What is Worldliness?

What is Worldliness?

What is Worldliness?

While every believer agrees that we are not supposed to be worldly, our understanding of what that entails is diverse and conflicted. For some, it means a decisive avoidance of every secular art; others believe that the Christian should be as distinctive in physical appearance as possible. For some, drinking alcohol is the epitome of worldliness, while for others, holding political office is enough worldliness.

In a different post, I argued that the fact that God has created this world and that he preserves it means that our relationship with the world cannot always be adversarial.

God has blessed us with “the things of the earth” and we are to enjoy them (James 1:17, 1 Timothy 4:14). He has put his law in the heart of every human and so there will be values and morals that we share with everyone else regardless of religion (Romans 2:15-17), values that will often be displayed in various secular art.

Also, he has gifted unbelievers and believers with natural gifts which necessitate our dependence on and cooperation with people who don’t have faith. And because we share society with unbelievers, we must interact with them and share the burden of ensuring human flourishing with them, which necessitates various forms of participation in politics.

But if the enjoyment of “the things of the earth,” including secular art, and sharing of common public concerns (human flourishing) and vocational interests with unbelievers does not necessarily imply worldliness, what then is worldliness?

In what follows, I consider the Bible’s description of worldliness and its implication for how we live our lives in today’s world.

Worldliness and idolatry

One of God’s primary concerns as he led the Israelites from Egypt to the promised land was that they would not be corrupted by the unbelieving world around them.

While there are mentions of specific moral practices that he detested (see below), the major emphasis was the idolatry of the Canaanites.

In Deuteronomy 7:25-26, he instructed that the Israelites were to burn the carved images of the gods of the Canaanites with fire so they would not be ensnared by them. Five chapters later, he maintained the same emphasis: they were not to inquire about the idolatrous practices of the nations (Deuteronomy 12:29-31).

But Israel did not heed God’s instructions. While they were still en route to the promised land, they yoked themselves to Baal and worshipped him together with the Moabites (Numbers 25). And when they finally entered the promised land, they consistently “abandoned the LORD, the God of their Fathers” and “served the Baals” (Judges 2:11-13). And when we read through the prophets we find that this idolatry was a consistent feature of Israelite history.

Pulling all of these together, we can say that at the very heart of worldliness is idolatry, forsaking the God of the Bible and worshipping the idols of the nations.

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Idolatry, adultery, and worldliness in James

James picked up on this OT theme when he described worldliness as adultery in James 4. “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

In the Prophets, idolatry is often called spiritual adultery (Jeremiah 3:20, Ezekiel 16:32). God is the husband who has married Israel but Israel became a whore, leaving her husband and going after her many lovers. In fact, this was the theme of the book of Hosea (the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord – 1:2).

As Douglas Moo said, “James’ use of ‘adulteresses’ thus serves to characterize his readers as the unfaithful people of God. By seeking friendship with the world they are, in effect, committing ‘spiritual adultery’ and making themselves enemies of God.”[1]

Therefore, by equating spiritual adultery with worldliness, James is defining worldliness as idolatry. 

Defining idolatry

But idolatry is not just the worship of physical idols. In Romans 1:18-32, we find the following components of idolatry:

  • Not honouring God as God (verse 21)
  • Not thanking God (verse 21)
  • Refusing to acknowledge God (verse 28)
  • Neglecting the immortal God (creator) to worship created things (verses 23, 25)
  • Trivialising God’s justice (verse 32)

All of these (and more) are what defines worldly people. They do not acknowledge or honour God as the creator of the world, nor do they thank him as the one who gives them every good gift that they enjoy (James 1:17, Acts 14:16-17, Acts 17:24-31, Matthew 5:45).

As Joe Rigney describes it, “There are two great sins at work in the world and in human hearts: idolatry and ingratitude. We refuse to honor God as God, and we refuse to say ‘thank you’ for the abundance of goodness and kindness that he lavishes on us. Instead of thanksgiving, we turn God’s good gifts into gods, making a good thing into an ultimate thing”[2]

Instead of seeing God as absolute and worshipping him as such, worldly people see created things (whether physical idols or non-physical ones – money, sex, social status, etc.) as absolute and therefore worship them.

Since the things of the world are ultimate to them, they are willing to do anything for them – murder, covet, fight, and quarrel (James 4:1-3). All they seek are earthly treasures, for them, there is nothing above but skies (Matthew 6:19-34); it is all about building bigger barns (Luke 12:13-21). If we can describe them in a statement, it is this: “man’s life consists in the abundance of his possessions” (contra Luke 12:15).

