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How to Relate to the World



The Bible is clear that we must forsake the world and not set our affection on it. This is evident in a number of Scriptural passages, including Mark 8:34-38 where we saw that losing your life for Jesus’ sake (v. 35) is set in contrast to gaining the whole world (v. 36). We see this reality illustrated in Hebrews 11 where we learn that Moses “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (Heb. 11:26 ESV).

However, when we say do not love the world – which we must say, because Scripture says it – we should seek to clarify the meaning because “love” and “the world” can actually mean different things in different contexts. The phrase “love the world” can bear at least three possible meanings: two of these meanings indicate important ways in which we actually should love the world, and the other meaning indicates a very important way in which we must not love the world. Let’s consider these three ways, one at a time.

When Loving the World = Delighting in God’s Good Creation

First, the phrase “love the world” can mean “delight in God’s good creation”.  Although Scripture may not use the actual words “love the world” to carry this meaning, the concept is certainly present. The psalmist contemplates the majesty of the Lord as he surveys the wonders of creation and contemplates the privileged role of humanity in God’s world (Psalm 8). Paul instructs us that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5 ESV). With gratitude to God, we ought to enjoy the gift of marriage and family (1 Timothy 4:3; 5:9-10, 14), the gift of food and drink (1 Tim. 4:3, Deut. 14:22-27), the gift of fellowship (Acts 2:46), the gift of work and livelihood (Gen. 2:15, 2 Thess. 3:6-12), and – if we would inhabit the world of Genesis, Deuteronomy, and the Psalms – the gift of flocks and herds, flowers and trees, milk and honey, sunsets and shining stars, rivers and streams, green pastures and mountain peaks, and music from trumpets and strings! It is good and right to love the world in this sense. Without turning God’s gifts into idols, we do indeed want to enjoy His gifts! God delights in the work of His hands, and so should we.   

When Loving the World = Having Compassion for Sinners

Second, the phrase “love the world” can mean “have compassion for the sinners who inhabit the world”. It is in this sense that the Bible tells us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn. 3:16-17 ESV) In this passage, the focus of God’s love is not on the wonders of the created world. Further, John 3:16-17 doesn’t indicate God’s approval of the world. Quite the contrary: “the world” is full of people who don’t know the Lord (Jn. 1:10), who reject the Lord (Jn. 1:11), who are perishing (Jn. 3:16), who love the darkness and do evil things (Jn. 3:19), and who are under God’s wrath (Jn. 3:36). When the Bible tells us that God loved this sinful and wayward world, it means that He had compassion on perishing sinners and undertook a course of action to rescue them: He sent His Son! The Father loved the world by sending His Son, and the Son loved the world by giving His life: “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn. 6:51 ESV) God demonstrates grace, mercy, and love to a sin-sick world, and so should we. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19 ESV). Paul beautifully expressed God’s love for the world by the way he lived: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some…. I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” (1 Cor. 9:22, 10:33 ESV)

In these first two instances, “love the world” carries a positive meaning. Yes, delight in God’s good creation. And yes, participate in God’s global love project to take the good news of His salvation to sinners in every nation. But “love the world” can also carry a negative meaning, and to that we now turn.

When Loving the World = Preferring the World’s Sinful Value System

While you endeavor to love the world in the same way that God loves the world, you must also endeavor to not love the world in the way that Demas loved it: “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” (2 Tim. 4:10 ESV) That wasn’t a compliment. Don’t prefer the world’s value system that you operated in before you were saved: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1-2 ESV). In the same vein, the apostle John sets the matter clearly before us:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 Jn. 2:15-17 ESV)   

What does John mean when he commands us to “not love the world or the things in the world”? He means: do not build your identity, your life, and your well-being  on the basis of worldly acquisitions and worldly attainments; do not reduce your life to physical appetites and physical pleasures; do not be driven by greed and lust which seek to pursue and obtain things that are outside of the Father’s will; do not turn your life into an ego trip that banks on status and wealth. Instead, get your heart and mindset aligned with the Father’s (1 Jn. 2:15-17); forsake sin (1 Jn. 1:5-2:2); walk in obedience (1 Jn. 2:3-6); demonstrate sacrificial love for your fellow Christians (1 Jn. 2:7-11, 3:11-18); purify yourself as you contemplate the Father’s love for you and as you look forward to Christ’s return (1 Jn. 3:1-3); and overcome the world by trusting in Jesus (1 Jn. 5:4-5).

To Love and Not to Love

My friends, let these distinctions be clear in your mind. Delight in the bounty of God’s good gifts. Demonstrate concern for those who are perishing. And run after holiness, always striving “to keep [your]self unstained from the world” (Ja. 1:27 ESV).

NOTE: Header Image/Featured Image Photo by Sorasak on Unsplash

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