Things Christians Struggle With, Part 5: Worldliness

What is one of the easiest ways to cast aspersions on a fellow Christian?

While other Christians different experiences will lead them to any number of answers, one of the charges which I have commonly witnessed the most is getting labeled as “worldly.” The online Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “relating to or consisting of physical things or ordinary life rather than spiritual things.”

That seems harmless enough. But in Christian circles, being defined as “worldly” has many negative connotations: it denotes selfishness, greed, covetousness, and by extension a lack of trust and love for Christ. In short, it’s not a leap to suggest that declaring a fellow Christian to be “worldly” is to question their level of commitment to Christ, and even whether they actually possess saving faith.

Therefore, since the charge is so scurrilous, it behooves us to ask the question: what, exactly, is worldliness?

To answer the question, let us examine one of the most explicit biblical texts on this subject, 1 John 2:15-17:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

In reading this passage, all would agree that worldliness is a bad thing. However, if you were to sit down with three different Christians and ask them to define worldliness, you would probably get three different answers. So to ascertain what the Apostle John is saying, let us first determine what does not constitute worldliness, and then what does. Lastly, we will examine why John addresses this topic (and in the case of full disclosure, much of what you are about to read–though certainly not all–is adapted from a sermon I once preached on this text).

What John is Not Saying

Since this is a very strong statement that John is making, it behooves us to approach this text with humility about our own lifestyles, rather than immediately jumping to conclusions about others. I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I would wager that every person reading this has pointed an accusatory finger at someone else, and called them “worldly.” I would also wager that somebody at some time has also said the same thing about you, even if you were totally unaware of it!

So then, what does John not mean when he says we should “not love the world”? To begin with, he is not necessarily talking about the world itself. This is important because in his writings, John makes many references to the world. The best known, of course, is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

The context has to do with God sending His Son to die for all kinds of people, all over the world, to atone for their sins. In short, because the world is so sinful, God would have to be incredibly loving to do such a thing; and that’s exactly the point. John 3:16 is not a statement about how large the world is; rather, it’s a very telling statement about God’s character. Furthermore, God created the world, and after all but one of the six days of creation, He declared that it was “very good.”

For the sake of this discussion, then, John is not saying that we should hate the world and everything in it without qualification. Neither is he saying that we shouldn’t love sinners in the world. After all, Jesus also told us in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies, do good to them, and pray for them.

He also called us “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” This refers to the light of the gospel, which is how God brings about true and lasting change. So we as Christians are not called to cloister ourselves off from the rest of the world.

Nor is John saying that we should embrace man-made regulations as a path to cleanse ourselves from worldliness. Paul speaks directly to this in 1 Timothy 4 when he warns of those “who forbid marriage and require abstinence from food that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.”

So often in our efforts to protect others from sin, we go too far by adding such man-made rules. But as this First Timothy passage makes clear, God’s Word will not allow us to go that far. This is legalism, and it deprives Christians of enjoying liberties which the Bible does not forbid.

Nor is John saying that it’s wrong to have lots of money. Again in 1 Timothy, Paul states, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.  They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:17-19).

Granted, there is much that could be said about Christians and wealth–some of which I discussed in part 3 of this series. But for the sake of the present discussion, notice that Paul does not tell the rich to give up all of their money. Rather, because they have money, they have greater opportunities (even responsibilities) to further the Kingdom of God and care for the poor that other Christians do not have; hence, their financial generosity should be a high priority for them.

One of the most wonderful examples of this from church history was an English lady named Selina, Countess of Huntington. She lived during the 18th century, and at an early age she inherited a large fortune. A previous pastor told me that after adjusting for inflation, she had roughly the same amount of wealth that Oprah Winfrey does today. But because Selina was a Christian, she sought to use her money to build up the Church. And so, she personally funded the building of dozens of chapels, several of John Wesley’s and later George Whitfield’s evangelistic trips to North America, and a seminary. She also helped the poor with great generosity. Since much of her wealth was tied up in property, Selina often sold her most expensive pieces of jewelry to pay for these things.

