Updated: Feb 27, 2020
I LOVE this world, in the kind of way that I believe the Bible tells us to love the world. I love the intricate biosystems of the human body, and the remarkable ecosystems and varied lifeforms that all contribute to our planet. This ordered life is the thing the Bible calls COSMOS, for that is exactly the Greek word for “world”. Sunsets. Laughter. Human touch. Sleep. Food and drink. The glory and mystery of each human face. Snow. The arrival of birds in the spring. Summers thick with life and ripening. Fall colors. Snow again. So it goes.
I LOVE the world and the God who made it, and lets us enjoy it.
So I was a bit taken aback yesterday when, at the end of teaching a delightful group of college students for about six hours, one student asked me this: “James 4:4 says, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” He then asked me how we could be involved in culture, or enjoy the world God has made in light of this severe observation. “Adultery!!” That’s God’s assessment of those who are ‘friends with the world’ I didn’t tell him that another verse came to my mind as well, which is I John 2:15, which reads, ”Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in them”. Wow!
He waited for my answer, and though class was already dismissed, nobody had left because I think it was a good, thoughtful, question. Everyone was gathered around, standing, eagerly waiting for some kind of answer to this question which, apparently was quite important to them. It was a good question because of its honesty, but also because the wrong answer to this question has led Christians to everything ranging from disdain for culture, to fear of, and withdrawal from, culture – and creation, all in the name of following the Bible’s teaching to “love not the world”
The answer to question begins with understanding the meaning of the word “world” in the Greek language.
The word Cosmos essentially means an arrangement, order, or constitution. The universe, called the cosmos in Greek and English both, is ordered brilliantly, providing the precise conditions so that life on earth can flourish. God loves the cosmos, the ordered system(s) created by God, because they are the way the universe ought to be. It’s broken of course, because of a rebellion, and as a result, God intervened. “God so loved the world that God gave God’s son…”, not just to get people a destiny of heaven, but in order to bring the cosmos back into alignment with its intended design.
If this is true, then we ought to love God’s perfect design too, which would mean marveling at sunrises, the unique intricacy of snowflakes, the atomic and chemical anomaly that is water (without it’s exact nature, life on earth wouldn’t exist). When we love the world God has made, we open the door to loving God. When science and faith, ecology and faith, beauty and faith, become antagonists, we miss our calling, as those made in God’s image, to love the world.
The antagonism comes from a misunderstanding of the “world” word as used by Greeks, because Christ followers too often apply the word to the very “cosmos” God created and loves deeply (John 3:16) Sadly, Christians taught to “not love the world” are often taught that the physical properties and pleasures of this world are off limits to believers. It’s an insidious form of gnosticism that creates antagonism between Christianity and science, sexuality, ecology, art, and much more. Those taught this way often become afraid of deep joy, good food, healthy intimacy, and things like the wellspring of emotion that comes when a herd of elk are rushing a meadow at sunrise on frosty morning in Colorado. Don’t even get them started on movies, art, or photography.
Still, the question remains. Why does James tell us that “friendship with the world is ‘enmity with God’”? Why does John say “Love not the world…” Simply put, it’s because cosmos, the word for world, which simply means, ‘an ordered system’, isn’t just used for our ecosystem and all God made. It’s used for systems this world has made, like human-trafficking, slavery, racial constructs that inflame hatred and fear, economies based on greed and corruption, and systems of systemic violence and oppression that allow us to casually watch deaths by gun violence, starvation, gang wars, and so much more and sort of surrender to it all as “just the way it is…” These world systems are also “worlds”, but their origin isn’t in the goodness of God, it’s in the sickness of humans and the power of evil.
The tragedy when Christ followers fail to understand the various meanings of “world” is twofold . First, we’ve seen they can become suspicious of the very gifts God desires to give us as signs of kindness and love. Instead, they should learn to enjoy and give thanks, like this: Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 9:7-9
The second tragedy though, is that we fail to do war with the truly evil worlds that destroying life, stealing joy, and threatening the planet. Unrestricted violence, ecological catastrophes that come from overconsumption and greed, human trafficking, the degradation of women, racism, the hyer individualism that leads to loneliness and commensurate addictions, and all the other maladies of our day — these are “the world” John has in mind when he says “love not the world”. So when I endorse violence, when I’m silent about sexual abuse or racism, when I don’t think about stewarding creation by my consumer choices, I become passively complicit with “the world” – exactly what James and John said we shouldn’t do!
That’s why we love the sunrise and curse cancer. Love the wine and curse alcoholism. Love sexuality intimacy in the boundaries of marriage and curse sex trafficking and the oppression of women. We love God’s world. We hate the destructive world made by us as fallen humans, and as Christ followers, I pray we’ll spend our lives doing battle with that world, because of the better world that’s all around us because of Christ.
Yes. Love the world God made. No. Don’t love the mess we’ve made of it. Rather, stand against those worlds in Jesus name, just like Jesus did.