Salt and Light
History bears testimony to an ebb-and-flow relationship between man and God, which impacts not just the human heart, but also entire communities, churches, cities, countries, and even continents. For instance, there was a time when Europe was an utterly pagan place. But then a wave of missionaries and evangelists brought with them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of grace and acceptance and love, and Christianity swept beautifully across the land. Over time, however, the people fell away from the faith that had saved them, the culture digressed, and an entire continent fell headlong into secularism—society without any use for God. As I say, ebb, then flow, then ebb.
This same trend can be seen when we look at the United States of America: what was once a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles has now become a secular society, a people who have little use for God.
While Jesus ministered here on earth, in the midst of real society facing real challenges, He told His followers that they were like "sheep among wolves” (Matthew 10:16). In order to survive, He continued, we would have to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves; we would need to keep in mind that while we are to refrain at every turn from harming others, we live in a world that doesn’t necessarily share that lack of ill-intent. We must be suspicious while somehow remaining sweet, because we’re living among wolves. And wolves seek to devour.
Romans 1 aptly describes what a wolf-riddled culture looks like: "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (vv. 18-20).
A few verses down, we read the stunning, sobering implications of secularized society:
“Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use of what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the women, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind to do those things which are not fitting” (vv. 24-28).
And to what habits does God “give them over to”? Verses 29 through 32 spell it out in graphic detail: sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, and evil-mindedness. Furthermore, we learn that these people, the ones whom God is “giving over” are quite deserving of the punishment they face. According to the same passage of Scripture, they are “whisperers, back biters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful."
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The description reads like a news website or newspaper on any given day. Indeed, you and I are living among the "un-generation”—people who are undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, and unmerciful. The result of this unlovely living is a society that is first and foremost twisted morally. What once embarrassed and shamed us now does not faze us. What used to slink down dark, back alleyways now struts along the main streets of our hearts. May God have mercy on us all.
This type of living also produces a society that is twisted spiritually. We indulge our wickedness long enough, and we eventually become anti-God. We glaze over at the news of the Gospel—that Jesus’ blood really does cover our every sin. We step away from the truths of salvation, figuring we are better off going it alone. We eye the Bible with foolhardy skepticism, finding it a book of fables and nothing more.
We do our level best to get rid of God, even as our very nature cries out for Him. We while away our days and lives, chasing counterfeit answers to God, but in the end, science and business and vain pleasures can do nothing to scratch the angry itch in our souls.
Certainly, it's important for us as Christ’s followers to keep our distance from such characteristics—being twisted—but God expects still more. He says we must also speak out against these habits; we must actively disapprove of these trends. Romans 1:32 says it this way: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (emphasis added).
Those of us who believe in Jesus and have staked our very lives on His saving grace are called to stand against all forms of godlessness. We are called to help our society once again pursue God. But how do we get that done?
Be Savory, as Salt
One day, Jesus looked into the eyes of His disciples, who were seated before Him on the side of a mountain, and reassured them that it actually is possible to live as citizens of His kingdom in a fallen and fractured world. “You are the salt of the earth!” He said. “You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage” (Matthew 5:13, The Message).
Jesus may as well have said, “Listen, I know you’ll meet a lot of tasteless people, hear a lot of tasteless jokes, and see a lot of tasteless things, down here on planet Earth. But don’t lose heart! As you fulfill your mission to honor God with your life, you will bring tastefulness back in style. Keep in mind as you walk through life that you have far more influence than you know.”
Just like the apostles, we can be average Joes and Janes, going about our average daily lives, and yet God lays His hand upon us and declares us fit to utterly change the world. The most powerful agent of change in this world is not the government, the military, entertainers or leaders of industry. No, the most powerful agent of change is Christ’s church, people committed to doing His will.
Salt Preserves and Protects
So, what does “being salt” have to do with it?
When Jesus told His disciples—and us—that we are the “salt of the earth,” He reinforced our role as those who preserve and protect the crown of His creation. The salt of Jesus’ time was full of minerals and had an unmatched ability to preserve and protect valuable food in the days before refrigeration and the practice of packing with ice were available. If a fisherman reeled in a draught of fish, for example, and needed to transport it from Capernaum to Jerusalem—a distance of about 120 miles—he would be sure to salt it down so that it didn’t spoil en route. He would rub the salt into the flesh of the fish, penetrating it, preserving it, protecting it.
This is how we are to live.
We are to penetrate our culture with grace and truth so that those living this life beside us are not spoiled by sin en route.
