March 31, 2011
Recently I was struck by a scripture verse that I had first studied decades ago: “Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4, NASB). What startled me most was the idea of apparently Christian people (2:1) becoming God’s enemies. I especially focused on what it means to be a friend of the world, since it is this condition that leads to the awful reality of being God’s enemy.
I hadn’t thought about “the world” in quite some time, at least not in the sense of this scripture and the worldly attitudes and actions it condemns. While I am often aware that “this world is not my home” (as the song goes) and that, as Christians, our citizenship is in heaven, I am reluctant to spell out specific identifiers of “the world” that Christians are commanded not to love (1 John 2:15).
Part of my hesitancy to write or speak about the world comes from my early years as a believer. I put my trust in Christ as my Savoir and Lord at the age of 19, and was profoundly changed as to my views of God, forgiveness, church, my purpose for living, and the condition of those who do not know Christ.
Lifestyle changes were part of my conversion experience also. In the small, independent church I started attending after I began my new life, I heard much preaching and cautioning against the world and worldliness. I soon learned that some of the things I was expected to avoid included drinking, dancing, swearing, smoking, attending movies, playing cards, bowling (because alcohol was often sold at the bowling alleys), popular music, “mixed bathing” (guys and girls swimming together), and all inappropriate dress. As a new believer I accepted most of these prohibitions without much thought because I was reveling in Bible study and in the enjoyment of my new-found freedom in Christ.
To use the word “freedom” might sound contradictory in view of the numerous restrictions above, but I was basking in my glorious release from guilt, shame and especially from the fear of eternal condemnation. I still feel the freshness and life-giving essence of these freedoms every day I live. While it is no longer easy for me to walk with a spring in my step because of health issues, in my soul I run and skip daily with the Creator of the Universe, who is also my Redeemer, Friend and sovereign Lord.
In the New Testament the word “world” is usually translated from the Greek word kosmos, used 186 times in the manuscripts of the New Testament. kosmos means primarily order, arrangement, ornament, or adornment. The focus of the word is on the orderly arrangement of things. It has numerous senses (uses), such as the earth, the universe, and the human race, but the sense of kosmos for our purposes here is “the present condition of human affairs, in alienation from and opposition to God” (W. E. Vine, “An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words”). It is this understanding of kosmos that lies behind the scriptures referred to in this piece.
Even more important than a dictionary definition, however, is the context—the scripture portion leading into the text being studied, as well as the verses following, and the purpose and flow of the Bible book (and author) as a whole. The concluding section of James 3 and the opening lines of James 4 are especially important for us to see clearly what James, the brother of Jesus, is referring to in 4:4. The word “therefore” at the start of our verse provides a tight link with the preceding thoughts. Here we read of bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, and an ungodly “wisdom” that is earthly, unspiritual and even demonic. These in turn lead to “disorder and every evil thing.”
Ungodly pleasures (hedonistic desires in the Greek) are mentioned twice in 4:1-3, as is lust, quarrels, conflicts, fights, murder (in the heart), and praying with wrong motives. Those who live this way are referred to as “adulteresses,” because they are spiritually unfaithful. They are giving their love to the world rather than to Jesus Christ, whose bride they profess (or once did profess) to be. In another scripture we are told that “if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him,” and the context here describes the world as “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” (1 John 2:15-16).
It is not my purpose here to give a code of activities that I consider “worldly” Rather, I want the scriptures just given to speak (in part) on this crucial topic. Some of the “worldly” local church prohibitions I listed earlier are, to be sure, displeasing to God. But, as I said, I barely thought about such matters. I was gloriously “Free from the law, O happy condition,” as the old hymn states, and the book of Galatians teaches. I just wanted to live totally for Christ, receiving my beliefs and guidelines for living from the Bible.
I cannot help thinking, however, that I would have benefited much more than I did in my early years as a Christian if I had been taught the full biblical truth about the world and worldliness. Even though (and praise be to God) Christ is the light of the kosmos (John 1:9; 3:16; 8:12), the world is no friend of God.
Worldly people are not necessarily constituted such by the cars they drive, the labels on their clothes, or how much they pay for their hair styling. A “friend of the world,” rather, is one who is captivated by the things, the culture, the patterns, the schemes, and the jealousy, selfish ambitions and lustful cravings for money, sex and power that dominate the minds, words and actions of those who live in opposition (knowingly or not) to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
All of us must live in this world—it is the world God so loved. “As he is, so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:17). Even though there is much in this world that we can (and must) use for our benefit, and for making known the saving gospel of Christ, the awful truth remains that “friendship with the world is hostility toward God” (James 4:4). They were the rulers of this world who crucified our Lord, therefore: “Do not be surprised, brothers and sisters, if the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). There is glorious hope, however, and with this we close: “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 5:4).