God has certainly used many Christians of means throughout the centuries to further His cause. But returning to the main point at hand, when the Apostle John tells us not to love the world, he is not necessarily talking about money. That’s because money, in and of itself, is not the problem; rather, it’s the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil.

Therefore, it is wrong for Christians to judge each other on account of how much money they have, or if they have a nice house, couch, or car. It could simply be that that’s their way of providing for their family. Also, people need cars and houses and furniture and various forms of modern technology, and quite frankly, you get what you pay for: if someone spends extra money for a nicer car and they have the means to do it, that probably means they are planning on keeping it for a number of years. In fact, not only is it wrong to judge someone who has something nicer than you do, but the fact that you are judging could very well be a sign that you are coveting their possessions, which is a violation of the Tenth Commandment.

At any rate, this is what John does not mean when he tells us not to love the world: he is not speaking of the world as a whole, he is not telling his readers to hate unbelievers, and he is not necessarily speaking of money and worldly possessions.

What John Is Saying

This is where it’s always important to see the context of verses like 1 John 2:15 that needlessly cause so much controversy. That’s because nearby verses invariably provide reasonable explanations. That is true in this case, as the next verse says, “For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world.”

Here, John presents three ways on how it is wrong to love the world. They are very closely related, and in some ways they overlap. What is also clear is that it’s not objects in and of themselves that denotes worldliness; rather, it’s the motive of the person’s heart.

First, John mentions the “desires of the flesh.” According to one commentator, this word for “desire” appears 38 times in the NT, and all but three of those uses are negative. This is why some translations render it “cravings,” or “lusts.” But here’s the key: every person reading this, regardless of how sanctified they might be, has a craving for something. Of necessity, our desires must have an object. The question is, where are those cravings and desires directed: to the things of God, or to the things of this world?

It is the desires of the world that we are to avoid. Paul catalogs them in Galatians 5:20-21: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.”

Second, John mentions is “the desires of the eyes.” These desires are things that you see, desire to have, but (by implication) should not have. It’s looking at something, know that it is contrary to God’s will, and striving to get it anyway.

The “desires of the eyes” come in many different forms: it can be a hot new sports car, a desire for greater power or prestige, or the like. For instance, let’s say your job requires you to work in a cubicle. Suppose a higher position becomes vacant, and you apply for it right away. Getting this position would mean a promotion that includes a nice corner office, a personal secretary, and a big pay raise. There is nothing inherently wrong with going for the promotion, so long as it is done with a right motive: better caring for your family, now having more money to pay the bills, set aside for retirement, and above all, glorifying God and being thankful to Him when you get the promotion. But if you’re just after the fringe benefits in and of themselves, it’s then that you are guilty of coveting the “desires of the eyes.”

It could also come when you desire someone sexually who is physically attractive but is not your spouse. The Proverbs strongly warn against this.

This is the prime example of what John is talking about when he mentions “desires of the eyes”: they look enticing, but they lead to death. It is why C.S. Lewis called temptations like these “the sweet poison of the false infinite.”

Lewis had a way with words, didn’t he? Think about that for a minute: a “sweet poison” is the worst kind because it tastes wonderful, but since it’s poisonous, it will kill you. A “false infinite” is something that claims to continue in perpetuity, but does not. In other words, it’s a lie.

Therefore, if you ever find yourself in a situation of worldly temptation like this, you have only one option: run! Why? Because the momentary pleasure is based upon a lie, it will not last, and even if you are a Christian and God will forgive you, you must still live with the consequences of your sin, which can be very painful.

Third, John mentions “pride in possessions.” Recall from what I said earlier about how it is wrong to judge others according to their houses, cars, and furniture. That’s because you don’t know their motivation for getting it; again, everybody needs houses and cars and furniture, and they might pay more to get better quality because it makes better financial sense for them in the long run.

But there is a flip side that should not be ignored: America is the land of plenty, and if you have a roof over your head, a bed to sleep in at night, clothing, and hot food, then you are already better off than the vast majority of the world’s population. And yet, how many of us have succumbed to advertisements for things we either don’t need or have no lasting value? When we do this, we have succumbed to worldliness.

