I am currently reading Walter Wink's book, The Powers That Be, and it has me thinking about how we live in this world while not being ruled by it. Wink's main point is that the structures and institutions of any and all societies are part of a system of domination, what the Bible calls, "The world." And of course, the apostle John commands us to, "love not the world (cosmos), neither the things of the world..." (I John 2:15)
The first question is what does the Bible mean by the "world?" After all, our homes, our communities, and even our families are part of the world in which we live. How do we not love many of the things that are precious to us? Of course, we are assured by pastors and teachers, that those are not the things referred to by the term the "world." John was referring to the world system with its temptations and sins; what would be the equivalent to Christ's warning about "Mammon." The picture they bring to mind is the glitz of Hollywood or the wealth of Wall Street. But is this really what the word means?
Anyone who has read Wink is aware of his political orientation; he is deeply left wing. Despite his politics, his basic point is extremely important. There lies a "power" behind the institutions and structures of society that stands in opposition to God and which seeks to keep us all under its control. And yes, a large part of the world's "control" are the powerful rewards it offers to those who submit to its power. That the Powers have contolled men is undeniable, the only variable is the means they use.
And this brings me to an important related principle. The reason the world has such power over us is related to our nature. We are deeply needy. Years ago, Winkie Pratney gave a wonderful message on the four basic human needs: the need for love, the need for wisdom, the need for significance, and the need to belong. Ultimately those needs can only be fully met by God in our lives. Yet, because of sin we are alienated from God we "look for love (wisdom, etc.) in all the wrong places." The tragic stories of so many people is the result of their seeking to fulfill the deepest needs of their lives by illegitimate means.
The world stands ready to meet and even create needs. In our modern age, such a strategy is seen as the pathway to success. We, thus, "need" the latest product or service that is flashed before our eyes on a daily basis. And we are fed a set of values that justifies the consumer oriented, materistic culture in which we live. It is all, ultimately, a set-up, and that which parades as the source of happiness is really the house of pain and disappointment if we make those things the center of our lives.
To Wink's point, this domination of values and culture is the way the "Powers" rule over the peoples of the earth. It is why we must guard our hearts and keep our minds instructed by the teachings of the word of God. Proverbs 2 speaks of the pursuit of wisdom and understanding that enables discernment. Discernment is the capacity to see beyond the surface of things to be aware of the hidden dangers, both in seeing where it leads and in seeing its true colors. When it comes to the claims of the world upon our lives, all of us desperately need greater discernment.
There is a very real sense in which the world is not a nice place. It is filled with "idols," things that substitute for God and which ultimately lead us far from Him. In Deuteronomy, Moses commanded Israel to "choose life" (Deut. 30:19) and if you read the entire passage, the way they were to choose life is by choosing God, "For the Lord is your life." (Deut. 30:20) To seek life in the things the world promises is to miss life for as Jesus said, "your life does not consist in your possessions."
So how do we choose God rather than "choosing" the world? The Apostle Paul tells us that God ordained the place and habitation of men, "that they might seek for him, though He is not far from any of us." (Acts 17) In other words, we choose God by seeking him, with this caveat, diligently and persistently. With this in mind, I would encourage us all, this Christmas season, to get alone somewhere and think about the meaning and message of Christmas. Considering that God loved you so much that He gave the ultimate Christmas present: His Son, so that you would be rescued from sin and given the gift of eternal life. I can just about guarantee that in that process it will be very clear to you that God really is near. And as the song says, "The things of earth will go strangely dim..." as you commune with God. Doing this on a regular basis is one of the means by which we put the world in its place and keep our focus on God.
It would seem to me that we must keep our needs and the rewards of the world in their proper perspective. Looking at what Jesus said in Matthew 7, "For your Father knows that you need all these things..." Our first priority must be to pursue God, and allow Him to add all the other things.
Have a wonderful Christmas and a blessed New Year.