of sin.
Cain murdered Abel.
Sin starts as a tiny virus that invades the human bloodstream and begins to multiply immediately, growing in power with every passing generation. By the second half of Genesis 4, sin is no longer purely personal; it now infects human culture and all its various institutions. What starts as a trickle soon becomes a flood that washes across the earth.
As we read the first pages of the Bible, we ought to see a direct connection between the sin of those days and the suicide bombings of our day. What started back then continues today on a scale far greater than anything Cain could have imagined. We are better at killing now, we do it quicker and more efficiently, and if necessary, we can and do kill more people for less money than ever before. Modern technology is a blessing, but it is not an unmixed blessing.
I. The Birth of Secular Civilization 17-24
After he murdered Abel, Cain was sentenced by God to restlessly wander the earth. No one could kill him, but he would live forever with his guilty conscience, never feeling at home, never feeling entirely safe. He cannot work the ground and he will not die for a long time. Cain is now running from the Lord! What will he do? Where will he go? These verses tell what happened to Cain and the civilization that flowed from him. Here is the beginning of secular society—that is, society lived apart from God and in the absence of his guidance.
This passage has a fascinating question: What happens to society when it rebels against God? Answer: It prospers! See Psalm 73 for more details. The prosperity of the wicked has troubled God’s people since the beginning. Why do some people ignore God, mistreat others, commit overt acts of sin, and seem to prosper anyway? And why do those who love the Lord seem to take it on the chin? Genesis 4:17-24 tells us that God even blesses those who rebel against him. God protects those who reject his authority. And those who live without the Lord often accomplish great things in the world.
This whole section shows the ever-widening divide between the two lines—believers and unbelievers. And it helps us see how we should live in a culture that has largely turned its back on God. As we think about the marks of secular society, here are four “C” words that help us put matters in perspective.
A. Construction 17-18
“Cain lay with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael was the father of Methushael, and Methushael was the father of Lamech” (Genesis 4:17-18).
Cain’s response to his punishment by God is threefold: First, he builds a family. Second, he builds a city. Third, he builds a legacy. In two verses you have six generations spanning hundreds of years.
Before going on, let’s stop for a moment to answer a familiar question: Where did Cain get his wife? The answer is fairly simple. Since the human race descended from Adam and Eve, he must have married one of his sisters or one of his nieces or his grandnieces. We know from Genesis 5 that people lived hundreds of years back then. And we also know that Adam and Eve had other children. Genesis 5:5 tells us that Adam lived for 930 years. Although we don’t have a lifespan listed for Eve, we can presume she lived at least as long as he did. So how many children do you think they had in 930 years? Let’s suppose they decided to have children for, say, 500 years. And let’s suppose that they decided to space out their children and have one every five years. In five centuries they would have had 100 children. But the number could obviously be much greater than that. James Montgomery Boice mentions one authority who calculated that if half the normal number of children grew up, and half of those got married, and half of those had children, even with that half, half, half approach, Adam would have lived to see one million of his descendants. Obviously Cain would have had no trouble finding a suitable mate from somewhere within his extended family. And since this occurred early in human history, the gene pool could still be clean and relatively free from pollution. Later on, God would forbid marriage between close relatives. But at this early date, no sin was involved. Cain had to marry someone from his own extended family since there was no one else to choose from.
Make No Small Plans
The rapid growth in population helps us understand Cain’s desire to build a city. In some ways, this is a self-protection measure since he lived in fear (despite God’s “mark”) that someone, somewhere might harm him. It is the murderer’s guilty conscience that cannot be quelled. And at a deeper level, the desire to build a city is an act of rebellion against God who sentenced him to wander the earth. Now Cain will defy the Lord and settle down with his own people and build his own city.
I can say this much for him. He must have been a man of many talents. Daniel Burnham, the man who designed the layout of downtown Chicago, was known for saying, “Make no small plans. They have no power to stir the imagination.” He and Cain would have gotten along just fine. Cain was the first city-planner and the first real estate developer. The early days of the human race were marked by growth, expansion, and the continual construction of roads, homes and buildings. It was a time of hustle and bustle as Cain and his people cleared away the wilderness and laid out the first city in world history.