Salt Seasons and Stings
A second aspect to Jesus’ metaphor is that salt also seasons and stings.
You’ve likely had the experience of being in a movie theater with a belly full of salty, buttered popcorn. The only thing you can think about is washing it down with an oversize Coke, which is why movie theaters can get away with charging five dollars for a soda that costs them mere pennies to make. But the point is this: salt makes us thirsty. When Jesus told us to be “salty,” He was in essence saying, “Let your life make others thirsty for God!”
We are to craft our lives in such a way that our thoughts, our habits, our actions and reactions make people who know us simply crave God.
Perhaps you’ve known the agony of swimming in the ocean with a fresh cut on your face or leg. Maybe you sliced your skin shaving that morning and completely forgot about the gash, until you dove into that body of saltwater and were quickly reminded as you winced in pain. Salt can sting. It’s true in the physical realm; it’s true in the spiritual realm, too.
If you follow Jesus long enough, you will encounter people who don’t appreciate hearing truth. It’s a stinging rebuke to their godless life, and inside, they wince in pain. But still, we must proclaim the message Jesus has asked us to proclaim.
We are called to be salt—and not sugar!-—in our world. We are called to season and to sting.
Salt Cleanses and Heals
Let me give you one more duo, about living the “salty” life. In addition to preserving and protecting, to seasoning and providing a sting, salt also is known as a powerful agent for cleansing and healing wounds.
If you’ve ever had a sore throat, then you know that one of the quickest, most surefire ways to soothe the passage and relieve the pain is by gargling saltwater. Similarly, we are to look for parts of our homes, our communities, our cities, our world in need of soothing, in need of relief, and we are to be salt that cleanses, that heals.
By our saltiness, we can help mend what is broken. We can lift up what has been laid down. We can bring to life what has been massacred. We can be a blessing each day of our lives. This is what Jesus meant that day, when He called His followers to live as salt.
Shine Brightly, as Lights
On that same day, on that same hillside, during that same conversation with His wide-eyed disciples, Jesus offered another metaphor for living, building on the “salt” speech he’d just delivered. “Not only are you to be the salt of the earth,” our Master conveyed, “but also, you’re to be light” Here are His verbatim words, from Matthew 5:14:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
When ancient civilizations were formed, cities often were built along hillsides. Armies would attack and conquer and enforce their rule over a particular city by rebuilding right on top of the previous city's structures. Over time, you’d have city upon city upon city, stacked higher and higher each time, to show onlookers who was in charge.
There's a spiritual implication for us here. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are to have a visible presence that boldly glorifies God, who rules over all. We are to stand proudly, as a city on a hill. We are to shine brightly, as a candle positioned high on a stand. Our lives are to cast a glow to the watching world that confirms we’ve been in the presence of God. Let’s look at how this gets done.
First, we are to be conspicuous. Rather than living a covert Christian life, we are to wear
our association with Jesus with confidence, remembering that people all around us
are wandering, in search of something—or Someone—to soothe their souls. We cannot help point people to faith in Christ unless were known as Christ followers ourselves.
Frequently I have someone from our church approach me and bemoan their work or school environment, regaling me with all the sordid details of their colleague’s wayward lives: "Pastor, you don’t know how lucky you are, to get to be here at the church all day! The language I have to put up with at the place where I work … it’s just a dark, dark place.”
What these people foil to recognize is that the place of darkness where they find themselves could be illuminated if they’d shine their light. Their office or school isn’t their punishment; its their divinely given ministry, where they can glorify God.
Second, we are to be consistent in our followership of Christ. 1 often refer jokingly to inconsistent believers as “mugwumps”—they’re fence-straddlers who have their mug
on one side and their wumps on the other! They never quite fully devote themselves to the will and the ways of Christ
Too many churches today are full of mugwumps. They say they love God and are committed to serving him alone, but in reality they live in a manner totally indistinguishable from the way people far from God choose to live.
Third, we are to be utterly consumed by the light of Jesus in our lives. John the Baptist said it this way: “I must decrease, but he must increase” (John 3:30). We make more room for the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives by making less room for ourselves. Because when our light shines as Jesus intends, prompting us to love well and do well in our world, people will be absolutely compelled to glorify not us, but the Father in heaven above.
Wherever it is you find yourself, God intends for you to be salt and light right there. "Never allow the thought, I’m of no use where I am,” Oswald Chambers once wrote. "You certainly are no use where you are not.” May we recommit ourselves to influencing the world around us, instead of being wholly influenced by it.