“But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:13-19 ESV)
I woke up Wednesday morning to the news of Billy Graham’s death. While I grieved over the tremendous loss of this great evangelist and our nation’s pastor, my mind went immediately to several quotes of Dr. Graham… “My home is in heaven, I’m just traveling through this world.” and, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.” Graham’s hope was never in the things this world held or offered, but was grounded in Jesus’ words “they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” What is your hope grounded on? Not sure? Keep reading.
One of the most difficult things for a Christian to do is to be in the world but not of it. This is not entirely surprising since our nature is corrupted by sin, but believers are to be “renewed” in our thinking (see Rom. 8:1-2). This renewed thinking will help us distinguish between Godly values and worldly values, between our will and God’s will. Christ’s desire for us to be “in but not of” the world is not really about a physical versus spiritual focus to our lives, it is much deeper. We were created as physical beings in God’s image, so our true nature is not about abandoning the physical aspects of our nature but is all about not being controlled by our selfish desires or our sinful nature. Let me expand on that a bit…
The term “world” in scripture (cosmos in Greek) is used in basically three ways, 1) the physical creation itself; 2) the people who live in that physical creation; 3) and the beliefs, philosophies, desires and pursuits that make up the fallen social/religious/political structure that is under the power and authority of the Deceiver, or Satan within the physical creation. Here are a few examples to illustrate:
World/creation: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20 ESV)
World/people: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17 ESV)
World/beliefs or desires: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:15-17 ESV)
Paul sums it up this way: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2 ESV)
Jesus highlights the fact that the disciples, those standing next to him as he prays (and by implication, those of us who have followed in their footsteps), are not “of the world” and the world hates them because of it. When he says they are not of the world we can easily determine which of the three ways that word “world” is used and apply it here. He is obviously not referencing the created order or the people who constitute the created order because the disciples are clearly a part of both of those realms. But as John clearly states in the verses quoted above, we are not to “love the world” and that includes the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and the pride of life.
John specifically highlights three things we ought to abandon, the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life. Now, be honest. That’s tough to do, and we often fail at it. Let’s look at each one just a bit…
The Desires of the Flesh: This one is certainly not hard to understand, especially given our modern culture’s obsession with it. I grew up during the sixties and seventies and am very familiar with the mantra of the sexual revolution, free love. What was revolutionary back then has become quite common place today. Today’s version, Love is Love. Sexual freedom drives much of the world’s biggest conflicts with and rejection of traditional biblical beliefs and values. However, the desires of the flesh are certainly not limited to sexuality but includes gender identity and several other desires. We also see conflict with other fleshly appetites like food. We live in a culture obsessed with food and food consumption. Why else would you find entire forms of entertainment, news and commerce built on the food preparation and consumption industry.
The Desires of the Eyes: At first glance, this sinful desire can be often overlooked (pun intended). We have become obsessed with beauty and physique. Some may see this as easily bleeding over into sexual desire, but not really. It actually corrupts healthy, God-given, child bearing, marriage honoring sexuality. We see this sinful desire of the eyes in pornography, body dysmorphic syndrome, the obsession with maintaining a youthful appearance and elective plastic surgery, as well as other sinful struggles driven by what we see.
The Pride of Life: This is often seen in our desire to impress others with our possessions or achievements. Sinful pride is never really just about possessing or achieving something but is always about comparing ourselves with others. When we begin to make comparisons, we elevate ourselves above them. We consider ourselves better or more worthy of love, recognition and honor. Sinful pride never just elevates ourselves but always denigrates others.