Tuesday, June 29, 2010

An Old School Ramble on Worldliness

Most people in the world live in a tension between fear and pride. They are painfully aware of their own vulnerabilities and weaknesses and are driven by the world around them to create a persona that is free of these problems, one that may even be the opposite of them. These personas can take several shapes. In some cases, people parade their weaknesses as strengths, as in gang culture, or vivid counter-cultural styles of dress. Others strive each day to use socially accepted "badges" as a way of creating a stable persona: a job, a degree, a car, a dress code, all this to communicate an order and "togetherness" that is completely absent from their spiritual lives. Still others develop a "zero" status: they give nothing and they take nothing. The bare minimum is what society can demand and little else. This is just another twist on the basic pattern that all have in common: they create a barrier between the world and themselves so that they can exist with an easy view of who they are.

The tragedy of this sin, what the Bible would call "worldliness", is that it consistently destroys and separates human relationships. A pair of friends do everything together until at some point the "rhythm" they have silently agreed upon is broken and then the two separate in pain and confusion: one uncertain of what taboo has been broken, the other, self consumed, astonished that no one could comprehend or sympathize with the insecurity and pride they have caged themselves in.

Marriage is probably the most painful place where this sin shows up because all too often one spouse is incapable of unwrapping the psychological scars and selfishness that worldliness has placed in the others heart. The only three options left are either an agreed upon silence and with it, a slow emotional withdrawal; an aggressive campaign against the problem that will have an uncertain end; or (and this, I think, is the most tragic of all) a decision by the spouse to "play along" and make the problem his or her own in order to have the unity they so desperately want.

All of these options have a similar problem: they are directed against a heart set on a cycle of rejection and pride. For some, this may seem outside your realm of experience. For others it will sound all too familiar, but the truth is that worldliness is rampant everywhere. Schools and universities, in particular, are often the place where this clique mentality, this egotistical vice of Worldliness is the most widespread.

Jesus encountered it constantly and he talked about it often. Much of the Sermon on the Mount deals with these exact issues. The irony, of course, is that few of the people who suffer from worldliness and, in turn, inflict the pain of rejection on others, know that Jesus had a concrete solution to their problem.

If we look at a parable like that of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we see a poignant contrast between a man consumed by Worldliness and a man consumed by Humility which is the antithesis of Worldliness. The Pharisee in the Parable approaches God and compares himself to others in a favorable light. He uses his works to commend himself to God.

Now the first thing to notice here is that the Pharisee is not just an example of the "good citizen", the one who wears the right badges in society. All of us know that you can go to church and be a crook. That kind of Worldliness is quite well known. But very few of us look at the Pharisee and comprehend that he is also the "Zero" (the person who uses the bare minimum of engagement as an example of virtuous "honesty" and fairness) and the "Criminal" (the person who uses the symbols that society at large rejects (tattoos, nose rings, poor clothing) to commend themselves as a being more "real" than others). There are, of course, many more kinds of people who find ingenious ways to commend themselves to God and man.

Yes, Worldliness can be directed toward God also. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector proves it. Worldliness is worldly not because it is primarily directed at men, though that is how we usually think of it. A worldly man can care not one whit what the world thinks of him. Worldliness is having a character that is essentially of this world. It is perishable, sinful, corrupt, not possessing the quality of eternal life, the quality that Jesus radiated and promised to those who followed him.

Worldliness can be found in the "nice man" who never cheats on his wife, goes to his son's baseball games, and stays at the same job for forty years. Worldliness is a mindset that is not concerned with God, but is concerned with maintaining a persona, a reputation, a way of being, isolated from the uncertainties that healthy human relationships and a relationship with God can create. The great irony that all worldly people must live with on a daily basis is the fact that this idol they spend so much time maintaining is itself a lie. They know all the cracks in the edifice. They recoil if someone points them out.

My mother likes to tell a story about me. When I was younger, I liked to play imaginary games at the dinner table, even in restaurants. One day, a woman came up to my mother and told her that my games were a symptom of my feeling left out. Apparently this woman had some background in psychology. Later, when my mother told some friends at church about the incident, they recoiled and gasped and said, "Oh my goodness! Were you not offended?" For them the question was not about whether what the lady had said was true. The question was about how it reflected on my mother.

