How are Christians to understand their relationship to the world?
Should Christians have utterly nothing to do with the world, renounce the world, and despise the world? Or should Christians find some good in the world, seek to redeem the world, and try to transform the world? Which is it? Here’s the scoop: you will get both sorts of messages in Scripture. But many Christians only seem to see the first option, and they would have plenty of passages such as the following to appeal to:
-Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.
-James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
-James 4:4 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.
-1 John 2:15 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.
But much of this boils down to how the Bible and especially the New Testament uses the term “world”. Simply put, it is used in various senses and has a range of meanings, so we must be aware of this when reading and interpreting any particular passage that features the word. The various meanings of the term are usually determined by the surrounding context.
Sometimes it can just mean the planet that we all live on, or the universe as a whole. Sometimes it can refer to the evil system that is the result of the fall. In terms of ‘good world vs bad world,’ the bottom line is this: when we speak of the evil world system, comprising the devil and demons, principalities and powers, unregenerate mankind and their beliefs and values – all refusing to bow to the living God – then yes we are to reject that, eschew that, and have nothing to do with it.
But the world as God made it, along with all good things, be they human relationships, work, meals, the arts, culture and so on, are to be embraced and used for the glory of God. Sure, because of the fall, all these things can be misused and abused.
When it comes to things like the arts (painting, sculpture, music, poetry, literature, and so on) there can be ungodly and immoral art, and there can be godly and moral art. The answer to the dark side of culture and the arts is not to say no to all these things, but to create good and godly versions of these things.
But the discussion of the believer’s relationship to the world is much broader than just how the word “world” is to be understood. The Christian sees the bigger picture: he understands that the world as God originally created it was very good. But of course it has all been seriously marred by the fall. The question is however: is the world now a complete write-off, or is it still good, but corrupted, and able to be redeemed – at least to some extent?
This gets into bigger discussions about the cultural mandate, common grace and related matters. These themes I have penned a number of articles on in recent times. And many Christians have written about such things. Here I want to draw upon just one author and what he has said on the subject. I refer to American theology and literature professor Joe Rigney. Two of his books I want to discuss here are The Things of Earth (Crossway, 2014), and Strangely Bright (Crossway, 2020).
He of course appeals to other deep thinkers on this, especially Jonathan Edwards, C. S. Lewis and John Piper. A few of the Lewis quotes he uses are worth running with here:
“Because God created the Natural – invented it out of His love and artistry – it demands our reverence; because it is only a creature and not He, it is, from another point of view, of little account. And still more, because Nature, and especially human nature, is fallen, it must be corrected and the evil within it must be mortified. But its essence is good; correction is something quite different from Manichaean repudiation or Stoic superiority. Hence, in all true Christian asceticism, that respect for the thing rejected which, I think, we never find in pagan asceticism. Marriage is good, though not for me; wine is good, though I must not drink it; feasts are good, though today we fast.” (“Some Thoughts” in God in the Dock)
“There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.” (Mere Christianity)
“One is always fighting on at least two fronts. When one is among Pantheists one must emphasise the distinctness, and relative independence, of the creatures. Among Deists—or perhaps in Woolwich, if the laity there really think God is to be sought in the sky—one must emphasise the divine presence in my neighbour, my dog, my cabbage-patch.” (Letters to Malcolm)
In his 2014 volume Rigney says this:
Biblical self-denial embraces what C. S. Lewis calls “the blessedly two-edged character of Christianity.” Christianity is a paradoxical religion in that it is both world-affirming and world-denying. It’s world-affirming, Lewis says, because its adherents have always devoted themselves to affairs of this world; healing the sick, caring for the poor, celebrating marriage, producing works of art, literature, and philosophy. It’s world-denying because its central image is an instrument of torture and death, because it calls for fasting as much as feasting, and because it calls its practitioners to lay up treasure in heaven and not on earth. The combination of these two elements sets Christianity apart from other major religions. Christians celebrate creation because it is made by God. But Christians also treat creation, in a sense, lightly because it’s not God.
The subtitle of that book is “Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts.” So the whole issue of how the Christian should relate to culture is of course discussed here in some detail. At one point he offers some questions to help us discern how to best interact with culture in a God-honouring fashion. Let me just offer the bullet point version of these:
-Does our enjoyment of culture lead us to worship God?
-Where does our enjoyment of culture push us?
-Does our enjoyment of culture harden us like a rock?
-Do the stories you like to write/read/watch/tell reflect the stories that God likes to tell?
He goes on to say this:
In sum, culture, both the making of it and the enjoyment of it, is a tremendous gift from God, one that we ought to receive with wisdom and gladness. Like all of God’s gifts, it has the capacity to enlarge and expand our soul that we might know him better, love him more, and become more fully conformed to the image of his Son. Thus, we should be on the lookout for the true, the good, and the beautiful wherever we can find it. As Paul says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). In order to do this rightly, we must pray, as Paul did, that our love may abound in knowledge and all discernment so that we can recognize and approve what is good, better, and best and in so doing be pure and blameless until Christ returns, filled with the righteous fruit that come from Christ, all to the glory and praise of God (Phil. 1:9-11).
It is not just the Scriptural words “world” and “worldly” that need to be discussed and rightly understood, but words like “earth” and “earthly”. In his 2020 volume Rigney discusses these terms. Consider Colossians 3:2: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Says Rigney:
When Paul refers to the things on the earth, does he mean things like baseball, bacon, cheeseburgers, game nights with the family, Shakespeare, working out, Star Wars, home repairs, and church picnics on sunny spring days? Is Paul telling us that we shouldn’t seek those things at all or set our mind upon them in any sense? This is where careful reading of the passage can help. Look at the next verses. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these things the wrath of God is coming” (Col. 3:5-6).
Now, the word for “earthly” in Colossians 3:5 and the word for the “things that are on earth” in Colossians 3:2 is the same word. So in the immediate context, earthly things doesn’t mean “created things,” but instead means something like “sinful things” – sinful behaviors, desires, and activities. It is these things that we are to reject in favor of the heavenly things, the things above.
He closes his book by offering a summary of its contents:
The living God made the world so that we could know him. He reveals himself to us in creation and in Scripture, in his world and in his word. Everything in creation declares His glory. Made things make his invisible attributes visible. All of God’s gifts are invitations—they display who he is and invite us to know him and delight in him. They are the beams; he is the sun. They are the streams; he is the fountain. So our calling is simple: to enjoy God in everything and everything in God, knowing that he is greater and more satisfying than any and all of his gifts. Jesus is better. At a practical level, this means that we anchor ourselves in his word and orient ourselves in worship and then carry the divine presence with us into our daily lives. As made things that make things, we too ought to display the glory of God and invite people to know him and enjoy him. We do this by gratefully receiving all that he richly provides and by joyfully sacrificing and sharing all that we have received. Even as we receive the gifts, we deny ourselves daily and gladly spend our wealth and our time and ourselves in loving others so that they too can be supremely happy in God.
It is hoped that this handful of quotes will spur you on to get both his books and enjoy them fully. Rigney is quite right to remind us that culture matters, and that God is a giver of so many great gifts. We can glorify God just as much in enjoying one of his beautiful sunsets, or by being enraptured by Handel’s Messiah, as by sharing our faith with others or by singing worship songs in church.
It is in this sense that we are to understand the biblical story line in general, and the saying that ‘we are in the world but not of it’ in particular.