In his first epistle the apostle John gives us the familiar command, “Do not love the world or anything in the world”. But what exactly does it mean to “not love the world”?
Some Christians have taken it to mean that we ought to shun earthly delights and goods and focus our lives on heaven above instead. They do their best to not participate in culture and remain separate from the heathen world.
But is that what John, and through him, the Holy Spirit, intends for us to take away from the command to “not love the world.” Does it mean that we as Christians cannot participate in the traditions and celebrations of the world around us? Does it mean we cannot enjoy watching our favorite team; or taking a beach vacation; or eating a juicy steak?
As always, we must let the context of John’s writing define what he intends to say. Let’s examine both “love” and ‘world”.
First of all, when John speaks of love he has in mind things like obedience (2:5), allegiance (1:6), righteousness (3:10), belief (2:20) and sacrifice(4:9). To love God is to believe the testimony he has given us in Jesus Christ. To love God is to commit oneself to walking in God’s light. To love God means to abstain from evil and do what is right. To love God is to lay down one’s own life in service of others.
Secondly, when John speaks of the world he has in mind things like sinful desires, lust, pride, and darkness. Immediately following his command not to love the world, John explains further:
For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world.1 John 2:16
Elsewhere in his letter, John links the idea of the world with darkness and the works of the devil. The world is Satan’s realm where sin and filth and unrighteousness abound.
Yet, people are attracted to the world, not because it is a lovely place, but because it is a place where we get to do what we want: sin. The world is a place where we don’t have change; where we don’t have to do the hard work of repentance and pursuing holiness. And John is warning us not to fall prey to that temptation.
To love the world then, is to buy into the false promises the world offers; to live life in the shadows of evil, to give in to our sinful desires; and to put ourselves ahead of others. It means to let our desire for autonomy and sinful pleasure crowd out, and eventually snuff out, our love for God.
And so, God is not commanding us to not get enamoured with the created beauty of the world or to not take delight in the curiosity of human culture. Rather, he is instructing us not to be taken in by the allurement of the sinful way of living which promises us everything, but delivers on none of it.
What does that look like in practice? It means, for example, that the essential questions we ought to be asking are not: Is this movie produced by a Christian? Does Halloween have pagan origins? Does this music sound “worldly”?
Rather, we should be asking deeper questions such as: Does this movie promote the values of the world or those of God? Am I enjoying the sheer beauty of this music, or am I enjoying indulging in sinful pleasure? Do I love this cultural celebration because it displays the diversity of humankind, or because it doesn’t make me feel like an outsider?
Often we will not be able to easily draw lines between what is “of the world” and what belongs to “the light”. Where each individual Christian lands on a particular issue may be different, depending on how we evaluate it. However if we are asking the same fundamental question we should at least be landing in the same area.
We should also remember that we are not as discerning and wise as we would like to think. We try put one foot in the world while keeping the other firmly planted in the kingdom of God. Thinking we can get close enough to the edge of the cliff to both enjoy the view and remain safe, we slip into sin. Caution is needed. This is why John repeatedly urges us to turn from the world, from darkness, from evil, and to remain in the light.
If we claim to have fellowship with God yet walk in the darkness we lie and do not live by the truth.1 John 1:6
Do not love the world. Love God. Love one another.