Jesus tells us that God views the source of our behaviour in our hearts. As a result, God is more interested in what is in our hearts than how we behave. Our motivations, our inner thoughts, our orientation towards God – all of which come forth in our speech and behaviour – is where God’s attention is. We are urged to attend to our inner lives and orientate ourselves towards God.
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
How is it that John tells us not to love the world? Must we hate the world? Or distance ourselves from it? And from the people who live in it? These questions are made yet more challenging because John uses the Greek word agape for ‘love’, which is the kind of self-sacrificial love we use for Jesus’ love for us. How then do we make sense of this passage?
When presented with difficult passages, we should always look at the text in context. The immediate context is the letter that John is writing. And a broader context that I often find useful is the life and teaching of Christ – what we learn in the Gospels. From Jesus, we learn much of value about loving the world, for example, in John 3:16-17, Jesus says to Nicodemus:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Clearly, from this passage, God loves the world extravagantly, so much so, that he sent his Son, Christ, into the world. Not to condemn or judge the world, but rather to save it, to heal it, to reconcile it to God. Indeed, this teaching comes across in numerous places throughout the Second Testament. John, as the author of both the Gospel and the letter, cannot be meaning that we must hate the world or even not love it. His meaning must be more nuanced than that.
Let’s look at another passage, from Luke 10:25-37. Here Jesus is asked by an expert in the Law what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers with the Great Commandment – to love God and to love one’s neighbour. Because ‘neighbour’ could easily be interpreted to mean just those close to me, people who are like me, the expert rightly asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus then tells the parable of the Good Samaritan – the Samaritan is the neighbour – a person who was not part of the Jewish community or faith. In effect, Jesus says, ‘Everyone is your neighbour’. Or even, ‘The world is your neighbour’. Again, John can certainly not be implying that we love only other Christians and not love ‘the world’ – this would be against Christ’s own teachings.
When we look more closely at John’s letter, we read:
For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.
Here John gives a more nuanced explanation of what he means by ‘the world’. It is not actually the world itself or its people, but rather worldly values, which are often at odds with the values of Christ.
All too often, Christians assimilate the values of the world and turn them into pseudo-Christian values. As wise Christians, we need to be critical about what we hear and what we accept. We need to look at the values of our church, the values that our pastors/ministers/priests preach about, and how our church behaves, and critically evaluate whether they are aligned with the values and behaviour of Christ. This is John’s message.
Let me give three examples:
Materialism. The world has become increasingly materialistic, and this passion for money and things, for wealth and possessions, has come into the church in the form of prosperity teachings – that God wants you to be rich and that being rich is a sign of God’s favour. But this worldly value “comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 John 2:16). Rather, Jesus’ life was characterised by simplicity, contentment and generosity. Material things, that Christians so often chase after, will “pass away” – they are but dust.
Me first. There is a growing self-centredness in the world’s values. We see this at the individual level, but also at national levels, with the rise of nationalism (e.g., my country first) and the withdrawal of countries from regional or global collectives. But this is a worldly value, not seen in the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus’ life is characterised by other-centredness, not self-centredness and by an attitude and practice of service or servanthood. His ministry and the life of the early church was rooted in collectivism – things held in common and shared, so that everyone had enough. The self becomes one part of the Body of Christ, which is his Church, each one playing their part for the greater good.
Entitlement. Emanating from the previous two is a sense of entitlement – that I am owed and deserve everything good, and that everything bad is an unfair imposition. This intolerance for difficulty in life is a worldly value, not Christian. Instead, Jesus embodies the path of suffering. While, as God the Son, he was entitled to power and authority, he poured himself out and became nothing, taking the form of a servant. He teaches that we should not expect rewards here on earth, but rather that we should build up treasures in heaven, as those are the ones that will last, that count. And he sacrifices himself for the good of the world. There is no entitlement in the life of Christ, and no place for it in the lives of Christ’s followers.
Dear friend, let us heed John’s warning to not become entangled in the values of this world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – and in particular to not allow these values to be assimilated into Christian teaching in our church. As John says, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Let us hold firm, then, to the life pattern and teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I would like, at the end of this year, to pay tribute to the people in (I think) the Democratic Republic of the Congo who wove the Kuba cloth that has been my backdrop for all my sermons during 2020. I purchased this cloth in Zambia several years ago and have treasured it as a work of great skill among African artists. I have been pleased to have it as my backdrop this year.