If you read through 1 John, you’ll come across a short statement that might seem a little confusing: “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15). This is the same guy who wrote that “God so loved the world that he sent his only son” (John 3:16). Is John schizophrenic, or did he forget that he had written John 3:16? What does it mean to “not love the world?”
First, let’s make clear what John is not saying. John is not saying that we should hate…
1. The created order.
Some Christians hate earthly pleasures, like nice food or comfortable clothing. Instead, they sit around dreaming of sitting on a cloud somewhere strumming a harp. But God created the world and when he looked at his creation, he said: This is good! When Jesus was here on earth, he was accused of being a “glutton” and a “drinker of fine wine,” which meant that he knew how to enjoy a good meal.
So it glorifies God when you enjoy great music or a prime cut of steak. That’s what these things were created for.
2. The economic and social structures of society.
I’ve known a lot of Christians who thought that we should avoid secular professions completely. They usually try to start “Christian” versions of business and entertainment, which while commendable, is not the point of this passage.
When I grew up this verse was often interpreted to mean you shouldn’t listen to rock music, because rock music was “worldly,” even if you put Christian words to it. I heard people say (with straight faces), “The devil owns the drum set.” After all, if you play rock music next to a flower, the flower grows away from it. Case closed.
We applied this to style, too. Christian guys were supposed to wear ties and have short hair. If a guy had long hair, it was proof of sin in his heart. Tattoos and piercings were out of the question. Christians were supposed to—quite literally—look different. But cultural style is not “worldly” in and of itself.
4. The people of the world.
Sadly, I’ve known some “Christians” who felt they were being godly when they expressed their hatred or disgust toward non-Christians. They can point to this verse all day long, but that’s clearly not an attitude that anyone who has experienced the gospel could harbor.
So what is the world that we are supposed to hate?
When John says, “Do not love the world,” he means the world as it is arrayed in rebellion against God. He defines his own meaning in the next verse: “for all that is in the world, the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but of the world” (2:16). The word translated “lust” is epithumia, which has the connotation of a desire that has taken on too much weight in your life. Lusts are cravings that control you.
So, for instance, “lusts of the flesh” take normally healthy desires for physical pleasures and wrench them out of context. You take the desire you have for sex and you raise it to the level of absolute obsession. “Without this,” lust says, “I just could not be happy.” So you disobey the laws of God to get it, no matter what the cost. Is sex the problem? No. But as a culture, we treat it as the ultimate good. And that is worldly.
How about “lusts of the eyes?” This happens when you see something good in the world that becomes so important to you that you sacrifice everything else for it. I see people do this all the time with money. They put themselves in bad financial situations, going into debt to obtain stuff that they think will satisfy. But like the lust of the flesh, this is worldly and fails to fulfill.
The “pride of life” consists in raising some aspect of your life—which is not necessarily bad—up to the level that it defines you. You can feel confident because of the number in your bank account. Or because of the number of friends you have. Or because of the talent you have. But when something other than God is your confidence for the future, you’re engaging in worldliness and giving glory to lesser things. The Hebrew word for glory (Kabod) literally means “weight.” To give something “glory” is to give it too much weight. False worship is often simply giving some lesser thing too much weight in your life.
John does not say, “Avoid these things in every way.” He says, “Don’t be consumed with these things.” Because if your life is consumed with things—even good things—then it shows that the love of the Father is not in your life. God has been displaced. God has been “outweighed” by some lesser thing in your life.
This is why John ends his book with the odd statement, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Because the essence of idolatry is when you love something more than God, depend on something more than God, obey something more than God. Like the lusts that John mentions above, it is when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing. But only God can support the weight that so many of us put into things. The tragedy of idolatry is not that we are simply disobeying, but that we are placing our ultimate trust in something that was not meant to bear that weight.