No doubt Cain stayed busy to cover up the emptiness of his soul. He wanted a bustling city to compensate for what he lost—his hope and happiness and direction in life. The same is true for many people who move to the city today. Cities are fun and exciting, especially when compared with the slow pace of small town life. They are filled with people going to and fro. The city has jazz, juice, lights, noise, music, movement, and action 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Go to any large city and there you will find the best that modern life has to offer: high-rise buildings, concert halls, restaurants of every variety, entertainment galore, festivals, sports teams, great universities, massive skyscrapers, large department stores, planes, trains and automobiles, lakes and parks, canals and rivers, ethnic neighborhoods, factories, schools, crowded sidewalks, small cafes, boutiques, the latest fashions, the seat of government, the largest churches, the biggest banks, and the extremes of life—the best, worst, biggest, smallest, fastest, slowest, cheapest, most expensive in all possible categories. In the city you can find specimens from every section of the human menagerie. As I typed these words, I faintly recalled the opening scene from the old TV series Dragnet starring Jack Webb. It always opened with a panoramic scene of a metropolitan area. Jack Webb could be heard saying, “This is the city. Los Angeles, California.” Then something like, “Ten million people live here and there are ten million stories.” Each episode would concentrate on one of those stories involving a crime of some sort.
The City of Big Shoulders
There is no doubt that the city is an exciting place to live. I know they call Las Vegas the city that never sleeps, but that could be said about any large city. Carl Sandberg called Chicago the “city of big shoulders,” and he meant that this is a city of men and women who work long and hard. To a great degree, that is still true today. The work goes on, in various ways and various forms, around the clock. When my family moved to Chicago 13 years ago, I found that it took a while to get used to the rhythm of life here. It happens that I was raised in an Alabama town with a population of about 6,000. My deepest roots are in that small Southern town. But I attended seminary in Dallas, pastored in Los Angeles, and then moved back to Dallas to pastor before moving to Oak Park in 1989. So I was used to living in big cities before I got here. Even so, things seemed different to me. Years ago I decided it was something like this. There is a pulsating power in a big city that draws people, like the sound of a distant beating drum, from the outer edges into the city. That’s why, when I want to relax, I’ve got to leave the Chicago area altogether. It’s not that I can’t relax at home. I can and I do, but there is a pulsating rhythm (I can’t think of a better term) that comes from the heart of the city that pulls us into the vortex. (As I am typing these words, I just looked at the clock and realized that I’m behind schedule a bit. That’s when I noticed that I was tapping my feet on the carpet and twiddling my fingers when I stopped typing for a moment. My brother Ronnie told me once that all us Pritchard men [I have three brothers] seem laid back but we’re all wound pretty tight on the inside. It’s true and I think living in a city just keeps you wound up all the time and that’s why I like to go to somewhere like North Carolina or Maine or Montana if I’m really going to unwind.)
One final note on this and I will move on. Two weeks ago I spoke at Camp Nathanael in southeastern Kentucky. It’s a wonderful, lovely spot in the country, in the coal-mining region, quiet and secluded. I was struck again (this was my fourth visit) by the slower pace of life. Things are just a lot more relaxed there. It took me about three days to fully unwind and about the time I was unwound, it was time to go back to Chicago.
And that’s one reason people move from rural areas into the cities (or into the suburbs). Big cities are where the action is. That’s just a fact and it can’t be denied. Millions of people who feel bored and lonely move to the city hoping things will change. But often it doesn’t work. The loneliest people I know live in cities. The saddest stories I know concern city people. The greatest suffering on earth is not in the countryside; it’s in the big cities of the world. Where the masses gather, there you find sadness, heartache, crime, corruption and enormous human pain. For all its glamour and glory, there is also a seamy underside to every big city. That is why the greatest task facing the church today is winning the cities for Christ. We’ve done pretty well in small towns and in the suburbs, but we’re not so good at penetrating the city itself. City life can be very demanding and city ministry is often very difficult. The only people who disagree with that statement are those who have never tried to do it.
The Ten Largest Cities
By the way, when I mention large cities, I’m thinking of the cities of the world, not just cities in America. I’m thinking about London and Paris and Rome and Nairobi and New Delhi and Singapore and Moscow. Did you know that only two of the ten largest cities are in the USA? Here is the list (taken from the about.com website):
1. Tokyo, Japan 28 million
2. New York City, United States 20.1 million
3. Mexico City, Mexico 18.1 million
4. Bombay, India 18 million
5. Sao Paulo, Brazil 17.7 million
6. Los Angeles, United States 15.8 million
7. Shanghai, China 14.2 million
8. Lagos, Nigeria 13.5 million
9. Calcutta, India 12.9 million
10. Buenos Aires, Argentina 12.5 million
I’m thinking of cities like this when I speak of the challenge facing the church in the 21st century. This is where the battle for souls must be fought in our generation. Cain built the first city and his descendants have been building cities ever since. Today the world is moving to the cities at an astonishing rate. What a challenge and what an exciting opportunity faces the church of Jesus Christ.
