The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

CHAPTER 2- THE WORLD

You adulterous people! Do you not 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. ~James 4:4

In the sixth century BC, the Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote his famous and influential book, “The Art of War,” describing methods of battle that have stood the test of time. Ever since, it has been the favorite of politicians, kings, businessmen, and soldiers. For a 2,500-year old book about battles, it has a surprising amount of wisdom in it—wisdom that is applicable to the most important war in the universe, the unfolding battle between God’s kingdom and Satan’s usurping domain of darkness. This is a battle played out not with armies and generals, but in the hearts of men and women either loving the light or embracing the darkness. It’s the battle in which you are engaged, whether you realize it or not. And if you are a child of God, you have been conscripted out of this world, “transferred from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son (Colossians 1:13),” to advance God’s kingdom in your heart and to the ends of the earth.

Probably the most famous quote from “The Art of War” is simple yet profound: “know thyself; know thy enemy.” Sun Tzu knew that if one was to have any success in battle, it would start with a knowledge of yourself and a knowledge of your enemies. And yet in modern times, how shallow is our understanding of our enemies! If we are to participate in the battle as God would have us do, we must start by knowing our enemies.

The first enemy that we need to know is the world itself. In James 4:4, our enemy is defined in the sharpest possible terms: “You adulterous people! Do you not 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.”

James’ words are stern, meaning to verbally shake us and get our attention. “You adulterous people!” he says—or, literally in the Greek, “Adulteress!” “You’re cheating on your heavenly Husband,” he says to his readers and to us.

That’s what’s at stake in this discussion of worldliness. Ultimately, worldliness is not about rules—“don’t do this, don’t say that, don’t go there”—but about relationship. Friendship with the world—that is, affirmation of and allegiance to the world’s way of thinking, feeling, and doing—is breaking the covenant of love between you and your Savior. James calls it spiritual adultery, running away from your heavenly Bridegroom who laid down his life for his bride. 1 John 2:15 puts it simply: “Do not love the world o the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Loving the world and loving God are mutually exclusive; pick your side.

So what is “the world” that we are commanded to not love? What does it mean to not love the world? What is friendship with the world? If James and John are right, knowing the object of those commands is one of the most urgent needs in the Christian life. A living relationship of love with our Savior is what’s at stake.

Here’s a broad definition of “the world” in Scripture: “the world” refers to fallen culture, values, and systems of thought in which God is absent. And “worldliness” means to align your thinking, feeling, and doing with that fallen culture, those values, and those systems of thought.

There’s a lot to unpack and see in that little definition, but one clarification is necessary before we dive into specifics. The Bible uses “the world” in two main ways. One follows that definition I just gave: fallen culture, values, and systems of thought. When the Bible is talking about “the world” in moral, behavioral terms, that’s what it means. But Scripture also uses “the world” to refer to the object of Jesus’ saving mission—as in, “For God so loved the world.” Obviously, John 3:16 doesn’t mean that God delights in fallen culture and and values and sends his Son to save those things. John 3:16 is talking about people. Therefore, when the Bible talks about “the world” in reference to salvation, it’s talking about the scope of what Jesus accomplished at the cross: forgiveness, mercy, and salvation purchased for people from every tribe and nation and language. It the wonderful news that no one is excluded from the proclamation of the gospel; if you a human living on planet earth, you are qualified for grace.

So don’t get confused when you see John 3:16 saying, “God so loved the world” and 1 John 2:15 saying, “Don’t love the world.” One is talking about the breathtaking scope of God’s saving grace; the other is talking about the fallen culture, values, and systems of thought that are opposed to God and in which God’s people must not take part. The latter is what this chapter is focused on.

GOD IS ABSENT

I think the best way to get a handle on how the Bible talks about worldliness is to go on a survey of a dozen or so texts. The goal of getting all these texts on worldliness out before us is to more fully understand all of God’s warnings to us, so that we can better know our enemy and resist all its temptations and deceptions. “Know thy enemy,” Suz Tzu warned us. That’s the point where every victory begins, so let’s dive in to get a firm grasp on what God’s Word teaches about this enemy. Surveying the biblical landscape, one main truth emerges: worldliness is any thing, person, thought, or activity in which God is absent.

FROM BELOW

Jesus said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.” ~John 8:23

In John 8, Jesus is debating with the Pharisees, and the basis of his criticism of them is this astonishing claim: “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.” In other words, Jesus says, “Your entire argument and identity has nothing to do with God; it arises out of your own earth-bound agenda. My identity, on the other hand, originates with God himself.”

