Is worldliness a problem for the rich or for the poor? For those with many possessions or few? For people who live in a western society or a developing country?
Worldliness – what is it?
In 1 John 2:15-16, John commands us not to love the world. He writes, ‘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.’ John isn’t talking about love for the created universe or for the people of the world, but love for things that are opposed to God or ignore God, and are under Satan’s dominion.
Jerry Bridges in his book, Respectable Sins, defines worldliness as ‘being attached to, engrossed in, or preoccupied with the things of this temporal life.’ Worldliness is when we love this world and the things in it more than we love God. We can’t do both. Loving the world and loving God are not compatible. If we are friends of the world, then we are enemies of God (Jas 4:4).
Many things in this world are definitely wrong (e.g. stealing, immorality) and God’s word identifies them as sins. But worldliness can be much more subtle. It is not primarily about what we have or how we live but about the attitude of our heart, what we live for and value most. The things we love more than God might not be wrong in themselves (e.g. shopping, money, sport), but we become worldly if we put too high a value on them. There can only be one focus for our love. What is it? Whose values do we follow?
Worldliness – where is it?
Few of us would deny that worldliness features prominently in western culture, where money, possessions and pleasure are the goal of so many people’s lives. But what about in the church? Do we look for security and joy in God alone? What is it that dominates our minds? Do we trust in our bank balances and only give what is left over to the Lord’s work, or do we seek God’s kingdom first and lay up treasure in Heaven? How much do we look to our culture for definitions of right and wrong instead of to the Bible? Do we act one way in church on Sunday and live another way for the rest of the week?
For five years now we have lived in different parts of Africa, among some of the poorest people in the world. The cultures are different in many ways but is worldliness less of a problem? Not at all! The Bible doesn’t condemn having money, rather the love of it. You just need to see how the prosperity gospel has taken off in Africa to see that people’s attitude towards what the world offers is just the same as in the west. Churches with big notice boards promising riches, prosperity and health to all who attend are packed, while those who preach the true gospel and costly discipleship are less popular.
Just as in the west, worldliness is seen in people’s ambitions – to get a better education, a better job, more money and a better life. The motivation for this can be good (provision for family, better life for children, etc.) but so often God is left on the sidelines in the search for success. It has been humbling to work with local colleagues who could have been incredibly successful elsewhere but have chosen to work sacrificially, laying aside worldliness and instead seeking God and serving Him where they are.
Another example of worldliness is the tolerance of corruption and immorality, where people accept the values and practices of society, without discerning if they are biblical. Sadly, this can creep into the church if we put cultural values above what God teaches.
Worldliness is a common problem. We would see examples of it in any culture. It is good for us to consider our particular culture and see how it might predispose us to love the world, and the things of it, more than we love God.
Worldliness – how to avoid it
Escaping from the world and hiding in a Christian clique might sound appealing and a good way to combat worldliness, but Jesus prays not that we would be taken out of the world but for God’s protection as we stay in it (John 17:15). We are to live in the world, but not conform to it (Rom. 12:2). Instead we are to live according to God’s standards and values and with a heavenly perspective. This in turn will influence our actions. So how can we change to become less worldly and more godly?
‘Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory’ (Col. 3:2-4).
It sounds simple enough but in reality, we know how challenging setting our hearts on things above actually is, let alone keeping them there!
How do we go about doing this?
- Set your minds on things above. This is an active and deliberate decision. Worldliness is something we need to fight against. It requires effort, discipline and commitment. We can keep God in first place by investing in our relationship with him through daily Bible reading and prayer, listening to preaching, corporate worship, reading good books and encouraging one another. We are not left to do it alone – we have the Holy Spirit to help us.
- Not on earthly things. This is what we will focus on unless we choose not to. We can’t just decide to be less worldly. Instead we need to focus our minds on heavenly things so that the things of this world become less important.
- For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ. Remembering that we died with Christ and therefore are not slaves to the world, the flesh or the devil any more. We have been raised with Christ to a new life and new position – children of the King. All we have because of our union with Christ is so much more than anything the world could offer.
- When Christ appears. Worldliness is short sighted. This world is temporary, finite and passing away. We can look forward to a far better place; the new heavens and new earth, where we will be forever with the Lord.
Next in this series: Worry »