To be clear, it’s not wrong to own possessions per se. That said, the key question remains, why do you want to own a particular item? Because it will impress your friends? Because it makes you feel good about yourself? Because it gives you a feeling of personal fulfillment?

On the one hand, it would be wrong to deny anyone’s liberties as a believer. But on the other hand, we should recall Paul’s poignant statement that “all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable.” This is because the single most important question a Christian should be asking himself when he is about to make an important decision is, “Does what I am about to do glorify God?

Glorifying God

Perhaps you might be wondering: “What does it mean to ‘glorify God’? I hear it all the time, but what does it mean?” Here is my answer: glorifying God is doing something that you know is pleasing to Him. Hence, it reflects well upon Him, you carry the task out with no thought to yourself, and often at the expense of your personal wants and desires.

For example, one of the most godly people I’ve ever met was a man at a previous church. When I knew him, he had a good job, a nice house, and a decent car. While he wasn’t rich, my friend perhaps could have gotten a flashy new sports car if that had been his heart’s desire.

Meanwhile, there were three men who liked to come to this church, but they couldn’t get there on their own: one was legally blind, one was wheelchair-bound, and one had mental problems so he basically behaved like a very innocent child with no street-smarts; hence, he could easily be taken advantage of.

At any rate, here were three men who wanted to come to church that did not have the means to get there on their own. So what did my friend do? He sold his car and he bought a large used van just so those three men could come worship, and hear the Word of God preached. Instead of thinking that this was somebody else’s problem, and without anyone at the church even asking him, he did that because he knew what those men needed. What a wonderful example of loving God instead of the world!

God may or may not call you to do something of that magnitude. He may not call you to adopt a special-needs child from a foreign country, like a pastor friend of mine did. Even still, these are people who seek to glorify God, which again is doing something that we know is pleasing to Him and so reflects well upon Him that you carry out with no thought to yourself, and often at the expense of your personal wants and desires.

That’s a major reason why we should not love the world: in the context of this passage, the world is sinful, and it is at odds with God. And this leads to the final point…

Why John Says What He Says

John writes in verse 17, “And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

To clarify, this verse is not teaching how to gain eternal life. But it is telling us about the future state of the world and Christians. The world is passing away, John says. He already said in 2:8 that the darkness is passing away as the true light of Jesus Christ shines. That’s because of what Christ did on the cross for you and me. This world in its sin will not last. It will one day come to an end, and whereas the first judgment came by water via the Great Flood, 2 Peter makes it very clear that the next judgment will be by fire.

Therefore, when you die, you cannot take the enticements of the world with you. This reality begs the question: why would you even want to continue chasing after the world’s enticements?

Instead, why not pursue the things of God? Imagine ways that you might seek to glorify Him. Tell others about Jesus Christ. Seek opportunities to serve others in your local church. As another pastor put it, doing these things will only strengthen your local body of Christ: “The more you love God the more your neighbor will profit from your life. The more you love God the more the church will gain strength from you being a part of her.”

As a Christian, your goal in life is to glorify God. And it’s worth noting that this does not mean you can’t have fun while you’re doing it. For instance, the people real-life examples cited earlier have experienced great joy through their sacrifices, even while they are difficult. You can also do so while spending time with your church family.

If you are indeed satisfied in pursuing our God and glorifying Him, then you have a wonderful future ahead of you. As the last part of verse 17 says, “but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

As one who has repented and been forgiven of your sins in account of Christ, you will be with the Triune God forever. That is your great reward as a Christian. Does that not move you? Does that not stir up your heart, to know that you will one day be free from all of the setbacks, disappointments, and trials of this life?

And while there are many good things in this life to be happy about, the blessings of Heaven will dwarf them. One of the most important ways you prepare for Heaven is by glorifying God now: by worshiping, serving, and loving others on account of Christ with a glad heart, and not being enticed by the things of this world.


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