by Michael E. Brooks
“You are the children of the Lord your God; you shall not cut yourselves nor shave the front of your head for the dead. For you are a holy people to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for himself, a special treasure above all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2 NKJV).
There are in extreme eastern Nepal a number of refugee encampments where over a quarter million people have lived for decades. The inhabitants of these camps are ethnic Nepalis who had lived for generations in the small mountain kingdom of Bhutan, just north and east of Nepal. They departed Bhutan because laws were passed which forbade their wearing of traditional Nepali dress and practicing other cultural traditions.
The refugees feel that they are persecuted and treated unfairly. The Bhutanese however explain, “We have watched small independent countries around us become filled with immigrants from other countries (notably India) and eventually when the immigrants outnumbered the original population, they voted to renounce independence and become a state of India. The citizens of the original country lost their nation. We do not intend to allow that to happen to us.”
Understand that I do not know enough about the history and details of this situation to have an opinion on who is right, or whether Bhutan’s treatment of the Nepalis within her borders was justified. One may have much sympathy with both sides. But this situation illustrates perfectly an important Biblical principle, one taught in the verse cited above.
God’s laws are not arbitrary. They are designed to produce and maintain a distinctive people, one belonging to God and taking on his nature. Moses makes it clear that even cultural practices, such as how one mourns the dead, may be significant in preserving one’s identity.
God’s people are different. Just as the true God is much different from any idol or deity conceived by man, so those whom he takes as his own must be distinctive. Christians live differently from those in the world around them. They act differently, talk differently, think differently, and worship differently. There is great distinction in their dress, their relationships, their attitudes, their goals, and their dreams.
As Israel demonstrated many times, over the centuries between Moses and Christ, when one fails to maintain distinctive behavior, one loses all other important distinctions which define his identity. Idolatrous Israel after the reign of Jeroboam I was indistinguishable from the Canaanite tribes. Both groups worshiped Baal and other idols. Both groups practiced religious prostitution. Both groups dressed, spoke, thought, and acted in essentially the same ways. Though Israel gave lip service to its traditional identity as the people of God, their profession of faith in him meant nothing.
Tragically, we see the same principle in action today. Moderns claiming to be Christians are often virtually identical to unbelievers in speech, entertainment choices, dress, ethical behavior, and moral decisions. They accept sin in their own lives and that of others as natural and inoffensive. They expect God to accommodate their culture, to accept the thinking and choices of a worldly society.
The Bible is plain. God has called his people out of the world (2 Corinthians 6:17). Jesus stated that his disciples would be so separated from the world as to cause the world to hate them (John 15:19). This is not a separation of space (isolation) but rather one of kind and nature.
We must follow God’s law diligently for at least two reasons. One is to establish that separation from sin and unbelief. That is, we obey his laws to become different, to gain our identity as God’s special people.
The other reason is to demonstrate our true nature as that people. Moses said to Israel that they would act differently from the nations around them because of who they were. If we are God’s people, our nature reflects that of God himself.
We are different from others, therefore we live differently. It is just that simple.
by Michael E. Brooks