I was 15 minutes early for my hair appointment and had some time to kill when a handsome mall salesman lured me over to his kiosk with the promise of a free gift. I instinctively reached for the little packet he waved in front of my face, prepared to snatch it and dart away. But 30 seconds later I was sitting in his salon chair as he demonstrated a high-end hair straightener on my tired, Monday locks.
“Are you prepared to be amazed?” asked Eli. I knew the routine: Salesman demonstrates beauty product. I ooh and ahh despite myself. Salesman quotes an exorbitant amount. I act disinterested. Salesman throws in free gift. I shrug. Salesman drops price. I arch a brow. We continue this game until the salesman reaches his target price and I feel like I got a good deal. But I wasn’t buying.
And then he placed in my lap a box with the shiny, pink, magic hair-wand, perched royally on a velvet cushion. My resolve withered. I mean, my hair looked awesome! But I knew I could not afford this purchase. So first I tried to barter, “I’ll write you a promotional article about this product if you give it to me for free.” Eli smiled.
“You a famous writer?” he said in his Brazilian-Italian lisp.
“Perhaps.” I shrugged. What was the harm in massaging his perception?
“You have to look good for the public? This product is an investment in your image!” Good try, but no deal. Next, I considered what my financial icon Dave Ramsey would say, which reminded me it was budget night. I knew what I had to do.
Our cultural influences, whether actively or passively, are always on the ready to lure us into conformity with the promise of some really cool stuff: financial status, physical pleasure, fancy watches, and—yes—even a shiny, pink hair straightener.
“Eli,” I said, “This is a great product. I would love to own it, but I didn’t come here to spend any extra money; it’s just not in my budget this month.” He couldn’t argue. Pulling the budget card with a salesman is like pulling the God card during a break up—which would have been my next tactic. If not for a healthy dose of skepticism and a financial guiding principle, my pocketbook would have felt the squeeze of an unwise and impulsive decision.
The same is true for a lot of decisions we make in life. Like the salesman, our cultural influences, whether actively or passively, are always on the ready to lure us into conformity with the promise of some really cool stuff: financial status, physical pleasure, fancy watches, and—yes—even a shiny, pink hair straightener. These things aren’t inherently bad, but enjoyed out of the proper context or obtained without a healthy, grounded perspective, they could be damaging to both our pocketbooks and our souls.
Cultural Sway vs. Biblical Guidance
The Bible tells us to live in the world, but not to become like it. The New Living Translation puts it this way, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (Rom. 12:2a). Some have interpreted this as an instruction to reject anything that isn’t explicitly Christian. But I don’t think that’s what this verse is getting at. I think it means much more.
I am always amazed that something as simple and tiny as a grain of sand can create enough influence for an oyster to adapt to its environment. The grain slips into the oyster shell, causing an irritation in the oyster’s soft tissues. The oyster responds by coating the irritant with the same protective substance it uses to coat its shell—a pearl is formed. The oyster doesn’t stop being an oyster and change into a grain of sand, and it doesn’t kick the sand out if its environment. It interacts with the stranger, adapts to its presence, and cultivates something rare and beautiful.
I think we’re called to similarly participate in our culture—to recognize its presence, to realize its potential influence on us, and then to interact with it in a way that allows God to transform it into something rare and beautiful. If we segregate ourselves from culture for fear of negatively affecting our faith, how can we influence and connect with its people? How can we test our faith, understand God’s will, and experience the awe and exhilaration that follows practiced trust?
Cultural influence is only part of the problem. We also have to consider our guiding point of reference. It might be time to ask yourself which influence is greater in your life—Culture? Or Christ?
Some might argue that letting culture influence our faith is to take an egocentric and pluralistic approach—just a dash of moral relativism, a pinch of materialism, and a sprinkle of entitlement and, viola! a recipe for a belief system made in our own image. That is a very real concern, but cultural influence is only part of the problem. We also have to consider our guiding point of reference. It might be time to ask yourself which influence is greater in your life—Culture? Or Christ?
Eli the salesman tested my financial resolve by preying on my vanity and public image. He stroked my ego with a little shameless flirting and a peppering of compliments, but he ultimately didn’t influence my decision-making. Because I’ve lately been immersed in literature on healthy financial habits and have a monthly action plan, my perspective on money is different—renewed even. This made discerning the right choice for me clear and easy. I might dream about what could have been if I’d given in—oh, the flawlessly smooth and shiny tresses!—but my tummy isn’t grumbling and my landlord isn’t beating down my door for rent.
We can approach every area of our lives the same way: using the Bible to both help us recognize opposing cultural influences and to make good choices that are in line with God’s will for our lives.
Not all choices are as simple as this hair dilemma, however. God gives us tremendous freedom, but sometimes that freedom means wading through difficult decisions with few clear answers. What does the Bible say about finances? Relationships? Work? Emotional health? Sex? You may not discover a black and white answer for every area, but in studying the Bible you’ll learn guiding principles. 1 Corinthians 10:23 is a great one, “You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is good for you. You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is beneficial. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” When faced with a gray-area decision, it’s helpful to ask these 4 questions:
1. Does God command against it?
2. Is it physically, emotionally, relationally, and/or spiritually beneficial for me?
3. Is it physically, emotionally, relationally, and/or spiritually beneficial for others in my life?
4. Does it please or bring honor to God?
You’ll still find yourself in tough and tempting situations, and I’ll still want to grasp for the shiny, pink hair straightener that I really can’t afford, but our new and strengthened perspective will help us straighten things out.