As I write, I'm enjoying the warmth of fresh coffee and the cozy atmosphere of a local Starbucks. The Christmas theme decorates my cup, colors the barista's wardrobe, and streams through the speakers.
So it may be odd that I've been reading a technical book on the social and theological contours of "worldliness." No, wait a minute, the guy in the corner reading the sports page is wrinkling his nose when he sees the title of my book. Okay, so it is verifiably odd. The truth is that I'm as comfortable reading my book as he looks reading his newspaper.
Neither of us is disturbed.
As I sip and read, I am learning from a PhD about this impersonal Mordor-like dark force of worldliness that is behind the emerging postmodern sociological phenomena evidenced by the mechanical-technological secularization of society. Sip. These abstract concepts are not hard to read, and really fun to paraphrase (because it appears I know what I'm talking about).
So I can sit here and read theologian/sociologists all day long. The problem of worldliness remains nothing more than the tug of a theory. No problem.
Then life intrudes.
Not long from now I will be silhouetted by a wall of cover art in the Blockbuster Video "New Releases" section, scanning for an appropriate DVD rental. In this moment my theory of worldliness must act. In this moment—like in hundreds of experiences in the past—I will hear in my soul the crackling sound of a rope tightening. This tension is the tug-of-war between what I know I should do to glorify God on the one side, and the surprisingly strong tug of what my flesh wants me to do. It's in front of the DVDs, not sitting here in Starbucks, that I feel the tension of worldliness.
No, here in Starbucks my technical book on "worldliness" remains in the realm of abstract sociological theory. But there in front of the movies, the struggle with worldliness is alive. And in those moments I'm faced with a decision that will either prove consistent with a God-centered worldview or reveal a God-ignoring heart. That is my struggle with worldliness.
And while these personal battles against worldliness are active in my soul, these battles are often won or lost at the checkout counter.
The decisions we make in life touch our souls. The "huge modern heresy," G.K. Chesterton once wrote, is that of "altering the human soul to fit its social conditions, instead of altering human social conditions to fit the human soul" (What's Wrong with the World?). Which is to say that we too frequently attempt to force our souls into what we choose, instead of first asking what will serve our souls and choosing that. This is worldliness.
C.S. Lewis took this to a more serious level by writing that every decision we make will transform us "into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself" (Mere Christianity).
Both Chesterton and Lewis understood the dangers of worldliness.
Much different from the technical book I'm reading at Starbucks is the wonderfully helpful and discerning book Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World (Crossway, 2008). In it my friend C.J. Mahaney defines worldliness as any act, thought, or attitude that originates apart from an awareness of God's authority, presence, and glory. It is "loving the values and pursuits of the world that stand opposed to God" (p. 27).
This book helps me discern the exposure of worldliness I experience during the day and the worldliness lurking within my heart.
And notice how Mahaney connects worldliness to our decisions: "Every moment of every day we're making choices—whether we realize it or not—between love for a world that opposes God and love for the risen Christ" (pp. 26-27).
See, the victory over worldliness cannot be won by conforming to a list of rules. The battle is won through the power of the gospel applied to our daily choices. Asking the right questions—not following the right rules—is critical.
No matter how abstract we keep our definitions of worldliness, the reality is that our personal battle against worldliness is won through battle-by-battle victories in our everyday decisions. And these everyday decisions flow all the way down to our selection of "things" (1 John 2:15).
And that, oddly enough, brings us to Christmas shopping.
Choices. Ah, choices. Like why did I order this now-empty venti 6-shot Americano? Well I didn't think about it, I chose it because it's "my drink." Probably because of my laziness, I just don't like making choices.
Yet here I am, plunged into the most choice-intensive season of the year. Is there any time of the year like Christmas to require us to make a list and check it twice? Where do we travel? Where do we stay? How do we travel? What presents do we buy the kids? What to get my wife? What, if any, movies do we watch? Ah!
As I make decisions this Christmas season about the gifts to buy, I want to evaluate my thinking behind each decision. Do my "things" highlight the God of all grace, or do my "things" encourage a God-forgetful worldliness?
Here are the three questions I'm asking myself as I shop for, and wrap, Christmas gifts:
1. Does my gift serve the soul of the recipient?
Not every gift needs to have a direct spiritual purpose or explicitly communicate the gospel. Be mindful of the relationship you have with the individual and his or herspiritual condition. Our gifts should communicate our love for them. We give gifts in love because God first loved us by giving the greatest gift of His Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 4:19). Does my gift and/or the language of my card reflect this?
And please keep in mind that each media gift—books, movies, games, music—communicates a worldview. Is that worldview hurtful to the soul because of the faulty presentation of God and sin and the gospel? Will it prove helpful to my friend's soul? A la Chesterton: What am I requiring of the recipient's soul? Does my gift serve his soul or does it compress his soul like a jack-in-the-box?
These questions will help us think beyond the typical: "Will she like it?"
2. Does my gift promise life transformation?
One of my favorite gifts was an iPhone. After a year with it I know that it has helped me in my planning, productivity, and communication. However, I've also found that the iPhone and other technological advancements tempt me to self-sufficiency. When the iPhone crashes, my day teeters on disruption. The problem here is not the device, but the sin in my heart.
Have you noticed that during the Christmas season technology dominates the commercials? Technological gizmos make attractive gifts because they promise us the power to better control our lives. But this promise of control is rooted in worldliness, not Scripture (Proverbs 16:9).
So if you are planning to give an iPhone, Blackberry, new computer, iPod, whatever—consider using words that do not promise too much. A temptation for the giver is to say things like: "This gift will change your life!" Instead, find a creative way to point the recipient back towards God. iPhones are nice gifts (are they ever!), but we should encourage our friends to base their unwavering daily dependence in God alone. Enduring life-transformation is the fruit of God's active grace.
Let's be careful we don't oversell our gifts and unwittingly glorify ourselves, and our gizmo gift, as a functional redeemer.
3. Does my gift encourage faith?
Anxiety and impatience are the footprints of worldliness. And we live in anxious times. Magazine cover articles like "Where'd My Retirement Go?" are reminders that the financial security of many people has evaporated into a cloud of electronic numbers and simply floated into the sky and disappeared. For many, once the money has evaporated, there remains only the residue of anxiousness.
This Christmas, more than any I've experienced, Christians could use a God-glorifying boost of faith and hope. Think of creative ways to direct your friends and family toward the gospel. Gospel-centered music albums are great for this. I'm currently listening to three Cross-centered albums: Songs for the Cross Centered Life (contemporary), Together for the Gospel Live Live (hymns), and even Shai Linne's The Atonement (rap). Three excellent books come to mind: The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges, Whiter Than Snow: Meditations on Sin and Mercy by Paul David Tripp, and Charles Spurgeon's Morning and Evening devotional.
It doesn't need to be books, but we should work towards purchasing gifts that will direct our friends' affections away from the unsteady economy of this world and toward the unwavering promises of God.
The dangers of worldliness are present even down to the choosing of "things." For good or ill, each gift we buy holds the potential for spiritual consequence. This fact should humble us, caution us, and encourage us to take a little extra time planning. Because by investing a little thought into our shopping we can give gifts this year that will encourage faith and hope in God.
Tony Reinke lives in Gaithersburg, MD, with his wife and three children and serves as the editorial and research assistant to C.J. Mahaney. He publishes regularly at his blog, Miscellanies: A Cross Centered Blog. In the interest of full disclosure: Tony helped edit a couple of the chapters in C.J.'s latest book, Worldliness. In the interest of full candor: Tony's editing contributed little—so very little—to the final product. Tony can be reached via email: crede.ut.intelligas AT mac DOT com