Tag 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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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.

On Being Worldly in a Secular Age (Part Two)

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.”