B. Corruption 19
“Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah” (Genesis 4:19).
The second feature of civilization without God is corruption. In this case a man named Lamech decided to marry two women. He “jumped the fence” of God’s original design for marriage and became the first polygamist. Now instead of one man with one woman for life, sexual desire overrules God’s design and anything goes. The names of his wives suggest that he was motivated by sensual impulses. Adah means “beauty” and Zillah means something like “tinkling.” Perhaps Lamech was attracted to both of them and decided he could have them both.
Now the centuries roll past and we move to the present. Look at the contemporary scene. What do you find?
Divorce Sexual Exploitation
Abortion Internet Pornography
Gay Rights Sexual Misconduct in High Places
And the worst of it is that we no longer are shocked that these things abound. In some cases we tolerate these sins, in others they are almost a sign of our sophisticated liberation. Having thrown off the shackles of the past, we are now free to pursue the fulfillment of our own fleshly desires. But God is not mocked. He knows our hearts and he sees our rebellion. Nothing is missed by his penetrating gaze. Our days are numbered and our doom is sure.
C. Culture 20-22
“Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play the harp and flute. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah” (Genesis 4:20-22).
These verses point out the positive progress of human culture in the line of Cain. From Jabal comes agriculture; from Jubal the fine arts; from Tubal-Cain the development of industry and technology. It is a mistake to read Genesis 4 and conclude that human culture is a bad thing or that unbelievers cannot produce works of enormous value. To the contrary, the entire world has benefited by modern agriculture, the flourishing of the arts, and by the incredible progress of technology in the last century. These things are possible because even sinful men and women still possess the image of God that allows them to think, to create, to grow, to develop, to experiment, to dream, to dare, and to explore new territory. As Christians, we ought to be thankful to live in a world with creature comforts Cain never dreamed of. And in enjoying the good things around us, we ought also to give thanks to the Lord who gave man the mind and the heart and the hands and the feet to make it all possible.
D. Crime 23-24
“Lamech said to his wives, ‘Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times’” (Genesis 4:23-24).
This is the oldest song in the Bible. Lamech composes a little ditty in honor of himself for killing a young man who injured him. Like a typical thug, he believes no one dares to bring him to justice. He even thinks that he will get revenge seventy-seven times if anyone tries to attack him. He is the first Mafia boss. Note the arrogance in his words, the sheer hubris, and the total disdain for human life. Note also the progress of sin:
The serpent talked Eve into sin.
Adam sins on his own.
God can’t talk Cain out of sin.
Now Lamech brags about his crimes.
He has gone far beyond Cain in his viciousness. Cain got angry and killed his brother, but Lamech actively looks for trouble. “I can get away with murder,” he seems to say.
Our nation is now like Lamech. Having removed God from our culture, why should we be surprised at the bloodshed we see all around us? Let’s roll the clock back to September 13, 2001, two days after the terrorist attacks. The smoke still rises from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As the nation grapples with the horror of what happened, Anne Graham Lotz (daughter of Billy Graham) is interviewed on the CBS Early Show by Jane Clayson. Here is part of the transcript of that interview:
Jane Clayson: I’ve heard people say, those who are religious, those who are not, if God is good, how could God let this happen? To that, you say?
Anne Graham Lotz: I say God is also angry when he sees something like this. I would say also for several years now Americans in a sense have shaken their fist at God and said, God, we want you out of our schools, our government, our business, we want you out of our marketplace. And God, who is a gentleman, has just quietly backed out of our national and political life, our public life. Removing his hand of blessing and protection. We need to turn to God first of all and say, God, we’re sorry we have treated you this way and we invite you now to come into our national life. We put our trust in you. We have our trust in God on our coins, we need to practice it.
And I say, God bless Anne Graham Lotz. She spoke the truth. We don’t want God or his name mentioned at school, in the workplace, in government or in social circles. And now some people don’t want him in the Pledge of Allegiance. We have become our own gods. And those who live by the Lord’s truth are derided as narrow-minded, old-fashioned, exclusive, offensive, and intolerant.
