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).
Today’s culture is saturated with tempting pleasures, endless luxuries, and ever-changing technology—flashy cars, jumbo plasma TVs, GPS gizmos, iPhones, iPods, cruise vacations. How do we identify and resist sinful cravings, lusts of the eye, and empty boastings? How do we pursue godliness and live in a fallen world without being conformed by it?
What does it mean for Christians—for us—to not love the world? Does it mean we can’t watch R-rated movies? Do we have to give up our favorite TV shows? Is it okay to watch a movie as long as we fast-forward the sex scene? How much violence or foul language is too much? Are certain styles of music more worldly than others? How do we know if we’re spending too much time on the internet? Can a Christian try to make a lot of money, own a second home, drive a nice car, and enjoy the luxuries of modern life without being worldly? Are we worldly if we read fashion magazines and wear trendy clothes? Do we have to be out of style in order to be godly? How can we evangelize the world if we don’t relate to it? How do we know if we’re guilty of committing the sin of worldliness?
A love for the world begins in the heart. It’s subtle, not always obvious to others, and often undetected by the people who are slowly succumbing to its lies. If we focus exclusively on externals we’ve missed the point of worldliness. Worldliness does not consist in outward behavior (although our actions can certainly be an evidence of worldliness!). The real location of worldliness is internal; it resides in our hearts.
The world we are forbidden to love is the world of arrogant, self-sufficient people seeking to exist apart from God and living in opposition to God. It gratifies and exalts oneself to the exclusion of God. The goal of worldly people is to move forward rather than upward.
What are your goals? Do they drive you forward—to financial security, more friends, successful kids, a certain position at work? Or do they drive you upward—to obeying and glorifying God above all else?
The world draws the heart away from God, and the more the love of the world prevails, the more the love of God decays. The world competes for the love of Christians and we cannot both love it and the Father at the same time. Love for the world is incompatible with love for God. “Friendship with the world is hatred toward God. Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4)
This may make us feel uncomfortable. Or perhaps we think this verse doesn’t apply to us. From all outward appearances, we’re anything but worldly—a solid member of our church, an exemplary Christian who worships on Sunday and faithfully attends a small group. We’ve never committed a scandalous sin. Maybe because of our age, or our position in the church, or our reputation for godliness, we think you’re immune to worldliness. So often we’re ignorant of the signs and symptoms of worldliness. We can attend church, sing praise songs, listen to sermons, and yet still be worldly. I know because I’ve been there.
“The cravings of sinful man . . . the lust of his eyes . . . the boasting of what he has and does” are the root issues of the sin of worldliness (1 John 2:16). John’s first phrase, “the cravings of sinful man,” is targeting our hearts. Although Christians have new hearts, our sinful nature still produces cravings that compete for God’s love and supremacy in our lives. The “cravings of sinful man” are desires that have become false gods we worship. It’s wanting too much of the things of this fallen world. These desires include obvious sins and less obvious sins as well.
John’s next phrase: “the lust of his eyes.” Please don’t limit this to sexual sin; anything we see can stimulate greed and idolatry in our souls. What are you captivated by? What do you think about most often? What images have the power to arouse your interest? If you’re more excited about the release of a new movie than about serving in church, if you’re drawn to people more because of their job title than their character, if you’re impressed by celebrities or professional athletes regardless of their integrity or morality, then you’ve been seduced by a fallen world.
John’s last phrase: “the boasting of what he has and does.” I’m certainly guilty of this sin. I find myself so tempted to take pride in my abilities and accomplishments. While some of us may be too polite to boast aloud, we may secretly revel in what we have and what we’ve done. Secretly, we think we’re significant because of our wealth and achievements, and we want others to notice.
How do you define yourself? How does your profile read? Are you known as a person after God’s heart or are you known as a person pursuing a fallen world? Do you think of yourself as “the guy with the impressive title” or “the most attractive woman in the room?” Are you the person with the Ivy-League education, fancy car, or the beautifully decorated home? Is your hobby, talent, or career the most important thing in your life? What dominates your mind and stirs your heart? Is it discontentment with life? Longings for earthly pleasures? Does outward prosperity appeal more to you than growth in godliness? Do you relate to God as if He exists to further your selfish ambitions or are you convinced that you exist to glorify Him? Do you crave the approval of those around you? Do you go to great lengths to avoid looking foolish or being rejected for your Christian faith? These are tough questions, I know; but they are necessary if you are to discover whether you’ve been infected by worldliness.
John concludes this passage by telling us, “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (v. 17). The verse is clear: the world doesn’t last; it passes away. I don’t want to waste my life pursuing things that won’t last. There’s no future in worldliness. The world is temporary and superficial; it doesn’t satisfy. The world sparkles and dazzles, but in the end it will leave you empty and dry.
I know because I’ve been there. I’ve immersed myself in the world. I’ve passionately pursued everything it had to offer. And what did I discover? The world didn’t deliver as advertised. It deceived me. What it did deliver were unadvertised consequences that I wasn’t informed of and didn’t anticipate. Through all of this, I learned the things of this world are worthless.
Every moment of every day we’re making choices—whether we realize it or not between love for a world that opposes God and love for the risen Christ. If we have succumbed to worldliness, sin does not grieve us like it once did. Passion for our Savior begins to fade. Affections grow dim. Excitement lessens to serve in the church. Eagerness to evangelize starts to wane. Growth in godliness slows to a crawl.
James tells us how to overcome worldliness: “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and He will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:7–10). Paul also provides advice on how to overcome worldliness “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is —His good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
Maybe, as you hear these words, you realize you’re drifting. You realize your affection for the things of this world is strong and your love for Christ weak. There was a time in your life when you were passionate for God, characterized by extravagant devotion and love for the Savior, but now you have fallen in love with the world. You feel trapped, entangled in the net of worldliness. Despair has already set in . . . I’ll never change. I might as well not even try. I’m beyond hope!
I will admit resisting worldliness requires effort. It’s an inside problem and serious heart-work is needed to effectively cut it out. The good news is this isn’t a battle fought by sheer willpower or teeth-gritting self-denial. We can’t overcome worldliness on our own. We’re not sufficient. A much greater strength is required.
Do you want the world to lose its appeal? The antidote to worldliness is the cross of Christ. Only through the power of Christ can we successfully resist worldliness. When we fill our hearts with love for the risen Christ, we will find there is no room for the world.
* Read more in my book: Back to the Basics: A Guide for Christian Living.