1 John 2:15-16 reads: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh [the sin nature] and the desires of the eyes [which relates to the warped perspective we sometimes have] and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.” (Pride is the root of all other sins. It is rebellion against God and self-sufficiency. It is the attitude: “I can make it on my own. I don’t need God. I’m going to do things my way. Don’t tell me what to do.”)
The world as it is now is under the curse of sin. This is the world we are not supposed to love. Now, we should certainly love the world as created by God. (Of course, in the beginning Eden was a perfect world, and the world to come—the New Earth—will be a great and wondrous world.) So it is not the earth we are supposed to reject and avoid (in fact we can’t avoid it), and certainly we are not supposed to hate people or culture. What we should hate is sin.
“Don’t love the world” in John 2:15 doesn’t mean “don’t love the world” that is spoken of in John 3:16, where the same word, cosmos, is used. What does “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son” mean? It doesn’t mean God loved the sin of the world. It means God loved the people in the world. Obviously, when Scripture says to us in 1 John 2, “Don’t love the world,” it’s not telling us, “Don’t love the people of the world.” Rather, it is telling us, “Don’t love the sin of the world.”
In terms of what that practically means, I think it involves not being mesmerized by popular culture. One of the negative things I see in the American church today is its preoccupation with pop culture. It has become so much a part of us that we tend to be immersed in exactly the same things as the people around us. It’s not an inherently bad thing to watch a decent television program, go to a music concert or enjoy some arts or sports that are decent and don’t contain anything that specifically violates Scripture. (And hopefully they have some things that not just avoid violating Scripture, but are actually in accord with it and honor it.) There are such things in our culture, and they can be very positive. But let’s face it—there are a lot that aren’t.
Sometimes we as Christians love the world around us in a way that draws our hearts away from God. Now, of course you can love the people in the world in the right sense and have your heart drawn toward God. But we need to guard against loving the decadent, cultural elements that appeal to our sin nature, pride and independence. These things are not pleasing to God.
I think that’s really what 1 John 2 is saying. I don’t know that it takes a lot of courage to say we should avoid being captivated by the world, but it does take courage to actually live out those words. One way we can begin to do that is by asking ourselves, “What are the novels I’m reading?” “What are the movies I’m watching?” “What are the things that preoccupy me?” “What are the things I talk about?” “Am I proud of my favorite professional, college or high school team and willing to talk about and defend that team, and yet am ashamed of the Gospel of Christ?” Something is fundamentally wrong if we won’t talk to people about Jesus with any kind of passion and enthusiasm like we talk about a sports team or a movie or a TV program. Those things can become idolatrous. The passions we invest in other things should be directed to Jesus.
The warning of 1 John 2:15-16 corresponds beautifully to the last verse of 1 John which says, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” An idol is any God-substitute, anything we make bigger than Him. If we take some element of popular culture—whether it’s our leisure, pastime, hobby, or special interest in sports or arts or music—and make that an idol instead of serving the Lord, it becomes our god. We are set in orbit around it, and God becomes secondary. Idolatry is when God is removed from the throne and something else is put in His place. But God must always be primary.
So we should ask ourselves, “Is anything more important to me than God?” If it is, it is an idol and should be taken down. We should also ask ourselves: “Is this activity I’ve been involved in or place I’ve been going to contaminating me by tempting me toward sin and helping me be entertained by sin? Do I find myself laughing at a joke that should make me cringe?” If it’s something that makes God in His holiness angry, and calls upon the wrath of God in judgment, why would we desire to be entertained by it and laugh at it? That’s why we should examine our hearts and get on our knees before the Lord. We need to seek His forgiveness and ask Him to convict us of areas of sin in our lives not when we’re loving the beauty of God’s world or the people of the world, but when we’re loving the world’s idols instead of loving God.