As a young person, when I heard older people sermonize against worldliness I got the impression that worldliness consisted in the practice of certain vices. I won’t compile a list of those forbidden acts because your list might differ from mine. And vice lists differ from generation to generation. This variability is an indication that such lists do not get at the essence of worldliness. What, then, does the New Testament mean by worldliness? Let’s think about the classic text on the subject, 1 John 2:15-17:
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 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. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
First John speaks incessantly about love of God and others. Your true self is revealed and your life is ordered by what you love. God is the highest and best. God loved us first and best, and if we know this we will love God in return as our first and best. To love something is to value it and seek it above other things. Only if we love God best can we love other things rightly. The essence of worldliness is loving something else more than we love God. Let’s explore this thought.
John uses the standard Greek word for world. It means “the order”, the order we see with our eyes and perceive with our minds. But he puts a negative connotation on “the order”. He does not deny the beauty and goodness of creation; that’s not his point. By “the order” John means the distorted, fallen cosmic and social order that opposes God and God’s arriving kingdom. And how is the world ordered? By the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye and the pride of life! Lust is distorted love. It seeks gratification in physical stimulation without moderation or order. It refuses guidance from moral law, the law of love or leading of the Spirit.
What does John mean by the “lust of the eye”? Perhaps something like the following: The flesh can take in only so much. You can’t eat all the time or enjoy erotic pleasures continuously. There is a limit to how much you can stimulate your skin with finery or your nostrils with perfumes. But the eyes! The eyes can survey the whole universe and take in unlimited sights. They can look with envy, lust or morbid curiosity on an infinite number and variety of things. The lustful eye serves the insatiable imagination wherein the fleshly mind can enjoy what the fleshly body cannot embrace. Still, the lustful eye does not see what it ought to see. It cannot see the true order of things because it is blinded by the disordered mind that controls it.
And the pride of life? It is noteworthy that John uses a Greek term that means not so much life itself as the stuff that supports life. We want some things for their utility or for the pleasure they give. But we also enjoy having “stuff” (things and money) for what it says about us to other people. We can enjoy our bodies, natural talents and acquired skills for the good we can do with them; or we can credit them to ourselves as marks of worth and inflate our egos by imagining we are better than others. The pride of life is a kind of distorted love of ourselves in which we try to base our sense of dignity and worth on our qualities, powers and possessions.
To “love the world” is to be caught up in a disordered order that seeks from creation what only the Creator can provide. It is to treat the temporal as eternal, the corruptible as never dying and the creature as the Creator. Self-evidently, to love the world is to exclude “the love of the Father”; for the world is “the (disordered) order” precisely because it does not love the Father first and best.
It is unlikely that the worldly person John has in mind could be classified as “secular” in the modern sense, that is, someone who has “ceased to feel religious feelings and ask religious questions.” People can be worldly even though they are religious; they simply love the world more than they love God. They relate to God only when there is a worldly advantage in doing so. But one cannot be secular without being worldly. For someone who “feels no religious feelings and ask no religious questions,” the world with its lusts and pride is all there is. Since we are not God and do not possess within ourselves the means of life and happiness, we will seek, love and worship something outside of ourselves. Apart from its Creator, creation is just “the world”. Hence, when our love and worship are directed to “the world” apart from the Father, they degenerate into “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”