The Pharisees’ agenda, their arguments, ways of thinking, and values had nothing to do with God. That’s what Jesus meant by, “You are from below… you are of this world.” By contrasting that with himself as being “from above… not of this world,” Jesus gives us an insight into the central nature of worldliness: worldliness is that which does not originate in God. To be “of this world” is the opposite of coming from God. That means that anything—even good things—that do not have God as their central reference point are worldly.

The implications of this are endless and nuanced. Think about it: in one sense, everything originates in God. He is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe and everything in it. The Pharisees that Jesus was talking to were created by God. The delicious pizza I will enjoy this evening is, in the words of 1 Timothy 4, “created by God to be received with thanksgiving.” Everything in the world can, by virtue of its creation by the Creator, have God as its central reference point.

But you and I both know that, even though everything has been created by God, we go through most of life and most of our interactions without him as that central reference point. Though he is the North Star by which everything in our lives is meant to be measured, we prefer to plot out our lives using the fickle compasses of our own thoughts and desires. The Pharisees, though they were created by God to bring him glory, “loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:43). Thus they betrayed their created purpose and forsook God as their originator and frame of reference. That’s why Jesus said to them, “You are from below… you are of this world.” They had abandoned the Originator and Creator, and no longer thought and acted with him at the center as the North Star guiding their thoughts and actions.

In the same way, all those good things that God created to be received with thanksgiving can all too easily lose their proper frame of reference and become things that we enjoy and desire apart from any thought of God. That pizza can become an object of gluttony, instead of an object of thanksgiving and a springboard that leads to worship. Instead of rejoicing over God’s goodness to me expressed in melted cheese and pepperoni, I will all too often “exchange the glory of the immortal God for images” (Romans 1:23), the Creator for his creation.

That’s what worldliness is: when God is no longer your central reference point and the originator of all things, you will start to prefer the creation over the Creator. You can see, then, the subtle danger all around us: everything and every person can either lead us to worship or to worldliness. It takes a constant Holy Spirit-led vigilance to guard my heart against its fleshly, rebellious tendency to make idols out of things and people that were supposed to lead me to worship the true King.

DEVOID OF THE SPIRIT

Note that this is the same way that the little book of Jude describes worldliness:

In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions. It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. ~Jude 1:18-19

Do you see how this points to the same reality that Jesus described in John 8? “The world” is any thing, person, or activity in which God is absent. The Pharisees lacked God as their frame of reference, and therefore Jesus called them “of this world.” Jude draws our attention to another group of people: scoffers—those who say in their heart, “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1)—who are “devoid of the Spirit.” Once again, the heart of the matter is that God is absent.

Note that what Psalm 14:1 says—“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no god.’”—doesn’t necessarily look like Richard Dawkins or other militant atheists. Psalm 14 describes this scoffing as an attitude of the heart, a disregarding of God. That kind of heart-level abandonment of God often works itself out as a casual, practical atheism of behavior if not necessarily of speech. That’s why these scoffers in Jude are not described as rejecting the truth or reality of God; they are described as “following their own ungodly passions.” When a person lacks God as their central reference point and highest Treasure, their heart will not remain a worship-less vacuum; their own desires will become their de facto gods. Instead of following God, they will follow their own passions. This is what Philippians 3:19 teaches: “Many walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” When you think of the phrase “enemies of the cross of Christ,” don’t just think atheists. Think of those—perhaps yourself—whose functional god is their own appetite, who do what they want simply because they want to do it, without thought of God, whose minds are set on earthly things. That’s worldliness; that’s what it means to be an enemy of God.

It is these kind of people, Jude says, who are “worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.” Just like the Pharisees in John 8, those who follow their own ungodly passions, whose minds are set on earthly things, are “worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.” God is absent from their thinking and feeling. That’s worldliness: any thing, person, or activity in which God is absent. That absence of God is the root of every other fruit of worldliness; all those ungodly passions flow from a heart devoid of the Spirit, a heart that lacks God as its central reference and highest Treasure.

FOOLISH WISDOM

One of the main fruits that the New Testament describes as flowing from this heart without God is systems of thought and “worldly wisdom” that do not have God at its center. 1 Corinthians describes this thinking without God:

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. ~1 Corinthians 1:20-21

For the wisdom of the world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” ~1 Corinthians 3:19-20

Much could be said about these two texts and the argument that Paul builds between them, but I want us to see one key thing. “The wisdom of the world”—that is, the worldviews and systems of thought native to each human culture—is futile and foolish for one primary reason: “the world did not know God through wisdom.” This is a worldly wisdom that lacks any knowledge of God. That’s why, no matter how powerful its arguments or seemingly wise and astute and insightful it is, it will ultimately prove futile and foolish.

