Cohabiting with the world
Friends, we have all sinned against God. We are defiled with the world. We are inundated by the world – our personal lives, our homes and our churches – are completely flooded with the world. Recently Srinagar, the capital of Jammu & Kashmir in India was flooded with water inundating not just the low lying areas of the city but practically everything – roads, buildings, homes, offices – everything was submerged in water. As I watched the aerial telecast of the flooding of Srinagar, I began to wonder if the condition of the church at large wasn’t the same today. Almost all of us are born, physically and spiritually, into this flooded condition of the church. Therefore we find it difficult to understand what I am saying. But I plead with you not to ignore this.
We have been flooded and submerged with the world for so long that we do not even see it or think about it as worldliness. I am referring to CAPITALISM and the strangle hold of its many tentacles spread practically into all aspects of our living today both in the church and the world. Four major ways by which capitalism has spread its tentacles even among Christians today and has set the agenda for living are – the capitalist model of life or the middle-class dream, career-driven living, the political and administrative systems and structures we have built to organise our churches and ministries, and the silent and servile use of technology in day to day life. We have made these the source of our security and identity. These have become the cornerstone and the driving force for living today. This is so ubiquitous and universal that no one seems to think about these as forms of worldliness. Even when noticed, our attitude is of tacit approval or obsequious indifference. In fact we just take it for granted and live with it as normal.
Practically all of us who call ourselves as Christians, including our leaders, pastors, preachers and teachers, have and are pursuing the middle-class dream. For many of us it is a lure that is too attractive to resist. Most of us come from socio-culturally and economically discriminating milieux. We think, our forefathers have lived with the lack of basic amenities for so long, the time has now come for us to enjoy. The ‘world has become flat’ as Thomas Friedman wrote, and capitalism has brought equal opportunities for all, into the realm of the possible for anyone who would dream and work for it. We want to be upwardly mobile as far as our careers are concerned. We have just assumed that this must be the work of God. Have we not been told that science and technology, industrialisation, modernisation, capitalism and everything else since the Reformation was born as a result of Christian thinking? So we have blindly begun to dance to the music of the capitalist ‘pied pipers’. Are not sustenance, security and identity our basic needs? What is wrong if we worked hard for these? Is not hard work biblically mandated? We even began to borrow the organisational models and the management systems to run our churches and ministries! Should we not be as professional as the capitalist world is! Capitalism and its middle class pursuers can even finance our ‘passion to save souls’. How wonderful! We would even have more money and better techniques to do ‘ministry’! We even justify with examples from Old Testament. Are not the ‘Upright Job’ and ‘Father Abraham’ our ‘capitalist’ godly forebears? And Joseph and Daniel models for the upwardly mobile? We fail to see that in reasoning thus we are imposing categories of 20th century thinking onto Old Testament living?
The only thing is, we have not paused to ask if the middle-class pursuits and the career driven lifestyles were Christ’s agenda for His followers. I assert that this is an agenda set by the enemy of our souls to lead us ‘astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ’. How can the followers of Christ pursue an agenda set by the world? On whose authority have we accepted this as our agenda for living? The irony is that many think that they can follow Christ and follow the world too. How can we think that this is not worldliness?
In the 1980s John White, writing about personal morality, the quest for affluence and the worship of success among Christians, said that we were ‘flirting with the world’. And in the 1990s, Os Guinness writing about the mega-church and mega-ministry movements said that they were ‘dining with the devil’. But I want to say that we have not only been flirting and dining but have been cohabiting with the world for a few centuries now! The fruit of this illegitimate relationship is all around us to see both in terms of mal-formed ‘Christians’ and several illegitimate activities passing off as ministry! I am referring to all the ministries that have been spawned to serve needs arising from pursuing the world. My point is that most of these so-called ministries to professionals have sprung up to serve the needs of those pursuing the world’s agenda. And I do not just refer to the prosperity gospellers (at least they are shameless and open about it) but to the main line evangelicals (the believers groups as they are generally known in India) and to all those who have egged Christians on, to pursue capitalism driven or middle class lifestyles in terms of educational, career and material prosperity.