And since they do not acknowledge God, they neither fear him nor his justice. As the Psalmist said, “there is no fear of God before their eyes” (Psalms 36:1). They are the ones who do evil confidently because they believe God cannot know (Psalms 73:11), that he has forgotten (Psalms 10:11) and that the Most High does not see (Psalms 94:7).

hard cash on a briefcase
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Are you an idolater?

Based on the above, to ask if we are worldly is to ask if we are idolatrous, and vice versa.

Are we as believers living our lives as if there is no God (practical atheism) and that the things we can see and touch are ultimate and absolute? Do we live as if there is nothing above but skies and that our identity and destiny are finally defined by how much of the earth’s goods we possess?

Do our lives resemble that of David who was constantly seeking communion and fellowship with God (Psalms 42) because he knew that God is absolute and he is to be ultimately desired above everything else (Psalms 84:10; 119:72, 127)? Or have we shut him out into oblivion while we murder, covet, quarrel, and fight for bigger barns and inheritance?

Or does it resemble that of Moses for whom the unseen God was more real than the treasures of Egypt (Hebrews 12:26-29), who believed that “there was a reward in heaven for the believer far richer than the treasures in Egypt, durable riches, where rust could not corrupt, nor thieves break through and steal” (as J.C Ryle puts it)?[3] Do we see him who is invisible or have the visible things obscured our vision such that all our treasures are earthly and all our anxieties terminate on what the Gentiles seek? 

Do we thank God for all his blessings or have we become so proud (1 John 2:15-17) like Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:28-33) and Herod (Acts 12:20-23) and like the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 4:7) and Israelites (Deuteronomy 8:11-20) were prone to be? Have we suddenly seen ourselves as the captains of our ships, shouting with the Gentiles that “I did it on my own” and “I am self-made” or do we still recognise that every single good gift comes from God?

Are we like the Psalmist who lived with the reality that God sees him, wherever he could be and whatever he could be doing (Psalms 139), or are we like unbelievers who believe that there is no one above who sees them or will hold them to account? Are we perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 7:1) or is cancellation by the world our greatest fear (and thus, motivation)?

These are the questions that will show if we are worldly or not.

Worldliness and morality

Though idolatry is primary in defining worldliness, we cannot separate worldliness from morality.

According to the Psalmist, idol worshippers become the things they worship (Psalms 115:8). And as James has taught us, idolatry (treating contingent things as absolute and ultimate) leads to covetousness, murder, fightings, and quarrelings. John also agreed when he listed the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life as the three components of worldliness (1 John 2:15-17).

Consequently, in warning Israel against idolatry, God also told them to flee from the corrupt moral practices of idolaters – child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:1-5), wickedness (Deuteronomy 9:4-6), divination, sorcery, necromancy, fortune telling (etc.).

Likewise, after Paul identified our fundamental sin as idolatry, he listed various moral corruptions that result from it: homosexuality, envy, covetousness, malice, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, etc (Romans 1:26-32).

Therefore, worldliness also manifests itself when believers are embracing, supporting, and approving abominable moral practices that God detests and the world loves.

We often do this because the world offers us certain rewards or because we fear their opprobrium and cancellation. In essence, the respect and honour we give to the world have eclipsed that which we give to God. Therefore, unlike the disciples who would rather obey God than men, we give men our highest loyalty when it is inconvenient to give it to God.

Have we found ourselves approving and commending what God calls abominations? Do the pressures we face from the world lead us to moral compromises? Are we much eager to downplay and undermine God’s clear moral instructions to prosper in the world?

These are the questions that will show if we are worldly or not.

close up shot of scrabble tiles on a white surface
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Worldliness and thought patterns

For Paul, the opposite of being conformed to the world is to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2) or to be renewed in the spirit of our minds (Ephesians 4:22).

Before Paul, Solomon had told us that the mind (heart) determines the course of our lives: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). This means that worldliness begins in the mind and our battle to overcome it must start there as well.

Unbelievers act the way they do because they have certain thought patterns (worldviews) that guide their actions. These thought patterns are the products of their idolatry. And they often manifest in their speech, music, movies, tweets, and other conversational media.

As we live our lives in the world, we begin to take up some of these thought patterns without recognising how different they are from the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). Instead of taking every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), we drink from the well until our minds have been thoroughly shaped by worldly ideas that are contrary to God’s revelation in nature and Scripture. Before we know it, these thought patterns begin to shape our actions and choices.

