funny thing happens when you spend time with someone. When I was in college, I studied music with a composer named Edwin Childs. I had several classes and weekly lessons with him, absorbing as much knowledge as I possibly could. Music theory, harmony, counterpoint, hymnology, you name it.
One day when I was home for summer break, my dad looked at me quizzically and asked why I wasn’t unbending two fingers on my left hand. I didn’t realize I’d been doing anything of the sort. Then it hit me. A few years before I met him, Dr. Childs had had a severe injury that left him partly paralyzed on the left side. I thought I was only learning music, but without any effort or even realization, I’d unconsciously picked up my teacher’s physical mannerism.
When you spend time with someone, you tend to become like them.
A lot of people miss this truth when it comes to the Christian life. They see in the Scriptures that living for Jesus entails that we avoid things like sin and worldliness—which it does—so they fixate on avoiding things like sin and worldliness.
That’s a problem.
Don’t get me wrong; I certainly don’t like worldliness or sin. I just wonder if they’re worth so much attention. Consider this often-quoted verse:
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:8, NASB).
When you look at this for what it says, you see that it’s stated in purely positive terms—“Think about good things,” full stop. Yet so often, people preach, “Don’t look at W and X and Y and Z because they’re worldly and sinful, and Philippians 4:8 says not to—” It doesn’t say not to do anything. Rather, it encourages us to think about things that are like Jesus. That’s all.
It’s not that we should go out and fill our minds with sin or lies or obscenity or whatever. But we have a choice what to dwell on—Jesus, or something else. Avoiding sin and worldliness counts as something else. If you focus on Jesus, you’ll become like Jesus; if you focus on worldliness—even in order to avoid it—you’ll become worldly.
Take the doctrine of separatism, for example. Some people teach that, if worldliness is so bad, we should divide ourselves completely from it and take ourselves out of the world altogether! No more ungodly influences, no corrupt entertainment, no secular music, no sinful friends… what could possibly go wrong?
Well, for one thing, you could find out that the Bible calls you worldly:
[The apostles] said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. (Jude 18-19, ESV)
He who separates himself seeks his own desire, He quarrels against all sound wisdom. (Proverbs 18:1)
The King James translation of Jude is even more pointed: “These be they who separate themselves” (v. 19). According to the Scripture, separating yourself from worldly people is a worldly thing to do.
The problem is that separatists may have filtered themselves from a few nagging gnat-like sins, but not from camels like elitism, selfishness, and pride. Are you really so much better than all those sinful people, or are you a sinner yourself? Is your own spiritual state more important than other people’s, or do they need to be shown God’s grace and love just as much as you do?
But doesn’t Paul write in the New Testament to “come out from among them and be separate” and “be not unequally yoked” and “touch not the unclean thing”? Indeed he does. But that has to be considered with the rest of what he has to say:
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. (1 Corinthians 5:9-10, NASB)
To Paul, it’s self-evident that believers should associate with people in “the world,” even immoral ones, greedy ones, crooks, and idolaters. Otherwise, he concludes in what’s evidently meant as a punch line, the result would be absurd—you’d have to go out of the world! Clearly, you can separate yourself from sin without having to separate yourself from sinners.
When we look to Jesus, all this suddenly becomes clearer and simpler. Jesus, who Himself was known derisively as “a friend of sinners,” prayed this for His followers:
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. (John 17:15)
Lord, deliver us from sin, not from sinners. Deliver us from evil, not from evildoers.
Other attempts to avoid sin and worldliness fall just as flat. Some people make rules and laws and guidelines about sin to get as far from it as possible and to appear as godly as possible. Some people in the New Testament tried that, too. They called themselves the P’rushim, the Separated Ones—Pharisees, in English. Jesus wasn’t impressed. He called them hypocrites.
What did Jesus have against rules-based religion? He recognized that paying attention to rules about what we should do or shouldn’t do in this world takes our attention away from things we might do spiritually—loving God, loving our neighbors, stuff like that.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24)
The Pharisees’ rules were fastidious about small things—even tithing mint and spices—but they missed what God was all about. Their preoccupation with avoiding little sins turned them into bigger sinners.
The sad irony is that all this fixation on avoiding worldly things, for all its appearances of piety, is not a good way to keep from being fixated on worldly things. A legalist can be just as obsessed with worldly pursuits (by trying to avoid them) as a libertine is. Not only does legalism not make you godly, it doesn’t even keep you from being worldly.
Paul writes to the Colossians in prose that crackles like fire:
So if, through your faith in Christ, you are dead to the principles of this world’s life, why, as if you were still part and parcel of this world-wide system, do you take the slightest notice of these purely human prohibitions—“Don’t touch this,” “Don’t taste that,” and “Don’t handle the other”? “This”, “that” and “the other” will all pass away after use! I know that these regulations look wise with their self-inspired efforts at piety, their policy of self-humbling, and their studied neglect of the body. But in actual practice they are of no moral value, but simply pamper the flesh.
If then you are raised up with Christ, reach out for the highest gifts of Heaven, where Christ reigns in power. Be concerned with the heavenly things, not with the passing things of earth. For, as far as this world is concerned, you are already dead, and your true life is a hidden one in God, through Christ. One day, Christ, who is your life, will show himself openly, and you will all share in that magnificent revelation.
(Colossians 2:20-3:4, Phillips)
The message of Christianity is not “Worldliness is bad.” It’s “Jesus is Lord.”
It’s not “Try not to sin.” It’s “Think about Jesus.”
When you look to Jesus, you see that your urges to sin are suppressed on their own. When you look to Jesus, you see peace, love, joy, freedom, better than anything in the world. When you look to Jesus, you see you don’t need any worldly pseudo-religious substitutes for closeness to Him. When you look to Jesus, you see that in Him you are already dead to the world. When you look to Jesus, you see that in Him you are already alive.
When you spend time with someone, you tend to become like them.
Spend time fretting about all the problems of sin and worldliness, and you may become just as sinful and worldly as those things. Spend time focusing on Jesus and all His goodness, grace, and love, and you’ll start to become like Him. Maybe without even knowing it.