Category Archives: worldliness

Two Roads to Happiness—One Broad, the Other Narrow

It may seem that I have strayed from my theme for this year, which is “love not the world” (1 John 2:15-17). So it may appear, but it’s never been far from my mind. Living a Christian life can be summed up as loving God in every word, thought, and deed and refusing to love the world. You cannot live the Christian life unless you keep ever before you the difference between these two loves. This task is not easy, because “the world” is the dominant way human beings order their lives. That’s why it’s called “the world.” It’s the majority, which enters the “wide gate” and travels the “broad road” (Matthew 7:13). It’s the way of the rulers and powers of this world (Ephesians 2:1-3). It’s the easy way, the downhill road.  You just follow your lusts, do what everyone else does, approve of what they approve, dislike what they dislike, and love what they love. But to be a Christian, to love the Father, you must break loose from the world and squeeze through the “small gate” and travel with Jesus and the “few” on the “narrow road” (Matthew 7:14).

We deceive ourselves if we think that Jesus’ warning about the “broad road” and John’s assessment of his society and culture do not apply to our age. To the contrary, we live in “the world,” and despite superficial differences, our society follows the ways of the world just as thoroughly as first-century society did. And we are just as tempted to love the world as our first-century brothers and sisters were.

Perhaps the most deceptive value that orders society today is freedom. Even cries for justice and equality can be reduced to demands for freedom. Equality largely means “equal freedom,” and justice means primarily equality, which again means equal freedom. But freedom itself remains largely undefined, because everyone thinks they know what it means. They assume without thinking that freedom means the absence of any power or condition that inhibits an individual’s achievement of happiness understood as a subjective feeling. Hidden in this definition is the idea that happiness can never be achieved as long as one endures any condition that is not desired. The worst thing you can do to anyone is deprive them of their freedom, which is the same as making them unhappy. And to make someone unhappy is to deprive them of their reason for living, which is psychological murder.

Why is this understanding of freedom a problem? What makes it worldly? And what makes it deceptive? If we defined freedom simply as “the absence of any power or condition that inhibits an individual’s achievement of happiness,” we could fit the Christian understanding of freedom within it. For the Christian faith, there are powers and conditions that block our way to ultimate happiness, and God is the only power that can free us from those hindrances. And possessing and being possessed by God is the only condition under which human beings can find true joy. But modern society’s view of happiness and how it must be achieved differs dramatically from the Christian understanding. As I pointed out above, contemporary culture thinks happiness can be attained by breaking free from every limit that prevents us from following our desires. Both freedom and happiness are achieved by our own power, freedom by self-assertion and happiness by self-indulgence. As you can see clearly, modern worldly people put the human self in God’s place. In the Christian view, God is the basis of both freedom and happiness. But the way of the world seeks freedom and happiness through its own power. Hence the contemporary world, just like the first-century world, finds its power for freedom and its way to happiness in “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Nothing has changed.

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Authentic Living in a World of Imitation Games and Fictional Lives?

Are you living your own life, or is it being lived for you by some other force? From where did you get the script for your life? Do you know who cast you in the role you are playing? Are the passions and thoughts and goals that drive you through life based on reality, or are they elements of fictional story-world? Most people never ask such questions. They just live as they are told to live. They seek what others seek, love and fear what others love and fear. They worry about what concerns others. Most of us are simply personifications of the values, loves, and dreams of the society in which we live. We are the hosts within which live society’s demons. There is nothing inside. There is no substance to us. Take away our masks, costumes, and memorized lines, and nothing remains. And this is not my pessimism speaking; it’s the clear-eyed teaching of Jesus and his apostles.

In the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20), Jesus warned his disciples that their mission to preach the good news would not meet with complete success. He speaks of four different reactions they will receive. The third one strikes me as highly relevant to our situation:

18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.

The seed of God’s word can impart truth and authentic life. As it enlightens and enlivens us we become “fruitful,” that is to say, we begin to live the life we were meant to live and become what we were meant to be. But if we focus on “this life” we will grow anxious about what might harm us. We are deceived into a false sense of security by wealth. We are driven by our animal passions to seek immediate pleasure and by our human passions toward envy, jealously, anger, and hatred. With our minds full of other things, we can’t think about the life that exists in God.

And of course we must listen to John when he urges us:

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

“Love” in this text does not mean “unselfish self-giving to another.” It means desire for something as if it were the source of life and joy. When we seek our true lives in the world, we lose them completely. The world is driven by the irrational desire for pleasure, unbridled curiosity, and overweening pride, which is a feeling of self-generated, comparative worth based on falsehood.

