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What Being ‘of the World’ Really Means

Christians love alluding to the ways other people are “of the world.” This refers to John 17:16 and 18, which says: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world …  As you sent me into the world, I have also sent them into the world.”

From what I’ve seen, Christians put certain specific behaviors in the box of being “of the world,” and feel righteous for not engaging in said behaviors. These are things like using foul language, drinking alcohol and watching R-rated movies. How convenient that Christians only have to not do a few choice behaviors rather than having to focus on real heart change and sacrificial living.

I would argue that such surface behaviors have little to do with whether someone is following Jesus or whether someone is “of the world.” What the “world” loves most is to choose whatever makes one happy over whatever would be good for other people. Basically, “the world” is the opposite of the golden rule Jesus gave us in Matthew 7:12. I can think of four main categories for this truly worldly living, into which professed Christians fall as much as nonbelievers.

Self

This is the realm of selfishness and self-centeredness. It can be seen in choosing not to think about how your words, attitudes, actions and inactions affect others, choosing not to care about other people’s lives and whether they are receiving justice, and the refusal to provide needed assistance.

Stuff

Rather than referring to the act of having things, this refers to how highly someone values having things, and what they are willing to do (or not do) in order to have what they want. This can be seen in greediness, desire for power, desire for money, controlling others, refusal to help others (which is hoarding your time and energy), self preservation and fear—which inspires the protection of what someone has or wants.

Satisfaction

This refers to the state of being self-satisfied. It can be seen in pride, haughtiness, excessive independence, the belief that you have everything figured out, the refusal to self-examine or the assumption that you understand other people’s stories.

Sloth

Like the “deadly sin,” this is laziness, which can be seen among church-goers as shallowness, falling for charisma, taking shortcuts in thought, refusing to research things that are unfamiliar, being judgmental, lack of care taken in speaking or decision-making, or failing to follow through with integrity because you assume that others will know you meant well.

Just as Jesus’ teachings were not popular among powerful people in His time, it is not popular today among people in power to suggest that CEOs take pay cuts so their employees can have healthcare or that taxes increase so people can afford educations and food.

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It is also not popular among many people to suggest that they listen to and learn from people with different perspectives from theirs, or that they care for people in need, or that they open up space within their country or state for people who are different from them, or that they weigh their words carefully and speak in service rather than in defensiveness, or that situations and people that look good on the outside are not always good on the inside.

These are things people don’t like hearing today, any more than they liked hearing them in Jesus’s day.

In the midst of that passage in John, in verse 17:17, Jesus prayed to the Father: “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” Jesus is the word, and Jesus is truth, and if we want to be like Him we need to look at what He taught and displayed and seek things that align with His words. Jesus’ teachings make clear that intention and the state of your heart matter more than how things look on the outside.

Jesus did not condemn people’s lifestyle choices, He condemned their hypocrisy and selfishness. Let’s stop acting as though refraining from a handful of “inappropriate” activities makes us Jesus-followers. What actually makes a Jesus-follower is being willing to give everything to follow wherever He leads—even outside of what seems comfortable, fair or safe.

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