We’re familiar with Jesus’ focus on motives as much as behavior in a number of his sayings in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not enough that we don’t kill our brother or sister. It also matters how we deal with our anger toward them. It’s not enough not to hate an enemy. We are commanded to love the enemy. It’s not enough not to commit open adultery. If we have lust in our hearts…
1 John 2:15 gets at a similar point:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world–the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches–comes not from the Father but from the world. (NRSV)
Motives matter. Motives inevitably produce action. John knows this. He is dealing with a difficult pastoral situation. There are antichrists in the neighborhood. “They went out from among us,” (2:19) making their loyalties clear. There is a clear moral dualism at work in the text. We can love God or we can love the world. Which we love will move us one way or another.
John 3:16 says that God so loved the world. In John 15:18, Jesus reminds the disciples: If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.” John 16:33 shows Jesus saying, “I have conquered the world.” What is going on here? The world (ho kosmos) is understood as a system of relationships and power that valorizes appearance over substance and a “get mine first” mentality that ironically makes people vulnerable to subjugation and control. “The world,” therefore, is something that we don’t want to emulate or promote.
Christians are as prone as anyone to this problem. “The world” is in the church. Whereas we want to give ourselves a pass (“It’s really not as bad as it seems…”), the moral dualism of this scripture hauls us up short: If the love of the world, with all its lusts, is what controls our life, the love of the Father is not in us.
The sensitive souls among us start to worry about whether or not they actually love God. They rifle through their ready-to-hand catalog of sins in order to figure out how they might be offending God. I bless them and pray that they not worry overmuch, though I appreciate the sensitivity and responsiveness.
As usual, our concern is more with complacency. The problem with complacency is that we can’t see our own problems. Complacency is moral turpitude. I worry that we have so emphasized God’s love that we find it extremely difficult to recognize the power of sin at work among us. We slip into a sleepy state of a sort not easy to recognize in our Christian subcultures.
Let me offer an example for the sake of discussion, one that I know personally. Many years ago (the 1970s and into the ’80s), I participated as a young man in lay witness missions. Eventually, a dear friend who became a real model to me – George Tittsworth (Tal, I’m thinking of you!) – asked me to serve as the leader of the youth section of the missions for which he was the director. I did several such missions while I was a college student and they were indeed a blessing. I learned from watching George lead his team. He was a great role model.
So, what is a lay witness mission? A local church decides they need spiritual renewal. They ask a team leader (e.g. George) to bring a group of people to the church for a weekend of singing, worship, fellowship, small group sessions and testimony. People on the team take turns sharing their stories of conversion, salvation, sanctification, healing, whatever, with members of the local body. The point of the weekend is catalytic for revival. There is no preaching, only sharing, to speak plainly and openly what God has done, is doing, in one’s life. Most weekends resulted in great moments of joy, release, forgiveness, cleansing and renewal.
I began to realize that it was actually very easy to live for the exalted experience of these weekends, while in between them, one settles for sinful lassitude. One can crave the experience (I was sometimes guilty and saw others guilty) over the actual work of God, who sparks the experience. One seeks the high of the weekend, to get another boost, another spiritual “shot in the arm.” Ironically, fixating on the experience competes with “taking up one’s cross daily,” making the weekend a stand-in for real discipleship.
Update the scenario and we find the same problem. There is no shortage of opportunities to have this kind of experience: rallies, retreats, “Christian” cruises, you name it. The rest of the time we’re OK with mediocrity. Obviously, I’m not saying these events or opportunities are in and of themselves the problem. No. The problem is how we use them for ourselves, the opposite of what God wants.
Now, let’s see the problem clearly. In the name of a holy God we turn something good into something evil, obviously not evil in the normal ways we think about “evil,” but in much more subtle, dangerous, ways. We prey on holy moments for spiritually narcissistic ends. As I ponder this problem I’m not sure I could find a better description of evil – to use the holy things of God for self-serving ends.
Do my words sound too harsh? Judgmental? Perhaps. But I think a good dose of humility and hunger for truth is called for. We should not be deceived and we desperately need to remember that God is not mocked.
It is a most salutary exercise for us to lay our motives before the merciful, holy God and ask for truth. Just how much do we Christians love the world in the 1 John 2:15 sense and not the John 3:16 sense? How much do we really love God rather than ourselves? It takes some honesty and humility to get to a true answer.