Let’s now ask an even deeper question: What would it mean to live your own life? Where does one find the script for the real world? How do we get out of the fictional story-world into light of reality?

Popular culture recognizes to some degree the problem I’ve been describing. Its solution sounds simple: write your own script, cast yourself in the role of your choice, in defiance, live your own life! The problem with this advice is that it is but one more subtle and deceptive way the world’s demons colonize our minds. From where do you get the storyline for your script, and on what basis do you choose your role? How can you live you own life, if you don’t know in what your own life consists? The “do your own thing” approach to life always ends up living according to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” These things may feel like our true selves because they move us from within and are always with us, but this too is a deception. And when we live according to these feelings we are doing what everyone else is doing! The differences are superficial.

But Jesus said,

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

If you want to live your own life and not be colonized by the world and driven by irrational passions toward death and unhappiness, you must live according to truth. Authentic living is not about merely existing as a thing or in our automatic animal processes. It’s about acting to achieve goals, about becoming in actuality what we are potentially, and about embracing and enjoying good things. It’s about freedom. But apart from the truth about what goals are worth achieving, what we are meant to become, and what things are truly good, we cannot truly live. Apart from truth, freedom is an illusion.

Jesus is the truth, the truth about God and the truth about human life. We usually think of truth as a quality of an assertion; it is the perfect fit between how the assertion describes reality and reality itself. Jesus is the truth because he is the reality of God manifested in the reality of a human life. He is the truth not merely in the words of an assertion but in the reality of a life, and for that reason he is also the way to the Father.

If you want to live your own life, stop imitating others and give up attempting to write your own life script. Follow in the way of Jesus, let yourself be guided by the truth who is Jesus, and you will find yourself living your own life. Only the God the Creator knows the goal of human life, only God knows the way life must be lived, and only God can give us a life that is truly ours. And only in Jesus can we begin to live that life as our own free act.

 

Has Your Church Forgotten Something?

I have been deeply involved in the life of church since I was a child. The church taught me about Jesus and formed me as a Christian and as a person. I love her and I can’t imagine my life without her. Early in my life I felt a call to serve in the ministry or, as I would have articulated then, “to become a preacher.” And after some hesitancy in my teen years I decided to take that step. I studied Bible and theology in college and graduate school, receiving my Master of Theology degree. I spent approximately ten years in campus ministry, youth ministry and preaching ministry. After receiving my Ph.D. in religious studies I began teaching at the university level. That was nearly 28 years ago. For much of that time I served as an elder in a local church. Last summer, after 22 years as an elder, I ended my career in this role. I informed my beloved congregation that I could no longer do what contemporary elders are required to do and make the decisions they must make. For the first time in a long time I am a regular church member.

I want to share with you today a perspective that has gradually been crystalizing in my mind over many years. I have come to believe that many of the challenges that consume the energy of contemporary churches arise because they have redefined the nature and work of the church to include many things almost wholly unrelated to the essence and original purpose of the church. The New Testament church was a family, but we’ve transformed it into a bureaucracy. The early church’s ministers were traveling missionaries or respected local leaders, but we’ve turned them into religious experts and middle class professionals. The first churches met in homes around a table, but we met in a hall in facing a theater stage.

Think of how much energy and money churches spend and how many legal and political entanglements they bring on themselves by involving themselves in following unnecessary things: owning and managing property, hiring and managing professional clergy and staff, acquiring and servicing nonprofit tax status, organizing and funding worship bands, singers and worship ministers, and buying, maintaining and operating expensive sound and video systems. And consider how many unnecessary and inefficient programs must be staffed with overworked volunteers and paid staff. Think of how much envy, resentment and showiness having a stage with spotlights and microphones as the focal point of the service evokes.

Ask yourself why people attend church and on what basis do they choose a church. Do they attend church to be reminded of who they are in Christ, to participate in the Lord’s Supper with their brothers and sisters in Christ, to hear the Scriptures read, to encourage and be encouraged to live lives worthy of the gospel? These are the essential and original reasons. Or, do people attend a church event because of the music, the speaker or the wide array of services provided for children, teens, singles and other affinity groups?

I am not a reformer. I am not an iconoclast. I simply want to spend my energy on things that really matter.  And I wish that more churches would do the same.