Don’t miss the point here. On one hand the line of Cain produces great cultural benefits and growing prosperity. Yet it is marred by self-indulgence, vanity and unrestrained violence. Cain and his descendants gave us secular society and secular society gave us Noah’s Flood. The followers of God still build huge buildings and make great progress in many fields, and they leave God out of the picture. In all these thousands of years, the heart of man has not changed at all. There is nothing new under the sun.
II. The Preservation of a Godly Remnant 25-26
The last two verses of our passage offer a quick snapshot of the godly line. When the ungodly seem to rule the world, what can the righteous do? How do we maintain our faith and pass it along to the next generation when the majority culture moves in another direction? There are two ways we can fight back against the prevailing tide.
A. By Building Godly Families 25
“Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, ‘God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him’” (Genesis 4:25).
It could not have been easy for Adam and Eve to have another child. Their oldest son is a murderer, their second son is dead. Why take a chance on another child? But they believed God wanted them to establish a family that would pass along their faith to the future. The name Seth means “appointed.” They saw him as a gift from God, a new beginning after the murder of Abel.
B. By Proclaiming God’s Name 26
“Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26).
The faith of Adam and Eve now passes to their son and grandson. The Hebrew concept of “calling on the name” of the Lord has two parts. It can mean to call on the Lord in prayer. In that sense, it meant that men began to take their faith seriously and started to seek God through prayer and worship. The word “call” can also mean to proclaim publicly. In those days men began to publicly identify themselves as followers of the true God. To make a decision like that is never easy in any circumstance, but it is always more difficult when the crowd is going the other direction. But in those dark days, a group of people openly said, “We belong to the Lord. We are his. We are on his team. We live by his values. We follow his Word!” They were not ashamed to be called the sons and daughters of the Living God.
What they knew, they believed.
What they believed, they confessed.
What they confessed, God blessed.
But notice one other fact of great importance. Believers went public with their faith “in those days.” In what days? In the days of Cain and his descendants. They openly confessed their faith while Lamech boasted of his sin, while men followed sensual pursuits, and while society began to spiral downward. In that very day of growing darkness, men banded together openly and publicly to declare the name of the Lord.
It is never too late to call on the Lord. Things are never so bad that the godly cannot survive. The world is never so far gone in sin that we should sell our goods, move to the wilderness, and live in a compound. What a revelation this is of the power of united faith. The first great revival came at a time of unbelievable moral decline. When the ungodly grow bold, it is time for the godly to be even bolder. When they jump headlong into sin, it is time for us to jump headlong into righteousness.
Stand Up and Be Counted!
Every man to his colors. Fly your flag high so no one will mistake which team you are on!
It is time for students who know the Lord to stand up and be counted.
It is time for football players, and basketball players, and soccer players, and baseball players who know the Lord to stand up and be counted.
It is time for teachers who know the Lord to stand up and be counted.
It is time for elected officials who know the Lord to stand up and be counted.
It is time for doctors and lawyers who know the Lord to stand up and be counted.
It is time for business leaders who know the Lord to stand up and be counted.
It is time for police officers and fire fighters who know the Lord to stand up and be counted.
It is time for counselors and psychologists who know the Lord to stand up and be counted.
It is time for judges who know the Lord to stand up and be counted.
It is time for scientists who know the Lord to stand up and be counted.
It is time for office managers who know the Lord to stand up and be counted.
Sometimes you have to make a stand for what you believe. During our recent trip to Kentucky, we met a woman who had been a successful instructor for a weight-loss organization. Because of her winning personality and contagious enthusiasm, some 300 men and women came to her meetings every week. A few months ago she put up a Scripture verse as an encouragement to her group, “I can do all things through Christ” (Philippians 4:13). When an official from the organization heard about it, she was ordered to take down the verse. If she refused, she was told that she would lose her job. She appealed and eventually spoke to a national leader of the organization who told her that religion had to be kept out of all the meetings. Despite letters of support for her position from many people, the organization would not relent. She felt that to take down the verse would be to compromise her faith. She refused and was dismissed from her job. Did she do the right thing? I can tell you that when I spoke with her, she had no doubts and no regrets. And she is confident that the Lord has other plans for her life. I say, God bless her and God bless all those who will not back down under pressure.
