If you’ve spent any time around evangelical Christians (or are one yourself), you’ve probably heard about “the world.” The world is what lurks “out there,” just beyond the church door or the safety of your own home or school. The boundaries of “the world” are usually determined by a particular set of activities, such as drinking alcohol or listening to music not created by Christians.
If you engage in these behaviors, fellow believers may warn you that you are becoming “worldly.” This is not a compliment in the evangelical lexicon. It means that you’ve been sucked in by the lie that temporal pursuits are worthier than holy ones. The proper response to worldliness, then, is to distance yourself with a different set of behaviors—prayer, for instance, and proclaiming the Gospel—while looking forward to the time when God will rescue you from the physical world’s clutches. This response is called “holiness.”
But is this really the way Christians should interact—or, rather, not interact—with the world? Maybe, just maybe, we’ve gotten it wrong. There’s no doubt that we should love God more than we love the world—but does that mean we shouldn’t love the world at all? Somewhere along the way, our understanding of holiness and worldliness got twisted. We began to think that we must despise the earth, forsaking everything in it in order to know God.
Let’s suppose another approach. Imagine that worldliness and holiness aren’t mutually exclusive. Imagine that one could—and actually should—be both worldly and holy. In this reality, the world becomes the context in which Christians live, while holiness is the direction in which they do so. Worldliness represents where we are; holiness represents whom we serve. “The world” refers to what we’re in; holiness refers to what we’re of. In this reality, a lifestyle of “holy worldliness” is a biblical commandment.
[SET APART IN MIND, NOT BODY] In his last book My God and I, Lewis Smedes provides a solid theology for holy worldliness, starting at the dawn of time and moving through the arc of the biblical history. He breaks it down into four guiding tenets: “In the beginning, God made the world wonderfully good. Near the start, the human family brought evil into the world’s awesome goodness. In the end, God will come to fix his world and make it altogether good again. In between, his children are to go into the world and create some imperfect models of the good world to come.”
Understandably, this view is a difficult one for many Christians to grasp, let alone embrace. We’re used to believing that the physical world is of little value since it’s destined for annihilation in the end, and that we should avoid getting too cozy with anything that will be destroyed along with it. The idea that the world is fixable, that human beings can be agents of redemption, and that we ought to love the world seems scandalous by contrast. To reorient ourselves to this calling, therefore, it’s necessary to examine the concepts Christians take for granted. What do we really mean when we refer to “the world,” for instance? What did biblical writers mean by holiness? And how did Jesus live it out?
“Worldly,” of course, is etymologically associated with the term “world.” The New Testament writers use its Greek equivalent, kosmos, in a variety of ways. Often, kosmos references the literal earth—everything in God’s creation. Other times, kosmos is symbolic shorthand for the kingdom of death, as in the “spirit of this world” to which Christians should not conform (Romans 12:2). However, it’s important to note that the term is never used to condemn the created order, earthiness, or the body. Context is everything here. “The world” as created by God is not synonymous with “the world” as polluted by Satan.
Christians are called to make this distinction. Our mandate is to keep and cultivate our earthly home (Genesis 1:28), the fruit of which we call culture. The created world and its culture are the setting in which we obey or disobey God, honor or reject him, glorify or curse him. Though it has been temporarily co-opted by the Prince of Darkness, this world is our home, and we cannot escape it.
To be holy, we are often reminded, is to be set apart—in heart and mind, but not necessarily in body. Theologian Walter Wink points out that Jesus embodied a new paradigm for practicing holiness. “In contrast to the traditional view that uncleanness was contagious, Jesus touches people who have leprosy, who are unclean or sick or women, without fear of contamination,” Wink writes. “Holiness, Jesus saw, was not something to be protected; rather, it was God’s miraculous power of transformation. God’s holiness cannot be soiled; rather, it is a cleansing and healing agent. It does not need to be shut up in a temple; it is now, through Jesus’ healings and fellowship with the despised and rejected, breaking out into the world to transform it.”
Holiness is not a certain kind of activity. It doesn’t occur only in a particular place or during a particular time. It does not happen only when we pray or when we sing worship songs. Holiness is the spiritual direction in which we do all things, in any place, at any time. It is about whom we serve, and it is a choice, though being holy isn’t something we can do in our own strength. God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit not so we can avoid our fallen world but so we can navigate it with wisdom, cleansing and healing in Jesus’ name, creating (as Smedes put it) “imperfect models of the good world to come.” The Holy Spirit is the only way to be in the world without being consumed by it, because the Spirit is what allows us to tell the difference between what is of the Kingdom of God, and what is of the kingdom of death.
[Kate Bowman is Student Activities Coordinator and Ken Heffner is Student Activities Director at Calvin College, where they help students look for God in art and popular culture.]