If you want a definition of Worldiness, here it is: sacrificing the good of others in order to preserve the superiority of your self. The Pharisee in the Parable would not have lifted a finger to change the world from a place full of sinners to a place full of saints. He wants the world to be inferior because it is essential to his survival. The Tax Collector is different. He has already died to the world and died to himself.

What Jesus taught is quite simple: the only way to save yourself from the cycle of Worldliness is to walk with open eyes into the fate you fear most: the total revelation of your utter spiritual bankruptcy and a willingness to receive a new identity from God. This is living in the light of the Kingdom. Now there is some haziness about what a "new identity" from God means. I have heard some speak of being "loved unconditionally" by God as having given them a worth they never knew they had. There is a great deal of truth in this insight. But at rock bottom, it misses a crucial point.

You see, value is not subjective, it is objective and God only sees what is there. He can't lie to himself. God does not look at you and I and see something other than who we are. He sees the totality of who we have been, who we are, and what we will be, of course, and it is our future transformation into complete Christ-likeness that gives us the confidence to approach Him. If our souls are unredeemed and locked in sin, either in the present or ultimately on the last day, we will experience his displeasure and his wrath. Our faith is a simple confidence that the objective spiritual reality God said came into being in the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus is true. It is real. I love the verse in 1 Corinthians 1 when Paul says that we "exist" in Jesus. What Paul meant is that any measure of existence other than existing in Christ is not really existing at all. Anything outside of Jesus is a mirage, a passing thing, and that includes all the badges of worldliness we use to cover up our own inadequacies.

Ultimately, the only way that we can relate with one another with honesty and sincerity, with love and compassion, is if we have already taken it as a given that we are poor miserable wretches who are now sons and daughters of the Creator of the universe. There is nothing we have that we have not been given, and there is nothing we have that God cannot take away. So we live in a new tension, not between our inner bankruptcy and our outward "righteousness" or "normalcy" or "un-normalcy" if you will, but between an understanding that we live by the grace of God. I use the word grace in the sense of the word "graciousness" or "gratuity". We live at the "whim" so to speak of God and we must be found faithful with the charges we have been given. Those charges and tasks have absolutely nothing to do with the status symbols we dealt with in the old days of our worldliness. Instead, they have everything to do with the death of our corrupt nature and a loving, patient, and compassionate response to a world in desperate need of the Savior.

If you are in doubt about where you stand today in relation to Jesus and Worldiness, examine your life for any evidence that you are willing to sacrifice the things that are important to you, however good the reasons... I repeat, however good the reasons, in order to do what God commanded you to do which is to love one another. Love is communicated by taking an active interest in the feelings, thoughts, and well being of others, even those we dislike or despise.

I'm about to tell you something very important, something you and I must both sear into our minds for our sake and for the sake of others who know us: God has vowed that every word we speak will be repeated to us and if we are condemned, our own words will condemn us. If we are driven by pride and arrogance, if we are driven to destroy others through a fear of rejection or a fear that we will lose control of something precious to us, we will leave a record of that sin in what we say and that record will live until the Day of Judgment to haunt us in a way we can't imagine.

There is a family we know who have adopted four children and tried to adopt a fifth, and the Russian officials who hold the keys to the futures of these orphans have in many ways sacrificed the well being of these children for their own pride and power. They will not go unpunished. God has no favorites. Every one of Jesus' parables focused on one thing: did he know you? Does he know us? If someone who you knew in childhood and who you spoke with on the telephone once in a blue moon came up to you and asked if he could live with you in your house forever, what would you say? Why would God give a response any different? Yes, he is a God of love, but he is no fool, and the seeds we sow are the seeds we will reap. Let us be wise then with how we use the opportunity God has placed in our hands. Our destiny and the destiny of all those God is counting on us to impact and save depends on it.


  1. Wow Benjamin! Thank you for posting! :D
    I like what you have to say!


  2. Great post, Benjamin. Very interesting definition of worldliness. I had never before linked worldliness with affectation, but I see that you are right. Thanks for taking the time to write down your thoughts. I'm looking forward to the blog about the parallels between modern day Christianity and turn of the age Judaism…

  3. Thanks Jessica, Camille, and Handsome Yin. I called it a ramble because I just wrote it all in about 20 minutes. :)