All who have encouraged people to pursue these as blessings to be sought, taught them that it was alright to do it, prayed for it, blessed such people from their altars and extolled their success as good Christian testimony. All of us are guilty of this – our teachers, preachers, pastors, evangelists, elders and deacons of churches, leaders and the whole rank of file of Christians. There are very few exceptions among us who is not guilty. The biggest, the greatest among us and the smallest and the least among us to use the world’s terms – all of us are guilty. We have sought the world, pursued it, flirted with it, dined with it and cohabited with it and have produced and continue to produce illegitimate progeny. When challenged or pointed, we defend ourselves with orgiastic zeal. We are so drunk on the love potions of the world and are in its stupor to even see or understand. We are so ‘spiritual’ and ‘cultured’ that we do not like to hear such language – but listen to the Word of God through prophet Jeremiah addressed to the people of Israel more than two millennia ago.
5 Thus says the Lord: “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless…8 the priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit. 9 “Therefore I still contend with you, declares the Lord, and with your children’s children I will contend.10 For cross to the coasts of Cyprus and see, or send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has been such a thing. 11 Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, 13 for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water…20 “For long ago I broke your yoke and burst your bonds; but you said, ‘I will not serve.’ Yes, on every high hill and under every green tree you bowed down like a whore. 21 Yet I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?…23 How can you say, ‘I am not unclean, I have not gone after the Baals’? Look at your way in the valley; know what you have done—a restless young camel running here and there, 24 a wild donkey used to the wilderness, in her heat sniffing the wind! Who can restrain her lust? None who seek her need weary themselves; in her month they will find her. 25 Keep your feet from going unshod and your throat from thirst. But you said, ‘It is hopeless, for I have loved foreigners, and after them I will go.’…32 Can a virgin forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire? Yet my people have forgotten me days without number. 33 “How well you direct your course to seek love! So that even to wicked women you have taught your ways. 34 Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the guiltless poor; you did not find them breaking in. Yet in spite of all these things 35 you say, ‘I am innocent; surely his anger has turned from me.’ Behold, I will bring you to judgment for saying, ‘I have not sinned.’ Jeremiah 2. (Emphasis mine)
I must confess I am equally guilty (and maybe more than others) and I do not exempt myself from what I have said thus far. I read the above passage from Jeremiah, for the first time almost about 36 years ago. I knew that the Lord was saying something to the churches then as now. The more I read it the more I wept. Over the years I quoted the passage a few times in my preaching. But I was blind and did not know or understand these words completely. It has taken almost more than three decades to understand. I feel ashamed.
Friends, capitalism and all the varied manifestations of it are but broken cisterns that can hold no water! As mentioned above, if we think that we can chase the middle class dream and follow Christ at the same time – I wonder if we have understood the gospel at all. It is another religion not the gospel of God in Christ. We have lead many new converts to this false religion and not to Christ. It is a deception of millennial proportions!
Jesus very clearly said you cannot serve God and mammon. You can only serve any one of them. And hence the divine lamentation through Jeremiah, “…see if there has been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” This is our sin – we have forsaken the fountain of living waters and made for ourselves broken pots. We have been too blind and foolish to seek the fountain of living waters in these broken pots and offered the same as gospel to new converts. How unpardonable? Therefore listen to the words of Jeremiah, “I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine? …Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, declares the Lord God.”
