READ : James 4:1-10, 13-17
Worldliness is an old-fashioned word but an ever-present problem for Christians. James helps us understand what it is and what we should do about it.
Some years ago when I was visiting the city of Calcutta in India I went to a beautiful old church building that sits right in the heart of the city. It looked like a little piece of old England transplanted to West Bengal and in a sense it was. It was the original cathedral that was built by the English there when they first colonized that part of India, and in the vestibule was a statue of a bishop from the early nineteenth century named Reginald Heber. He was a great figure, and he's still remembered today because he wrote a number of hymns that we still sing, most famously, I guess: “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
One of the hymns that Heber wrote that we don't tend to sing anymore is a missionary hymn called “From Greenland's Icy Mountains.” That's largely dropped out of our hymnals because it does smack a little bit of cultural imperialism. But one of the truths that the good bishop articulated there is still very much relevant: “We live in a world where every prospect pleases and only man is vile.” In other words, the problem in human society, in our communities, even in our churches, is us. It's not the neighborhood. It's the neighbors who live there that make things go badly. Why is this? James helps us to understand and gives us a single word that goes a long way to explaining the troubles we find ourselves in. The word is worldliness. Here's what he says in chapter 4, verse 4: “Don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
Worldliness. You have to choose who your friends are, you know, and what James says is that you can either be friendly with the world or friendly with God, but you can't be both. For many of us, I suppose, that word worldliness seems sort of old fashioned. It conjures up images of Christians who object to makeup, movies, or dancing. But really, it describes a problem that's far deeper and more serious. Worldiness is the habit of indulging our natural taste for life without God, even life lived against God. It's surrendering ourselves to the motives and behavior of creatures who are in rebellion against their Creator. This is what theologian J. I. Packer says, how he defines it: “Worldliness means yielding to the spirit that animates fallen mankind, the spirit of self-seeking and self-indulgence without regard to God.”
And if we choose to live that way, we need to understand, says James, that we are choosing to set ourselves against God and make him our enemy instead of our friend. Moreover, this attitude or spirit of worldliness produces all sorts of disorder. Listen to what he says in the opening verses of chapter 4: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.”
These are symptoms of worldliness. They include the hurtfulness and cruelty that mar human relationships: greed, envy, covetousness, selfishness, the appetite for power, pleasure, and prominence. That's all the stuff that worldiness is made of. And the very worst is when worldliness masquerades as godliness, when our selfishness tends to dominate our prayers and we pretend it's faith. This is the case today with the so-called “prosperity” gospel. Its proponents teach the four steps to getting whatever you want from God. Here they are:
1. Recognize what it is you want: a luxury car, a lavish home, perfect health.
2. Visualize possessing it.
3. Name it, and claim it, in the name of Jesus.
4. Send forth ministering spirits to eliminate any obstacles.
According to one prominent preacher of this health and wealth gospel, “Jesus says, ‘If anybody anywhere will put these four principles into operation, they will always receive whatever they want from me and from the Father.'”
Here's another one: “This is not theory; it is fact. It is a spiritual law. It works every time it is applied correctly. It is set in motion by the words of your mouth. Everything you say will come to pass.”
Listen to what James says about this kind of prayer: “When you ask you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
So who do you think is right: the apostle or the so-called prosperity teachers of today? It's nothing but worldliness disguised as faith.
Here's another way that worldliness tends to dominate our lives. It's in the way we think, plan, and talk about the future. Listen to this famous passage from James 4, beginning at verse 13: “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.”
So James is speaking to the spirit of his age—that's also the spirit of our age—that tends to make all these plans about the future with total disregard of the sovereign God. It's all about me and my and I, what I'm going to do, how I'm going to spend my life. James is speaking to us when we say things like this: “We're going to rent for three years while we both work and save up for a down payment and then we'll buy a nice house and we'll have two kids, a boy and then a girl.” He's speaking to us when we say, “We're both going to retire at 62 and sell the house and move into a condo, and then we'll buy an Airstream and travel around the country. Eventually we'll probably end up getting a place somewhere nice and warm like on the beach down in Florida.” He's speaking to us whenever we grow careless and assume too much, whenever we stop thinking in terms of God and begin to think with a worldly mind. And what does he say? He rebukes us. Listen: “You don't even know what will happen tomorrow [James writes], let alone a year or ten years from how.”
He's reminding us of the uncertainty of life. We're just not wise enough to speak this way because we don't even know what's going to happen tomorrow, let alone do we control it. There's nothing of God in the plans of worldly people. It's all earthly goals: all the pursuit of profit, comfort, or pleasure. And it's also foolish.
Do we really think that we can shape and determine our own future, that it only depends on what we decide, and we can be whatever we want, and do whatever we please? God has a way of humbling that kind of pride with hard life-lessons.
And then James asks another question: “What is your life?” And he answers: “It's a mist, a vapor that appears in the morning.” It's like the ground fog before the sun comes up and warms the earth. Our lives on this earth are as fragile and impermanent as a morning mist. That's what we are. The psalmist wrote: “For he knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass. As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it and it is gone, and the place thereof shall know it no more” (Ps. 103:14).
So what's called for? How do you combat the worldly attitude? How do you fight against worldliness that tends to creep into our thinking, our actions, and our plans? It starts with cultivating the right attitude. We need humility. James says in verse 6 that God gives us grace, and then he quotes the Scriptures from Proverbs: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
So we need to learn humility in our thinking and our planning. One of the ways to do that is to acknowledge that God is in control. There's this beautiful section where James says in verse 15 that we should say, “If it's the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.”
When I was a boy, in the bulletin of our church there would often be announcements about what was going to happen in the coming week, and they would end with the letters “DV.” “The Womens' Missionary Society will meet on Tuesday evening, DV.” Those letters stood for Deo volente, “God willing.” We smile at that now, but really, it's not such a bad practice. Not that we always have to say it, but we should always think it.
Whatever plans we make for ourselves, for our families, for our church, for our job, our career, always are conditional. They always have at least the unspoken addendum, “If the Lord wills.” We humble ourselves before him by acknowledging his sovereignty, his control. God is in charge, not me. God's job is to rule. My job is to trust him. God decides; I agree. God leads; I follow. That's how faith lives. Sure! Plan – by all means. We can and should plan, and hope, and dream. We're not given license for carelessness or laziness. But don't plan presumptuously. Make every plan with a “DV” attached to it.
Next, James gives us some things to do. “Submit yourselves then to God,” he writes. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands. Purify your hearts. Grieve and mourn. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up.”
The way to fight worldliness is to pursue godliness. You do that first of all by submitting to him. That doesn't just mean in a vague or general sense. But when something happens that crosses your will, what do you do? How do you react when you don't get your way? Do you whine or grumble or turn bitter? Or do you say with old Eli, “It is the Lord. Let him do whatever seems good to him.” Say no to evil. Resist the devil. Don't cave in easily to sin and its temptation. Draw near to God. Seek intimacy with him.
Which way do you set your life moving every day? Toward God? Or toward someplace else? Get back to basics. Repent genuinely and from the heart. The opposite of worldliness is godliness. And here's one of those great gospel ironies that God delights in so much: If we keep ourselves low in humility, some day he will raise us high in exaltation.