Wanted: Roaring Lambs
If we stand back and look at this passage in the broader perspective of the entire Bible, we can draw some general conclusions about how we as believers should relate to the larger culture. From the very beginning, unbelievers have tended to control the cities and they generally lead the larger culture. That’s how it was in the beginning, that’s how it is today, and that’s how it will always be to some extent until the Lord returns. I do not say that with any sense of defeatism but simply as a statement of fact. Yet God never leaves himself without a witness. Believers around the world can make a huge difference if they will build godly families, openly proclaim God’s name, and go about their business as salt and light in the larger culture. Sometimes we can penetrate and change things to a large extent. Never will the culture be entirely Christian but without the Christian influence, it will always deteriorate. That’s why whenever Christianity goes into a pagan culture, it always improves the lot of everyone who lives there. And that’s why we need Christian writers, Christian community leaders, Christian teachers, Christian industrialists, Christian artists, Christian doctors, Christian lawyers, and Christians sprinkled throughout every field of human endeavor.
My dear friend Bob Briner had a passion to see Christians make a difference. He said we ought to stop complaining and do the hard work that will put us in a position of influence wherever we happen to be. His book Roaring Lambs (published by Zondervan) is a classic statement of that principle.
No Reason to Envy
Meanwhile, we have no reason to envy the ungodly. They have the power but lack the wisdom to use it wisely. They marry but cannot stay married. They build vast monuments and then gun each other down in the streets. They can manage their world but not their own lives. Verily, we live in a generation of intellectual giants and moral pygmies.
Here are some abiding truths we can learn from this passage.
1. Unbelievers often produce works of enormous power, beauty and usefulness.
2. This should not surprise us since men whose names are not written in heaven must work desperately to leave a legacy on the earth.
3. The society they produce will be a strange combination of ingenuity, beauty, arrogance, wealth and violence.
4. It will largely be centered in the great cities of the world.
5. God will always preserve a righteous remnant in the midst of the ungodly majority.
6. By faith we can preserve our families and proclaim the Lord’s name even when the larger culture moves in another direction.
7. We must “proclaim” the Lord’s name by what we say and do. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so!
8. Human culture is neither good nor evil. It can be used for either purpose.
9. Even advanced culture, however refined and beautiful, has no redeeming power.
10. The greatest treasures of earth are no match for the pleasures of knowing God.
11. Earth has nothing to offer in substitute for God.
12. This is why the Christian can never really feel at home on the earth. We are strangers and aliens here.
One Nation Under God
If you want one final application, consider the fact that most of our passage is devoted to secular civilization and its amazing growth—for good and for evil. Yet the last two verses tell us that believers hold the key in any culture. Worship of God is the true basis of lasting civilization. That’s why the current debate over the Pledge of Allegiance has so many important ramifications. Does it really matter if we say “one nation under God?” I answer that the words don’t matter nearly as much as the truth beneath them. This week I listened to a few minutes of an interview on “Open Line” with Dallas Willard, professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, and author of many Christian books, including The Divine Conspiracy. In commenting on the Pledge controversy, he suggested that the real challenge before America is not “under God” but “one nation.” That’s the whole struggle of American history, to forge “one nation” out of many disparate elements. He pointed out that you cannot be “one nation” unless you are also “under God.” That must be our great unifying truth. Worship of the true God unites a nation and promotes the values of freedom and justice. In a deep sense, we are making a patriotic statement every time we gather for worship on Sunday morning, even if most of our neighbors sleep in or go to the beach.
As we wrap things up, let me issue a call to our young people. This is a word for our teenagers, our college students and our young singles. You are standing at the crossroads of life. The world beckons to you with all its pomp and glitter and all its vaunted glory. Will you follow the world and live by its values? Or will you take up your cross and follow Jesus wherever he leads?
Let every person who reads these words consider those questions. Do not make the world all-important. Enjoy the world but don’t fall in love with it. Use every opportunity to better yourself but not at the expense of your self-respect and your Christian convictions. And don’t measure your success by the standards of the world. You are doomed to unhappiness if you do. There is a better word from the Lord for all of us: “And this world is fading away, along with everything it craves. But if you do the will of God, you will live forever” (I John 2:17 NLT).
Father, how foolish we are to think that we could live without you. Forgive us for loving the treasures of the world that will pass away. Or if they do not pass away, we will pass away and then we will be in your presence. Teach us to believe all that you have said. Create in us a hunger that can be satisfied only by you. Wean us from our love of the world, our desire for earthly praise, and our restless pursuit of material gain and sexual pleasure. Help us to put your kingdom first and so to discover that when we do, everything else is added unto us. Amen.