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Q/A: How (Not) To Love The World

I have a question from 1 John 2.  It comes from this passage:

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you.16 For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. 17 And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever.

My question is how do we properly discern what is “of this world” and what is not?

This is a hard one to answer in writing, because your question can almost be summed up as, “What is the whole Christian life?” Ha. But I will do my best. 

The format of this passage pretty closely parallels Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount–John seems always to have Jesus’s teachings on his mind!–about seeking first the kingdom and storing up treasure in the kingdom, not earthly treasure. “And your Father in heaven will reward you.” It can be really confusing, because, on one level, it seems like Jesus and John are saying you should just disdain anything that has to do with worldly fruit. But if you did that, you couldn’t live in the world at all–not physically or psychologically. Even monks in their monasteries tend gardens and make and sell goods so they can eat and sleep with some degree of comfort…and so they can stay engaged with their hands and with the earth and with some embodied purpose. Besides that, God made the world. You’re a part of it. So disdaining “the world” cannot mean disdaining everything. When Martin Luther (who was a monk!) was asked what he’d do if he knew Jesus was coming back soon, he said, “Plant a tree.” Why? Because the kingdom of God–the new heaven and new earth–has roots in this present world. 

So I don’t take this passage to mean, “Look, you have to choose between one kind of thing (worldly) or another (heavenly).” I think it’s saying, “You’re going to do any number of things. But who are you going to do them for?” What is your primary motivation and how is that primary motivation reshaping the way you do whatever you do? “Seek first the kingdom and all these things will be added to you.” Most of the New Testament pretty much assumes that people will just keep farming their fields or selling their linens. It does not assume that all of them will become traveling missionaries and starving monks. It does assume that they will be persecuted and suffer because of their faith. It does not assume they will need to go out and find their sufferings and persecutions. So how is the Christian life different in relation to the world?

Let’s imagine a scenario. Let’s say you’re a top-notch soccer player. The way I see it, you have three options. You can do soccer as a heathen, a gnostic, or a Christian.

1. The Heathen: When you start out, you just love soccer, and you vow you’ll stay true to your first love no matter what happens. You love it because it’s a beautiful game. You love the fun, the camaraderie, the tension, the smell of the grass, the feel of the ball coming off your boot. You even love the excruciating parts, because that’s when you know you’re making real progress–mastering the beautiful game. What could be better? And yeah, there are some mixed motives. You like to win. And you don’t mind the attention you get when you do. Other people like to watch you play and cheer you on. In fact, there’s a really cute girl who keeps showing up. And scouts. And a camera crew, etc. So what happens over time? You start focusing more and more of your attention on how to get more and more of those kinds of pay-offs. Yeah, soccer’s okay. But look what soccer can get you. Way more than soccer. Glory. Sex. Power. Money. The B- plot to every sports movie. Oh no, who have you become? And what did you even do wrong? Nothing really, at least not at the beginning. You just thought you could put soccer first, and it would stay pure. You should have listened to Jesus. Seek first the kingdom of heaven, and everything else will be added to you. Seek first anything else, and everything will become hell to you, even the beautiful game.

2. The Gnostic: You start out the same as the heathen. You just love soccer, bla, bla, bla. But then the scouts, the cameras, the cute girls…oh no. You’re not supposed to love anything that is of this world. Not at all. Why were you even playing soccer in the first place? You knew it would come to this–what with all the fun, the camaraderie, the tension, the smell of the grass, the feel of the ball coming off your boot? You idiot. It was all worldly from the beginning. You have to get out of this mess right now. You quit soccer and become a traveling missionary or a starving monk.

3. The Christian: You start out the same as the heathen and the gnostic. You love soccer, blah, blah, blah. But you know from the beginning why soccer is so good. It connects you to the earth. It connects you to your body. It connects you to other people. It connects you to a goal. You know these are all good things, because they’re part of the natural world God made you to live in. All these things would have been true in the Garden of Eden as well. Then come the temptations–scouts, cameras, cute girls. But you see them as what they are: not as added benefits, but as potential fruit or potential temptation. You remind yourself that soccer was never your end-goal. You are a Christian, so you look at the changing landscape of your soccer career through the lens of the kingdom of God, not through the lens of those worldly benefits. You do not see the benefits themselves as either good or evil. You know that they could be good, just as the smell of the grass is good. But you know that they will be evil if you make them your end goal. In fact, if you make them your end goal, it is likely you will end up hating even the smell of the grass. No man can serve two masters. He will hate the one and love the other. Is it possible to seek first the kingdom and become a professional soccer player? Of course it is. It’s a beautiful game. For someone. Whether it is possible for you will depend on a number of factors: can you love God and seek first his kingdom in the midst of such potential benefits and temptations? Do you find that you love God more and are becoming more who He made you to be–producing more of the fruit of the Spirit–the more you play soccer? These are the types of questions you ask yourself…and keep asking yourself, because you are a Christian. It is forbidden for you to love the world. Even to love soccer. Unless, of course, you seek first the kingdom. Then you are granted to love all kinds of things, including soccer. You might even marry the cute girl. And you’ll thank God for her, not soccer. And thank God for soccer too, because it was the path by which you met the cute girl and perhaps even put a roof over her head.

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