It is a general principle that Satan takes the blessings that God graciously bestows on us and tries to pervert them into a curse. So it is with our need for social acceptance. Though humans have many things in common, there are also great differences that tend to drive us apart and poison our sense of community. The desire to be part of a group – society, family, team, etc. – is powerful. Mutual achievement deepens relationships; mutual suffering and sacrifice create bonds that last a lifetime; mutual approval empowers and validates us so that we are inspired, stronger and more courageous.
But there is a dark side to social acceptance. Under the right circumstances Satan can convince us that peer approval is the most important thing in life, even more important than God. Thus Jesus faults His generation for loving the praise of men more than the praise of God (Jn 12:43; 6:44).
The pressure to conform to society’s norms, to buy into the conventional wisdom, to use the right words, to fit in, is enormous, probably more so than we consciously perceive. Who knows how many of our daily decisions are influenced by a subtle sense of expectations. It is not until we step out of line that we may realize, painfully, that our peers do not take kindly to the rejection of their standards.
In theory we are all bolder and more courageous than we often are in the heat of battle. Perhaps the quintessential example of that is Peter, who defiantly denied the Lord’s lamentation that He would be forsaken by all of the disciples: “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble” (Mt 26:33). He said this in seclusion, among friends and in concert with the Lord. But later that same night Peter’s world was rocked: Jesus was arrested; his comrades fled; he was in the courtyard of the high priest, ground zero of enemy territory; desiring anonymity he was “outed” and three different times he was identified as one of Jesus’ followers. Alone, scared, vulnerable, with Jesus in custody, and perhaps rationalizing his situation – as we are all wont to do – Peter collapsed under the pressure.
What happens to us in such a moment? While there may be various nuances that come into play, the essence of such failure is, in that moment, we simply can’t bear the thought of man’s rejection. To be laughed at, ridiculed, demeaned, insulted, to be an outcast is torturous. To understand that tendency is the beginning of inoculation against it.
This is one area where we are confronted with our true view of God. If God is merely a collection of intellectual facts or a vague object of ritualistic behaviors, then desire for His approval diminishes in favor of those peers with whom we are face to face. Yearning for affirmation, or merely the desire not to suffer emotionally, causes us to embrace men while turning our backs to God.
Joseph, as noted many times before, is an incredible example of standing alone. He was in the minority in his own family as the “golden child.” He was sold into slavery, transported to a foreign culture and (in his mind) abandoned by his father (remember what his great-grandfather Abraham did to recover Lot and family when taken captive from Sodom – Gn 14:14-16?). While serving in Potiphar’s house, his master’s wife “cast longing eyes on Joseph” (Gn 39:7). Joseph initially rebuffed her advances saying, “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (39:9). God was real to Joseph, not just an idea or a principle or an obligation but the one Joseph was ultimately answerable to.
But eventually a moment of crisis came which put Joseph’s resolve to a critical test. Potiphar’s wife made sexual advances toward him one last time. The atmosphere was extremely intense: she had done this repeatedly (39:10); she was powerful; the occasion was private (39:11); he was unmarried and handsome (39:6). The situation was ripe for Joseph to abandon God, not just for the approval of the world, but to avoid the fate that actually came upon him for his resistance. Rather than conform to sensual pressure, Joseph “left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside” (39:13). Joseph not only was willing to stand alone; he was willing to accept the consequences that surely he knew would come from a woman scorned.
Part of our spiritual development is to strengthen our convictions about God, His word, our responsibilities to Him and to His people, so that we are willing to stand up to our wicked generation. We must build a relationship with God where nothing and no one is more important to us than God and His approval. Yes, we all have emotional and psychological needs that are satisfied by belonging to the community, but if we forsake God for those considerations, then they have become an idol to us and we have put a price on our soul.
As Joshua neared death and prepared to leave the fledgling nation to the younger generation, he challenged them with one of the most inspiring statements in Scripture. Before the multitudes who still after centuries cherished their ancestral Mesopotamian idols, and decades after receiving the law at Sinai clung to the gods of Egypt (Jsh 24:14), Joshua boldly and publicly took his stand: “And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (24:15).
Joshua was not afraid to stand alone for God. Let us aspire to be like him.