Politics, Sports, Entertainment, and Other False Religions

In this fourth installment of our series on “Love not the World” (1 John 2:15-17), I want to ask what John means by “loving the world” as opposed to loving the Father. In an earlier post, we saw that the “world” is the order of things prioritized to satisfy our self-centered desire for physical pleasure, possessions, and honor. John urges, “Don’t love this order, this kosmos.” “Don’t order your loves in this way.” As we see clearly, the organizing principle of “the world” is unenlightened love of the self, shaped and moved by our immediately felt physical desires and our psychological need for social acceptance—all informed and directed by the dominant culture in which we live.

In worldly society everyone desires, sells, promotes, seeks, and admires, physical pleasure, possessions, and honor above all other things. This way of thinking dominated the society and culture of John’s day. And it dominates ours also. Indeed, the “world,” as an order determined by the three perverted loves, manifests itself in every actual social and political order, in every human institution.

Politics, my friends, concerns the order of this world, and it arranges things to promote the realization of some vision of the good life within this world. And given the values of most people, politics invariably concerns competing visions of how to secure money, safety, possessions, pleasure, and honor. Do not love politics. Don’t become angry, anxious, or obsessed with it. Do not love the world in any of its manifestations. Do not love your sports team or famous people. Love the Father.

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).

John tells us not to “love” the world, either as a way of ordering our lives or as an actual social and political order. He uses the verb form of a Greek word familiar to many church-going people, agape. We should reserve our love for God. God loves us and sent his Son to save us from sin and death. The world does not love us. It cannot save us from sin and death, because the world itself is dominated by sin and death. We love God by returning our praise, thanks, and honor to him for what he has done for us. In loving God, we seek him as our highest good, treating all other goods as means to our ultimate goal of eternal life with God. God is the measure of all things. Nothing else really matters.

We love the world when we treat experiencing physical pleasure as the goal of our lives. Loving the world involves letting our desire for beautiful, convenient, and comfortable things eclipse our desire for God and the things of God. When we seek approval, praise, and honor from other people and do not strive to please God above all others, we have succumbed to the love of the world. Physical pleasure, cars, houses, and lands, and a good reputation are not evil in themselves. They can be means through which we can serve and praise God. The joy we experience in them can turn our hearts to God in thanksgiving. But if we seek them as if they could give us true joy apart from their function of pointing us to God, if we worship them, if we forsake the higher goods for the lower, then these things will turn to dust in our hands. There is only one God. Apart from God, there is only death.

It’s time for some self-examination. Do you love the world? Do I love the world? Let’s ask ourselves some questions:

 

How often do you think of God and pray?

 

When you pray, for what do you ask?

 

How much time do you spend trying to shape other people’s opinion of you? And how much does it bother you when you get less respect or recognition than you think you deserve?

 

How much of your attention is given to planning and experiencing pleasures of all kinds?

 

If you were responding to a survey that asked you rank the top five things you desired most, what would top your list? Second? Third?

 

How much effort do you give to exercising your spirit, in self-examination and confession?

 

What do you think about when you take a walk by yourself?

 

What are the highest priorities of your two best friends?

 

Would you prefer to look good or be good? Does your answer match the effort you put into each?

 

Whom do you most admire?

 

Is the “love of the Father” the organizing and animating force of your life?

In researching for a book I am writing, I’ve come upon some of Plato’s ethical thoughts. In the following quote from his dialogue Theaeteus, Plato sounds a lot like John in 1 John 2:15-17. Considering the high calling we receive from Jesus Christ, we ought at least to aim as high as Plato, who did not know the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, bids us aim:

But it is not possible, Theodorus, that evil should be destroyed—for there must always be something opposed to the good; nor is it possible that it should have its seat in heaven. But it must inevitably haunt human life, and prowl about this earth. That is why a man should make all haste to escape from earth to heaven; and escape means becoming as like God as possible; and a man becomes like God when he becomes just and pure, with understanding. But it is not at all an easy matter, my good friend, to persuade men that it is not for the reasons commonly alleged that one should try to escape from wickedness and pursue virtue. It is not in order to avoid a bad reputation and obtain a good one that virtue should be practiced and not vice; that, it seems to me, is only what men call ‘old wives’ talk’. Let us try to put the truth in this way. In God there is no sort of wrong whatsoever; he is supremely just, and the thing most like him is the man who has become as just as it lies in human nature to be…

My friend, there are two patterns set up in reality. One is divine and supremely happy; the other has nothing of God in it, and is the pattern of the deepest unhappiness. This truth the evildoer does not see; blinded by folly and utter lack of understanding, he fails to perceive that the effect of his unjust practices is to make him grow more and more like the one, and less and less like the other. For this he pays the penalty of living the life that corresponds to the pattern he is coming to resemble (Plato, Theaeteus, trans. M. J. Levett, rev. Myles Burnyeat in The Complete Works of Plato, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hacket, 1997), p. 195).

