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Do some word association with me. Don’t ruminate, just consider the first things that come into your head when I say the following phrase:

“We have to be in and not of the world”

Got it?  

I’ve heard that phrase all my life as I grew up in the buckle of the Bible belt. Christians are supposed to be in but not of the world. Now seriously, no one is looking. No one will know. Do you honestly know what that means? I mean could you explain it to someone who doesn’t know Christianese? Would you be able to recognize someone who was in the world but not of the world? What would their life look like? What would they not do? What would they do?

That was the question I asked to my bi-weekly Bible-study. Most of you know that I’m a philosopher and as such I’m allergic to simply parroting the phrases of my generation, even the ones that I learned in Sunday School and have the imprimatur of the industry that fills up the Christian Living section at Barnes and Noble. It’s a allergy I caught from G.K. Chesterton, Socrates, Steve Taylor and C.S. Lewis. And so I’m prone to throw these questions out in our bi-weekly gathering.  Before I get to what we came up with, I thought I would post some of the most interesting answers to this bit of Christianese that I found on the internet.

The first comes from “Got Questions”  which boldly promises that “The Bible has all the answers. We’ll find them for you.” But since I gave up sarcasm for Lent, I’ll stay away from that one. Anyway here’s a bit of what they found:

Here’s one from Bible   “In other words, God is asking all of us to walk a very fine line between being actively and properly involved “in” the world so we can reach and help other people – but at the same time making sure that we do not fall too deep and too far into the world where we then start to fall into the actual evil, depravity and corruptness of this world.”

One of the most direct and clear comes from a church in Columbus Ohio that definitely is unusual (but the seem to have their theological head on straight): 

When Jesus speaks of the world in vs 14-17, he is referring to the satanic system which is hostile to God.  The world (kosmos) in this sense is the enemy of God (see 1 Jn. 5:19).  It is designed to distract and seduce people from a love relationship with God.  How does it do this? Read 1 Jn. 2:15-17.  This system is antithetical to God, so loving it is incompatible with loving God.  Notice that “the things of the world” are not things or people, but rather values: “The lust of the flesh” refers to HEDONISM–living for the gratification of physical and sensual desires. “The lust of the eye” refers to MATERIALISM–living for the accumulation and enjoyment of material things. “The boastful pride of life” refers to EGOTISM–living for self-aggrandizement and people’s approval vs. living as a self-effacing servant for God’s approval.”

Interestingly enough my little google search pulled up a couple of other attempts to define “in and not of the world” Here’s one from Crescent Life an Sufi Islamic blog.

There is a Sufi saying, “to be in the world but not of it.” This phrase can have many meanings. The meaning depends on the situation and on your own development and capacity for understanding. To be “in the world but not of it” is a matter of orientation. . . When a baby is born, it is pretty much all essence, or pure being. Its essence is not, of course, the same as the essence of a developed or realized adult.

And one other:
Sounds pretty innocuous but its from the Enneagram Institute which is about as new age as you can get.

All of this to say, we really should get as clear on this one as we can.

As the pastor from Ohio points out, the phrase “be in and not of the world,” at least for Christians, comes mostly from the prayer of Jesus in John 17:16 ff.

They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, also have sent them into the world.

Two things strike me about this passage. The present tense of the prayer. The subject of Jesus’ prayer are already not of the world even as Jesus is not of the world. This seems to refer to something that believers already have because of/as a result of what Jesus did. This passage is stating a fact about those who are Jesus’ through the sacrifice he makes. It also states a fact about being sent into the world. If we don’t make a distinction between the subject of Jesus’ prayer and the Apostles, then you and I are also all sent into the world. (If we did make the distinction there would be a serious hermeneutical problem since the passage would then say that only the Apostles were not of the world as Jesus is). The phrase may come from this passage but this passage doesn’t seem to explain how Christians might err and be “of the world” in the way Christians often intepret it. 

So we should look for other passages to support the “in and not of” idea. The pastor above mentions 1 John 2:15 ff.

Do not love the world nor 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 lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.

Which brings me back to our little bi-weekly Bible Study. This was the passage we were studying. One of my friends, Ellen, asked a question so interesting that I was momentarily taken aback. Ellen asked why John says, “Do not love the world NOR the things of the world.” That was an astute observation. We talked about what might be the difference between loving the world and the things of the world. Is there a difference? It would seem there is because John continues to emphasize that the world is passing away AND its lusts. We pick up on the lusts of the flesh, the eyes, and the pride of life all the time, but what is the difference between loving those things and loving the cosmos (World) itself?  Could it have something to do with the previous context of 1 John which contrasts light and darkness? He also mentions the darkness is passing away just like the world is passing away (same word in Greek).

But here’s something else.  When we talk of being in but not of, usually the “of the world” gets equated vices. As the pastor above equates the lust of the flesh with “hedonism” and the eyes as “materialism” and the pride of life etc. But it seems to me that loving the world is more than being a hedonist or a materialist or prideful. We focus on the vices without getting to the devotion to the world which is passing away.  It can’t be that being in and not of the world is just a mandate to be virtuous.

Lots of non-Christians are not hedonists, materialists, or prideful. That might even fit the description of the Dalai Lama. So the heart of the question is what is the difference between the person who loves the world which is passing away and the person who does the will of God and lasts forever (Gr. “into the age”)?  What is it about God living that is different than anything else in the world? That even good, virtuous people don’t live out?

Now that is a good question and its not rhetorical because I’m not yet ready to give an answer on that. I’ll leave it to you readers to give me your thoughts. My goal for this post was to get us thinking and sometimes the best way to think about something is to think about what it is not.

I will say this in closing. If loving the world is the opposite of doing the will of God, then our discussions about being in and not of the world better go deeper than divisions about worship styles, body art, and rock music.

I beg you to correct me, admonish me, and encourage me as I try to work out an answer my non-Christian friends can understand and one I could use with the Sufi or the New Agers.

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