The call to follow Christ is a call given to everyone and not just to those who wish ‘to do full-time ministry’. The summons to follow Him was very clear for the early disciples. They forsook all and followed Him. Os Guinness writes, “As Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, ‘The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus.’ They did not consider his claims, make up their minds, and then decide whether to follow – they simply heard and obeyed. Their response is ‘a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus.’ The call is all. Jesus is the reason. The only way to follow is to leave everything and follow him. Here is a call that makes short work of all our questions, objections, and evasions. Disciples are not so much those who follow as those who must follow.” Following Christ is a fulltime call for all. The call to follow Christ is a self-denying and a world-forsaking call. Today we hardly see this among any of us. Instead we have become self-loving, world-seeking and world friendly. We have taught and practised a form of Christianity that is totally alien to the New Testament. We have preached a gospel of forgiveness from sin, escaping from hell and going to heaven. This is a deficient gospel. The gospel is about Christ. It is about following Him to live as He lived. We have decided that as long as we have a form godliness and are faithful in church attendance, tithing and involve in ministry, we can seek material affluence and worldly success as divine blessings. We even pray and seek God’s will in pursuing the middle-class dream! We have thus rendered Christianity innocuous.
Os Guinness writes, “Hardly any Christians are world-denying these days…On every side we see Christians pursuing the rage for relevance, whether seeking the respect of the “cultured despisers’ of the gospel, reaching out to the contemporary “unchurched” with a “user friendly” gospel, or just enjoying the comforts of the age. For many believers the Christian life is now a good life: it simply “goes better with Jesus” even if there is no God and no Resurrection. The result is a series of adaptations of the Christian faith to modern man that are a capitulation with few rivals in two thousand years.” (The Call, Os Guinness, 2003).
Worldliness is when anything or anyone other than God becomes the focus of our devotion and the source of our strength and identity. Today, the education we have acquired, the jobs that we do, the salaries we earn, the positions we hold in the world and the church, the houses we have built, the families we belong to, the churches we have built and attend, the ministries we do, the clothes and ornaments we wear, and a host of other things in the world have become the focus of our devotion and the source of our security. In short to use one word, we live for the middle-class dream. We pursue them. We fight for them. We boast about these. We flaunt them. We take pride in these if not openly, definitely in subtle ways we indicate to others how big and great we are. We gloat over them. We are elated when we have them and even give great testimonies about how we have received them. We hold thanksgiving services for them. (Oh, the obscenity of it all!) We are discouraged when we do not have them. We fast and pray for these. We lose our sleep over them. In fact quite a few of us follow Christ in order to receive them on earth and also in heaven! We just about want everything that this world can give but we do not desire God and His Son, the Lord Jesus.
We do not hunger for Him, thirst for Him and run after Him. Many do not follow Him for His own sake but for the sake of receiving worldly blessings now and a materialistic heaven later! It is in this hope we even make commitment for ‘full-time’ ministry. It is in the same hope many give financial contributions to ‘ministry’ causes. When these become the source of our sustenance, security and identity – even if these are church and ministry related – and when these become the focus of our devotion then we have sinned and have become worldly. It is idolatrous and sinful to think that any of these things can add value to us other than what we are given in Christ. This is adultery with the world. This is what it means to build high places and bow down before every green tree as the people of Israel did. God calls heavens and earth to look and be appalled when His people thus forsake Him and trim their ways in order to pursue the world.
How has it come about that the followers of Christ have begun to place their trust in the world and what it can offer rather than in the God they claim to know and proclaim? Over the last two millennia there has been a progressive subversion of Christianity. First Christianity was reduced to a mere religion by the fifth century AD. Gradually as forces of modernisation set in, the church capitulated losing its distinctiveness and its calling. And later the institutionalisation of the church and all that it did reduced Christian faith and living to mere activities, programmes and projects. As capitalism became a universal economic force, and was unleashed with the promise of prosperity and development for many across the globe, the church all but lost its gumption. And when capitalism began to be promoted as the outcome of Puritan thinking and justified with a skewed interpretation of scripture, life itself began to be modelled according to the tenets of capitalism. And career-driven living became a universal norm for everyone. Thus capitalism and career-drivenness became the cornerstone and the driving force for living. And Christians began to worship at the altar of mammon while claiming to worship the true and the living God. Added to this the church began to follow the world by creating political systems and structures for organising and governing its affairs. In the articles that follow I shall develop further thoughts on why these areas constitute worldliness and what alternatives scriptures teach us.