Paul gives a specific example of this worldly wisdom: lofty philosophical Greeks who rejected the idea of a suffering Substitute who would save the world (1 Corinthians 1:23). In their God-absent way of thinking, the cross was a nonsensical absurdity (1 Corinthians 1:18). And so it is today: our modern, Western, man-centered worldview assumes that individual freedom and happiness is the highest possible value, and everything else is secondary to my pursuit of happiness. In that way of looking at the world, the idea that a holy God would crush his own Son under the weight of sin so that his glory would be upheld and sinners could be justly forgiven doesn’t make any sense; it’s unnecessary at best, and violent and sadistic at worst. The cross is still foolishness today.

That’s the result of a worldly wisdom that does not have God at its center. Think of all the ways this manifests itself in our culture today, all the ways of thinking that function as basic assumptions about life. Postmodernism, a vague man-centered spirituality, and scientific materialism combine to form the strange cultural air we breath, influencing the way we think without us even realizing it. Postmodernism says, “Whatever you believe is your truth, and it’s true for you. What I believe is true for me. Find whatever truth makes you happy, and believe it.” To get an idea of our culture’s current in-vogue spirituality, listen to Oprah or another one of society’s media gatekeepers. It is fashionable and popular to believe in a higher power that enables you to fulfill your potential and live life to the fullest. Spiritual practices like prayer and meditation are commended, as long as they help you to become a more fulfilled, balanced person. And finally, our society’s bent towards rational, scientific materialism comes in and says, “All this morality and spirituality is fine, as long as you keep it private and as long as it doesn’t affect the rest of your life. It’s good to believe in something that makes you happy. But make your real decisions based on things you can touch and feel and see.”

EMPTY DECEIT

Colossians warns against this worldly wisdom using different language to describe the same reality:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. ~Colossians 2:8-10

This worldly wisdom that promises happiness and fulfillment actually takes you captive, Paul warns. From age to age the specifics of the culture’s philosophy might change, but it always accords with “the elemental principles of the world” instead of according with Christ. Note the contrast he draws between the “empty deceit” of worldly wisdom and the fullness of biblical wisdom. Empty deceit is contrasted with Christ, in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and then Paul goes on to say that you, believer, have been filled with that fullness. The argument goes: why would you be taken in by empty ways of thinking and living when the fullness of deity has condescended to come and fill you? While Oprah and those like her promise “your best life now,” God’s Word exposes our culture’s pop spirituality as nothing more than empty deceit, the same kind of futile wisdom that 1 Corinthians says is folly in the eyes of God.

The reason that all this is so important is that the way we think directly influences the way we live. That’s why the Bible’s primary way to fight worldliness is not just with behavior modification—“Do this, don’t do that”—but with thought and desire modification: changing what we think and believe and want. Everything you do flows from what you believe about God and the world; if, down at the core of your being, you really believe that your happiness is ultimate, then it doesn’t really matter what you say you believe; your actions will ultimately flow out of that heart- and mind-set.

That’s why Paul’s famous command in Romans 12:2 is laid out the way it is:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Conformity to the world is framed in explicitly mental terms. If the opposite of conformity to the world is a renewed mind, then what does conformity to the world look like? It looks like going along unquestioningly with the current cultural assumptions, never stopping to hold them up to the clear light of God’s revelation. It looks like watching Oprah and never comparing her spirituality to the truth of God’s Word. It looks like watching tv shows and never questioning what values or worldviews are being communicated. It looks like a life never held up to the mirror of the Bible for critique. It looks like thinking apart from God.

ADULTEROUS DESIRES

As we continue to look at the biblical texts describing worldliness, you’ll notice a pattern in the argument I’ve been building. We started by unpacking John 8 and Jude 1, with the observation that worldliness is a life lived apart from God, a heart that does not have God as its central reference point. Flowing out of a heart that does not have God as its guiding North Star comes systems of thought apart from God, hollow philosophies and empty deceit that promise fulfillment but don’t deliver. These God-less philosophies will inevitably lead to the third category of worldliness: desires and cravings for worldly things. Instead of knowing and treasuring God above all things, the emptiness of a heart and mind without God create a vacuum that we try to fill with “stuff.”

James 4:1-4 makes this point clear. James connects a multitude of sins back to the worldliness at the root: we have exchanged a love relationship with God for a passionate affair with the things of the world.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and you do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not 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.

