“You adulterous people! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? So whoever wants to be the friend of the world becomes the enemy of God.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
One of the most famous theologians of the 20th century was Reinhold Niebuhr. He was a giant in a number of respects. His equally influential, but less culturally famous younger brother was H. Richard Niebuhr. The younger Niebuhr wrote a famous book I had to read in seminary called, Christ and Culture. In it, he worked through several different approaches to thinking about how Jesus—and by virtue of necessity, His followers—got along with the world around them. His was an important contribution to what has been a much larger question on the minds of thinking Christians for most of 2,000 years.
Niebuhr’s ultimate conclusion is that we should see Jesus as transforming the culture. His concern is to make it over in His image, thereby contributing to the advancement of His kingdom. Niebuhr’s thoughts have been very much influential to many Christians, this one included. But, the bigger question of how we should engage with the world around us remains in place.
Jesus prayed that His followers would be in and not of the world. We see Him demonstrating this during His ministry. This was much to the chagrin of other religious leaders in His day whose attitude toward their culture tended to be much more hostile and antagonistic than Jesus’ was. Jesus regularly rubbed elbows with the least, last, lost, and broken of His world. But He was never influenced by them. He was unfailingly the one who did the influencing.
And that’s the trick here. That’s what James is pointing us to understand. The extreme-sounding language helps grab our attention in addition to being true. When it comes to our engaging with the world as followers of Jesus, we must never forget that while we are to actively love them, we are fundamentally different from them. Any relationship we with have with the world is going to be unequal by definition.
The reason for this is that the world (and I use that word, with James, to describe the sin-directed systems and structures that are opposed to God) is fundamentally opposed to God. God and the world are mutually exclusive in terms of their interests and efforts. To support one is to oppose the other. Jesus made this same point using slightly different terms in the Sermon on the Mount when he said that we cannot serve two masters. He was talking about God and Mammon, but James just expands that out a bit. The point is that God and world don’t play nice.
God restores while the world corrupts. God redeems while the world condemns. God builds up, the world tears down. God transforms, the world destroys. If we let the world dictate the terms…of anything…misery is going to be the result.
So, what does this mean for us? For starters, it means that as long as we are interested in maintaining a healthy relationship with God, we cannot look to the world for pretty much anything in terms of how to do that. The Scriptures must be our guide. And where the world and the Scriptures diverge, we’ve got to humbly go with the Scriptures every single time no matter how hard that is to do. Of course, we’ve got to approach the Scriptures properly if we are to do that (i.e. not on the world’s terms), but that’s the only way to go.
What about when it comes to missions? How are we to share the Gospel with unbelievers when there is such antipathy between our worldview and theirs no matter what theirs is? Simple: We love them. They are not the enemy, their worldview is. They are victims of a failed worldview. We love them as our God does and gently help them see where their ideas are not fulfilling the promises they’ve made. And we remember that we are not better than them. We are simply the recipients of grace and offer them the same.
The world and God don’t go together and nothing will change that. They are different at the very core of their being. God brings life and the world doesn’t. We hate the world as He does. But we love people. Always. This is a knife’s edge to walk, but as followers of Jesus in the world, that’s where we live. And this road leads to life.