“The world moulds us, as well as chokes us, says Paul. We have to make every effort to avoid the danger of its grip pressuring us into conformity with its way of thinking,” said  Sinclair Ferguson, a Pastor and Theologian. “Worldliness, in this sense, is not to be reduced to fast cars and bright lights. It is a much deeper and more sinister thing altogether – the invasion of our whole conception of reality by a set of standards which are sub-biblical and sub-Christian. A man can be outwardly conformed to the Christian way of life while he is inwardly conformed to the spirit of this world.”[4]

Jamison, Fausset, and Brown agree. According to them, the renewing of our mind happens “not by a mere outward disconformity to the ungodly world, many of whose actions in themselves may be virtuous and praiseworthy; but by such an inward spiritual transformation as makes the whole life new – new in its motives and ends, even where the actions differ in nothing from those of the world – new, considered as a whole, and in such a sense as to be wholly unattainable save through the constraining power of the love of Christ.”[5]

How many Christians do you know who treat the 48 laws of power or Machiavelli’s power theory as solid advice for living in the world as if there is no Matthew 5, 20, Romans 12, and Philippians 2? How often are our ideas about happiness, satisfaction, marriage, love, friendship, competition, and prosperity, among others, shaped by self-help professionals, New Age gurus, and social media in contrast to the word of God?

Consider Romans 12:9-21 and compare it with many of the maxims that shape our popular culture:

  • Let love be genuine
  • Abhor what is evil and hold fast to what is good
  • Love one another with brotherly affection
  • Outdo one another in showing honour
  • Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit
  • Rejoice in hope
  • Be patient in tribulation
  • Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality
  • Bless those who persecute you
  • Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep
  • Live in harmony with one another
  • Do not be haughty but associate with the humble
  • Never be wise in your own sight
  • Repay no one evil for evil
  • Do what is honourable in the sight of the Lord
  • If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all
  • Never avenge yourself
  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good

Though the existence and universality of natural law suggest that unbelievers can have thoughts that will cohere with what we believers know through the Scriptures, the fact that natural man is fallen means that many of his ideas will be contrary to God’s revealed will.[6]

Are your thought patterns shaped by popular maxims or are you subjecting those maxims captive in obedience to Christ? Do the biblical ideals of humility, generosity, selflessness, gratitude, respect, honor, self-control, and self-giving central to your worldview or are you enthralled in the world’s bedlam of pride, selfishness, self-absorption (self-centredness), dishonour, among others?

These are the questions that will show if we are worldly or not.

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If we take the Scriptures seriously, then all of us are worldly to one extent or the other. Consequently, we all must take the call to shun worldliness and embrace godliness seriously.

The way to do this is not merely to talk down on worldliness but to actively pursue godliness.

As Thomas Chalmers puts it, “It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the charm, by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. We must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influences, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest, and hope, and congenial activity, as the former.”[7]

In essence, the way to wean ourselves from worldliness (which is rooted in the worship of created things)  is to fix our gaze and affection on the worship of the creator.

This means we have to worship God and allow the beauty of his glory to wean our hearts from idols so that like Moses our vision of the invisible will become more powerful than the treasures of created things and like David, we can spend time in his presence and live our whole life coram Deo (before God).

And as the vision of God gets brighter, the moral corruptions of this world will become less attractive to us and we will reject them irrespective of the world’s opprobrium.

The more time we spend in communion with God, the more his word fills our minds and shapes our worldview. With this Spirit-filled mind, we see the thought patterns of the world for what they are and are equipped to reject those that are contrary to God’s revelation.

The pressure that the world exerts on us is strong and persistent. If we are going to be godly (rather than worldly), then we must also consistently and persistently seek God and take time to be holy. To rephrase the words of John Owen, “we are either killing the world or the world is killing us.”

As we spend more time with God, our faith becomes stronger and as John taught us, it is through faith that we overcome the world (1 John 5:4-5). 

Show me thy face, one transient gleam
Of loveliness divine,
And I shall never think or dream
Of other love save thine;
All lesser light will darken quite,
All lower glories wane,
The beautiful of earth will scarce
Seem beautiful again.

Show me thy face, I shall forget
The weary days of yore,
The fretting ghosts of vain regret
Shall haunt my soul no more.
All doubts and fears for future years
In quiet trust subside,
And naught but blest content and calm
Within my breast abide.

Show me thy face, the heaviest cross
Will then seem light to bear,
There will be gain in every loss,
And peace with every care.
With such light feet the years will fleet,
Life seem as brief as blest,
Till I have laid my burden down,
And entered into rest.


[1] Douglas Moo, James (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2015), p. 265, Scribd.

[2] Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts (Illinois: Crossway Publishers, 2015), p.128, Scribd.

[3] J.C Ryle, Holiness, p. 138.

[4] Sinclair Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), p. 138.

[5] Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary: Romans 12:2. Available at: https://biblehub.com/commentaries/jfb/romans/12.htm

[6] David Haines and Andrew Fulford, Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (South Carolina: The Davenant Press, 2017)

[7] Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection, Available at: https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/Chalmers,%20Thomas%20-%20The%20Exlpulsive%20Power%20of%20a%20New%20Af.pdf

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