Do you see how the flesh and the world team up here? James points out that our root issue is desires; that is, fleshly, sinful, selfish desires for things. “You desire and don’t have… you covet and cannot obtain.” What our sinful hearts want is stuff, stuff to pour into the God-shaped hole inside of us. But stuff can’t fill that gap and can’t satisfy those desires, and so those unmet longings explode into sin.

But then notice what James calls all of this: friendship with the world. The natural bent of our flesh is to love the world instead of loving God. With unsatisfied hearts we look around at all the shiny trinkets in the store windows, the latest greatest electronic gizmos, the newest fashions, opportunities to be popular or praised, entertainment, things to make us comfortable, and we want them. We believe that those worldly things will make us happy. And so we pursue them, spend our money and time and attention on them, and look to them to give us joy and satisfaction.

James calls this spiritual adultery, because in turning to those things for joy and satisfaction, we are turning away from God, the fountain of living water, the only one who can truly meet our longings. So often I think I can do both—that I can crave the latest iPhone and still have a deep hunger for God; that I can sink my mind and heart into hours of television every evening and still burn with passion for Jesus. But just like Jesus, who said, “You cannot serve both God and money,” James expands on that and says, “You cannot love both God and the world.” The heart only has room for one treasure, just like my marriage vows only have room for one spouse. And just like I can’t cheat on my wife and still be a faithful husband, I cannot look to the world’s toys and treasures for satisfaction and still be a faithful follower of Jesus.

WEEDS OF WORLDLINESS

Listen to how Jesus described worldliness in his parable of the sower in Mark 4:

“They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” ~Mark 4:18-19

We live in a culture of weeds, perhaps more so than at any other time in human history. America is a Disneyland of comfort, ease, and prosperity. Literally everything around us is angling for us to bite the hook of “the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things.” All of American culture seems designed to lull us into a contented spiritual sleep of apathy, coldness, and unfruitfulness. This, of course, is Satan’s strategy (our third enemy is hard at work here, along with the flesh, to pull us away from God!); if he can’t swoop in and steal the word away from our hearts (Mark 4:15), he’ll instead try to get us to trade our seeds for his weeds. And like the story of Jack and the beanstalk, we’re enticed to trade away our inheritance for Satan’s magic beans of worldliness.

Jesus is saying the same thing here that James is saying in his epistle. You can’t flirt with the world and be faithful to your heavenly Bridegroom, James says. You can’t grow both the fruit of godliness and the weeds of worldliness, Jesus says; one will inevitably choke out the other.

IN LOVE WITH THE PRESENT WORLD

There are many other texts that illustrate the peril of flirting with the world, but none is quite as chilling to me as 2 Timothy 4:10. At the very end of his final letter, soon before his execution, Paul is giving Timothy a sad update on the state of his ministry. In verse 10, he mentions one of his fellow missionaries, Demas. Demas had travelled with Paul on his previous missionary journeys. Years before, when Paul wrote Colossians, Demas was one of the kingdom workers who sent greetings: “Luke, the beloved physician, greets you, as does Demas” (Colossians 4:14). He is listed among some of the greatest early church workers in Paul’s letter to Philemon: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, send greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.”

So needless to say, Demas was a major leader and worker for the kingdom. He travelled with Paul for years. He rubbed shoulders with giants of the faith. He preached the gospel and probably led people to Christ. That’s what makes 2 Timothy 4:10 all the sadder, and sobering:

Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.

That’s the epitaph at the end of Demas’ ministry: a deserter “in love with this present world.” We’re not sure of the specifics—was it the lure of possessions, a job offer he couldn’t refuse, perhaps a woman in Thessalonica, or maybe just choosing the easy road of comfort over the hard life of ministry? We don’t know, but one thing is clear: as enemies closed in around Paul and his ministry faltered, Demas abandoned ship. When the going got tough, Demas got going, and left. Faced with sacrifice for the sake of Christ, Demas’ true colors came out; when pressed to choose, he made his choice: he would rather have the world. He had spent his life serving Jesus, but when push came to shove, he went with what he really loved: the world.

You can see why this is so sobering, especially for someone like me. My whole life is ministry, and like Demas I have preached and taught and led people to Christ. I’ve travelled the world for the cause of Christ. I have learned from and rubbed shoulders with many incredibly godly people who have influenced me greatly.