Christ in His incarnation gives us the only right model for living. To be a Christian is not just about forgiveness from sin and going to heaven. To be a Christian is to follow Christ. The call to follow Christ is about seeking God and His Son, to live for Him and to please Him alone. The best way we can please Him is by learning to live as Jesus lived while on earth. We are called to live the way Jesus lived. Only Jesus could please the Father and only he can reproduce in us that life which is pleasing to the Father. When we learn to live as He lived we learn a life of faith and trust in God. We learn to depend upon Him alone for everything – for our sustenance, security and identity. We make Him and Him alone the focus of our devotion and nothing else or no one else – not even our churches or ministries. All our other loves must be subsumed under our love for Him.
Our watch word then, would be as Apostle Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” And “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection,” And again “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” From Paul’s words in Philippians we learn that for a true follower of Christ, having world’s riches, and what they can or cannot have in the world are only incidental. These are completely immaterial and inconsequential for our security and identity. They do not add any value to us nor the lack of these take away any value from us. This kind of life is not for some super-spiritual saints. It is for all of us – all who wish to follow Christ and to be part of His kingdom.
I believe we are like the people of Israel – who went a whoring behind foreign gods, built idolatrous groves and altars to them in the land where they were supposed to worship Jehovah and Him alone. God’s constant call to them during the days of the kings was to call them back to their devotion unto Him and a faithfulness to His word. But both the kings and the people failed. They sought to build their identities through allegiance to these idols and groves. They sought security from the armies of nations and peoples that God expressly prohibited them from. Jeremiah says, “Is Israel a slave? Is he a home born servant? Why then has he become a prey? The lions have roared against him; they have roared loudly. They have made his land a waste; his cities are in ruins, without inhabitant.” (Jer 2: 14, 15). Israel is one who has authority with God and with men but now is enslaved as a home born slave with no hope of redemption!
Friends, we have sinned against God in that we have sought the identities and the securities of the world by capitulating to the capitalist model of living. When the focus of our devotion and the source of our securities and identities is not the Triune God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit then we are worshipping something else or someone else. Not the God of the Bible. Os Guinness & John Seel write, “To say that there is one God and no god but God is not the conclusion of a syllogism nor simply an article in a creed. It is an overpowering, brain-hammering, heart-stopping truth that is a command to love the only one worthy of our entire and unswerving allegiance…Unconditional obedience to God therefore means unconditional refusal to give God’s place to anyone and anything else. Thus those who confess one God are those who are ready to criticise everything else – nation, class, race, party, power, wealth, ideology, science, government, and church – whenever it threatens to usurp the place of God. After all, there is no other.” His is a call to absolute submission and obedience. Either He is Lord of all or not lord at all! He brooks no rivals, nor any defiance.
Finally, please read the words of Job in chapter 31, telling us about how he lived – his attitude to people in need, the widow, the fatherless, the poor and the need. Also about his attitude to his own riches – he did not make gold his trust or fine gold his confidence – unlike the capitalists of today. Today’s world runs practically on ‘gold trust’! I believe the words of Job here are significant, it tells us how man was expected to live in those pristine times. (Please read the whole chapter to get the complete perspective).
24 “If I have made gold my trust
or called fine gold my confidence,
25 if I have rejoiced because my wealth was abundant
or because my hand had found much,
26 if I have looked at the sun when it shone,
or the moon moving in splendour,
27 and my heart has been secretly enticed,
and my mouth has kissed my hand,
28 this also would be an iniquity to be punished by the judges,
for I would have been false to God above.’
Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
 If you think I am not being faithful to the teaching of Scripture in what I have written in this article, please read ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ by Dietrich Bonhoeffer; ‘The Call’ by Os Guinness and ‘The Jesus Way’ by Eugene Peterson.
Please look for my follow-up articles:
Fig Leaves and Broken Pots
Small is Beautiful