WE HAVE MET THE WORLD, AND IT IS US

As I announced a few days ago, my theme for this year is “love not the world.” The first thing we need to do is get clear on what John, in 1 John 2:15-17, means by the “world.”

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

The first mistake to correct is the notion that “the world” is a sphere outside and in contrast to us. The world is not a group of really bad sinners: murders, swindlers, thieves, and fornicators. Indeed “the world” does not refer to any particular group of people or institutions. The world is a way of thinking, desiring, feeling, and acting that finds its origin in the heart of every man, woman, and child. And in you and me!

The “world” is sin in its organizing mode. Or, to put it another way, it is the way our lives become ordered when we let sin work out its logic. The Greek word translated world is kosmos, which emphasizes the orderliness of the whole universe or any other sphere to which it is applied. John asks us not to love the order (the kosmos) that is organized by the three perverted loves: lust, lust of the eye (or greed) and pride. These loves find their origin in the sinful and self-centered human heart. Everyone desires pleasure, possessions, and honor. And when these desires become the force that organizes our thoughts, desires, feelings, and deeds, we have become guilty of loving the world. Hence “the world” is a way of loving, ordering, and prioritizing our lives that fails to make God the determinative ordering force. It orders the created world as if it were the best and highest of all things possible. It excludes God from its list of priorities. God, who is highest good and should be the ordering principle of our world, is replaced by our own private lusts.

The alternative John envisions is making the Father the ordering principle of our lives. We organize our thoughts, feelings, desires, and deeds so that they serve the highest and best possible thing, which is God. God is to be desired and honored and worshiped above all things. Everything else in creation must serve this end, that is, to know, please, and honor the Father. Our love of the Father orders and unifies and beautifies our lives. The “order” of the world is really disorder and chaos, because lust, greed, and pride pull us in different directions and cause dissension and war among those dominate by them.

The way of the world and its perverted order is ever ready to assert its re-organizing force in our lives. The moment we lose sight of the glory, goodness, and love of the Father, the perverted kosmos again asserts its control over our lives. Hence John urges us not to love the “world” but to keep our highest love for God alone.

Theme for Year Four: “Love Not the World”

My theme for year four of ifaqtheology will be “Love Not the World.” Christians always face challenges from without and temptations from within. But the ever-changing form of those challenges makes them even more dangerous. We seem always to be one step behind, fighting the last battle, bursting through open doors, reacting to past abuses, and correcting yesterday’s errors. In this series, I want to help us discern and examine the challenges to Christian faith and practice that we face today and are likely to face in the near future. The theme text for this year is 1 John 2:-15-17

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

This text is raises so many questions we need to address and is overflowing with implications for the way we live in relation to the world. What is the “world”? Does it mean the created world or the human world, that is, human culture? Or, does it mean the usual “way of the world” dominated by the devil, sin, and corruption? What does it mean to “love the world”? Surely, John is not condemning loving the people of the world, because the Gospel of John proclaims, “For God so loved the world that he gave…his Son… (John 3:16). What would it mean to love the “way of the world”? And what are the two lusts and the pride of which he speaks? Do these three misdirected loves cover everything it means to “love the world”?

In what ways and for what reasons do the love of the world and the love of the Father exclude each other? And what does it mean to love the Father in contrast to loving the world? John gives us two reasons not to love the world. (1) Its loves do not originate with the Father, and (2) they “pass away.” What happens to the one who loves only things that die and cease to be?

But what does it mean to love the world today, in our setting? In what ways does the culture we live in conform to the “world” John speaks about? How do the three misdirected loves take shape in our society? And in what forms to they pose the greatest threat to our practice of the Christian faith? How would purifying our loves from the three worldly loves and focusing our love on the Father, change our lives? How would it change the way we work, play, and relate to others? How would it change the way the church organizes and conducts its corporate life? How would it change the way we educate our children, spend our money, and relate to the political order? How would it affect our hopes and values?

I look forward to addressing these questions during the next year.