Friendship with the World: What is the Big Deal?

Friendship with the World: Whats the Big Deal?

Written by: Pete McClanathan

Preparing this article has felt like trying to clear vines and underbrush from among a forest of trees. Not that I’ve ever tried to clear a woods, but it seems similar. All around we find majestic oaks and pines of God’s truths, and we find seedlings of God’s people fighting for space to grow among the tangled and cluttered underbrush.

So we approach a subject that is fundamental to our lives and our faith. What is this thing the Bible calls “friendship with the world,” and why is it so critically important? How does it apply to us, and how does that matter?

Keeping with our goal of learning what scripture tells us on a subject, we start there. We find we don’t have far to look, and we encounter a message that is stark and unyielding.

James 4:4. “You adulterous people! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” 

This message is not unfamiliar, nor is it unique to James’ epistle. We find these words in 1 John 2:15-17: “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 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.”

Sobering words these are. If we take them seriously, as we must, we can find ourselves becoming uncomfortable. And maybe that is exactly the point.

We find in the Bible three different ideas that, in the English language, become the word “world.” One use refers to creation (God created the heavens and the earth). Another refers to the human race (God so loved the world). Neither applies to this discussion. The Bible is filled with appreciation for creation, and the character of love in its many forms, but the warnings of James 4 appear to be referring to something else.

The term “world” used in both James 4 and 1 John 2 translates the Greek word “kosmos,” which refers to “order” or “system.” James 4 declares that friendship with the world system is enmity toward God. We read 1 John 2 to warn not to love the world system, and that whoever loves the world system does not have the love of the Father in him.

So what then is this world system? Plainly stated, it is anything and everything in our existence that opposes the one true God or promotes itself as a God-substitute for our allegiance and trust. It is rooted in the rebellion of the angelic realm and the rise of the demonic world. We see it invading God’s creation as a catalyst for the fall of man (Gen. 3). It is the source of human conflict and violence (Gen. 4), the reason for God regretting His creation of man (Gen. 6), the cause of the flood (Gen. 7-8), and the arrogance of man revealed in the tower of Babel (Gen.11).

The world system resonates with the worship of man, his achievement, and his pleasure. It  cleverly creates a culture that embraces and promotes whatever may advance that worship in whatever time and place it may find itself.  Today’s culture may contain its own details, but the process is no different from prior times. Materialism is worshipped as the source of security and significance. Physical beauty, athletic ability, intellectual skills, and celebrity entertainment are the cultural beacons that seek to light the gardens of value for our lives. And we struggle mightily to nurture those gardens to harvest a sense of our own value. We plant and cultivate the things that correspond to what the culture declares valuable. And we measure our own value by how well we meet those standards in the eyes of ourselves and others.

And we quickly come to believe that disregarding or compromising God’s character in our lives is no big deal if it helps us achieve the goals we hunger for. So we become greedy and compulsive in pursuit of material gain. We trade our sexual innocence for the deceptive and shallow feelings of acceptance and security that we crave.  Our lives are infected with fears, insecurities, and doubt about ourselves and how we fit into the world. Our emotional health becomes dependent on how we believe we’re doing from day to day in the things we’re told really matter….physical beauty, accomplishments, personality, skills, possessions. All in the consuming pursuit of our personal security, purpose, and significance.

We come into conflict with those who appear to deny us what we believe we need  or deserve (James 4:1-4). A subtle and vulnerable pride creeps into our lives as we hold onto a self image that will  protect us amidst the insecure chaos of life.  We kill and covet (James 1:1-4) yet we fail to attain reliable peace of mind. We base our choices  and emotions on the things of man and the world. God becomes an afterthought, just one thing to factor into our decision making.  

The term assigned by the Bible is sin. Casual use and simplistic understanding of the word can minimize the devastation it expresses. It is nothing less than rebellion against God and His created order. The rebellion is described in Rom. 1:21-23:

“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”

Give that some thought:

Every sinful act or thought is not a mistake or poor judgment or a bad decision made in a difficult situation. Though we often employ these terms to explain or defend ourselves, in reality it is nothing less than an act of rebellion toward God. The root of rebellion consists of placing myself and my well-being at the center of my world without submission  to God’s character, His commands, or His purposes. 

If we face this fact straight on, we begin to understand what lies beneath the common measures of sin. Every vengeful act or condemning word is rooted in a belief that I do not fully trust or submit to God’s authority to judge and punish. Every disrespectful  word or violent act demonstrates that  I do not value God’s creation or His purposes. Every lie declares that I do not respect God’s essence of truth, and I do not choose to display that essence in my words and actions. Every theft cries out that I am not satisfied with what God has provided me. Every sexual sin shouts rebellion against God’s created order, against my own value and that of another, and against the intricacy and wisdom of God’s purposes.

These examples only begin to tell the story. A core sin addressed in the Bible is idolatry, the reliance on false gods, revealing an incomplete or flawed view of God.  Books and treatises have been written on this matter. And it will be the subject of our next several discussions in this blog. It is that broad and that important.

 We’ll wind up this chapter by considering a question that may bring some focus to the whole matter. Why do James and the other writers devote such focus to the struggle of friendship with the world, its appeal, and its dangers? One obvious answer is that sin is repugnant to God and dangerous to ourselves. Carry that thought a bit further and it takes us to a chilling place: wrongly worshipping things of man and of the world will poison our fellowship with God. And facing life without that fellowship to direct and support us leaves us vulnerable to a hostile and confusing world and its numerous attractive false messages and promises.

I suspect this understanding lay in part  behind the apostles’ warnings to the early church. Recall the setting. James wrote his epistle sometime in the A.D. 60’s. As with all of the epistles, the readers were first generation Christians facing persecution at the hands of the Romans, sometimes aided by the religious establishments. It was a menacing and terrifying time to be a follower of Christ. Emperor worship and deification were in full practice. Jews had been ordered expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius in A.D. 49. Imprisonment and mutilation of Christians and their families were widespread and increasing, as were confiscation and destruction of their property.

The wicked emperor Nero in A.D. 64 directed that large neighborhoods in Rome be set on fire. His purpose was to create room for his building plans, but he directed the blame at Christins, which only intensified the outcry for persecution. The Jewish temple in Jerusalem was ordered destroyed in A.D. 70 (an event which fulfilled Jesus’ own prophecy recorded in Mt. 24:1-2, and one of the intriguing focal points in discussions of end time prophecy). Persecution continued through the end of the first century and beyond.Paul was decapitated in A.D. 67. John, a founder of the church in Ephesus and later a leader in the church in Jerusalem,  lived his last years on a prison island. Prospects for a peaceful life for Christians were largely absent.

Into the midst of these dire circumstances, the authors of the epistles directed a radical message
 . . . do not love the world. In the context of the first century and its persecutions, what purpose can we find in these words? Could it be along these lines:

The world will not, cannot, provide security and meaning. But it will try. And it will offer hopes and promises that will entice us to compromise, to exchange the truth of God for the lies of the world. But they will prove false. Health, wealth, and happiness are elusive and temporary. They will fail. Every person is guaranteed to suffer, and ultimately to die. Getting out of the world alive is not an option. We can take nothing with us.The success and fulfillment that we sought, maybe even though we partially attained, will disappear and mean nothing in that day. Life is plagued with suffering and pain, and no one is exempt. Difficult times will continue, perhaps intensify.

But God has not left us helpless. There is a redeemer who has overcome the world. There is His promise of eternal life and blessing in His presence. Cling to Him as if He were your only hope. He is.

Taking an honest look at the world, and the courses of our own lives, we have to consider: Is the message any different for us today?

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