But so did Demas. And all his ministry, all his gospel work, all his learning and all his mentors, were not enough to woo him from his real love. And the final results were catastrophic; his friendship with the world proved him, in the end, to be an enemy of God, and the weeds of worldliness choked out whatever fruit could have blossomed in his life. And the end found him having abandoned Paul, and with Paul, Paul’s God and gospel.

Now don’t get me wrong: I believe in the assurance of salvation and the perseverance of all God’s elect. If Jesus has truly ransomed and indwelt your heart, he may permit backsliding but has promised to make and keep you his forever (John 10:27-29, Romans 8:38-39). My confidence for myself is not that I will prove to be a better Christian than Demas; my ultimate hope is that almighty God has made an everlasting covenant with me, to never turn away from doing me good, and to put the fear of him in my heart so that I will never fully turn away from him (Jeremiah 32:40). But cultivating weeds of worldliness in your heart can, in the end, prove that you never actually belonged to Christ (Hebrews 3:13-14). Prolonged, unrepentant flirting with the world may betray that you never actually knew the heavenly Bridegroom and, more devastatingly, that he never knew you (Matthew 7:22-23). Demas’ profession of faith proved false despite all his work for Jesus, because at the end of the day his life proved what his lips denied: that his true love wasn’t Jesus, but the world. Oh, may God protect us from the deceitful allurement of the world!

WEED-WHACKING

So evaluate your life: to what extent have you allowed (or even encouraged) the weeds of worldliness to take root in the garden of your heart? To what extent are your desires, thoughts, and longings betraying a restless, adulterous heart that wants the world more than God? Hebrews 3:12-13 gives us urgent warrant to examine our hearts, with the help of fellow believers, and inquire to what extent worldliness has crept into our lives: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God (like Demas!). But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

Take those three phrases that Jesus used and hold them up like a mirror to your life; “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desire for other things.”

“The cares of the world;” how much of your thought life is dominated by anxiety, fretfulness, or simply absorption in activities in which God is absent? To what extent is God the North Star, the central frame of reference, in how you think about all the activities of your day? That doesn’t mean you need to read your Bible and pray eight hours a day. But what does God have to do with your grocery shopping? With your trip to the gym? With your time at the office? Those don’t have to be godless hours; the reality and presence of God can permeate all those activities and sanctify them if we will start doing the challenging work of renewing our minds, pressing the truth of God’s Word into the way we think, and filling our spare moments with prayer.

How about the next phrase, “the deceitfulness of riches?” That’s an eye-opening phrase if we’ll choose to really believe it. Nothing feels more secure than money in the bank, a good job, a firm safety net. Life insurance, health insurance, car insurance, etc. These aren’t bad things. But the moment they become our trust, our confidence, the reason we can sleep at night, they have moved from being good things to replacing our heavenly Husband. They have displaced God from the center and no longer operate in relation to him. And they will prove deceitful in the end; money will never deliver on its promises of security and happiness. And yet we keep trying and trying, thinking, “If I can just get that promotion, then I’ll be satisfied.” But like a desert mirage, the target keeps shifting, and leaves us thirsty and empty. Chasing fulfillment through riches is a surefire way to waste your life.

So examine your motives. What gives you confidence and security—a number on your bank statement, or the rock-solid promises of God? Where’s your identity—is it found in your job, or in Jesus and what he has done for you? Why do you do what you do for a living—to hoard resources for yourself and pad your lifestyle or to fund your generosity and be a blessing to others?

Finally, “the desire for other things.” How’s that for a devastating catch-all? Compare your desire for Christ—to know him more, love him more, honor him more fully, share him more enthusiastically—to your desire for other things. How does your desire for his Word compare to your desire for television? How does your desire for others to love Jesus compare to your desire for them to like you? The Psalmist said, “Earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Is that your experience? Or have you grown content to slake your soul’s thirst with the empty cisterns of this world (Jeremiah 2:13)?

GOOD NEWS FOR BAD PEOPLE

That self-examination, conducted prayerfully and with the help of believers who know you well, will probably uncover weeds you didn’t know were there, with roots growing deep in your heart. What hope is there for people like us, people who (apart from God’s persevering mercy) would quickly prove to be just like Demas, to persevere in growing holiness and not shipwreck our faith?

The good news for worldly people like us is that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He loved you at your worldly, adulterous worst. And now that he has bought you with his blood, his assurance to you is that his cross does more than just forgive you; it disarms the very enemies that would keep you from his arms. This is the glorious gospel hope that we will unpack in chapter 5 and then apply in chapter 9:

Far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. ~Galatians 6:14

NAVIGATE CHAPTERS: