Christians are supposed to be worldly.
Wordly not in the sense of indiscriminately consuming all that pop culture produces, nor blowing with the wind of prevailing notions of morality or spirituality. Rather, Christians are called to be “worldly” because whatever we eat or drink, or whatever menial we do, is to be done for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). God created a material world and declared it to be good (Genesis 1:31), and created us in material bodies that will be resurrected and live forever (1 Corinthians 15:22). The ultimate home of God’s children is not an incorporeal “floaty” dimension but a tangible New Heavens and New Earth (Revelation 21:1). And we are called to be salt and light in society (Matthew 5:13-16), caring for the disenfranchised (James 1:27), and performing tangible acts of good (Ephesians 2:10) — not idly waiting for the end of the world.
Since the Bible indeed teaches that the material world really matters, when we are warned by the Lord Jesus Christ that the “cares of the world” can literally suffocate God’s truth in our hearts, we ought especially to take heed.
Specifically, in the parable of the four soils, Jesus warns us of when “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mark 4:18-19, ESV).
The gospel is the seed, our hearts are the soil, and saving faith is represented in germination and fruitfulness. Jesus enumerates three particular weeds in the garden that can inhibit us from fully embracing the gospel and persevering to eternal life — the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things. Simply put, the question is, how can we avoid being too worldly (in the negative sense)?
The Cares of the World
Why does Jesus warn us of the cares of the world?
We ought not to be so thick as to think that Jesus is instructing us to forego all bodily necessities — or, as some have perhaps been more inclined to think, that he is recommending to us a withdrawn, monastic lifestyle of all piety and no praxis.
Elsewhere, Jesus commands us, “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32). Subbing out “pagans” for “Gentiles,” we’re reminded that worshipers of Israel’s God already knew better than to doubt God’s goodness. Jesus frees us from the daily anxieties experienced by all who do not know God, the all-sufficient supplier.
It is not evil to want food, clothing, or even comfort per se. But when our lives’ aim becomes anxiously toiling to secure such provision, we reveal how little we trust God as sovereign provider. We are in just as much danger of insulting God through hurried living that never opens its hands to heaven as we are through explicit idolatry.
Hence he enjoins us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” If we seek the cares of the world first, we gain nothing eternal. We can no more care for worldly and spiritual things than our souls can have two masters. And if we were to honestly appraise ourselves, if we were as busied, double-minded, and fretful when we first received the gospel as most of us are now, we might never have responded in faith at all.
The Deceitfulness of Riches
Money is not inherently evil — it is God who “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17) and is to be credited for “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).
But wealth is uncertain. Riches promise a level of comfort, safety, and satisfaction that can only be found in Christ. They cannot deliver; they are uncertain (1 Timothy 6:17). We cannot take them with us beyond the grave, nor can they ensure our wellbeing when disaster strikes.
By contrast, the only unshakable, eternal guarantee of comfort, safety, and satisfaction is the promise of life forever in whose presence is “fullness of joy” and “pleasures… forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Jesus secures this in his own blood. That is the gospel. And for that reason, the apostles and even Jesus himself often compare our eternal hope with wealth.
We are to store up true “treasure” where moth and rust cannot destroy (Matthew 6:20, 1 Timothy 6:19), enjoying the real spiritual riches of Christ (Ephesians 1:18, 2:17). Worldly wealth so allures us that the writers of Scripture must awaken us by likening the incomparable worth of Christ to “riches,” though the greatest earthly treasures are trash compared to our eternal inheritance.
Christ is enough. In him, we are richer than the wealthiest man apart from Christ. We are daily in need of such reminders of the weight of eternal things, lest the immediacy of earthly concerns drown out the word of God.
Desire for Other Things
“Desire for other things.” Jesus, why so vague?
But the generality of these words is by design. In them Jesus encompasses all which the human heart is capable of idolizing — namely, everything there is.
Even good things — family, marriage, and so forth — must take the backseat to Christ. There is a real sense in which, though we have dealings with the world, we ought to inwardly renounce them as though we had no worldly dealings whatsoever (1 Corinthians 7:29).
Desire drives our lives. When our our passions lead us away from God, the problem is not desire itself, but disorder. We are to long for he who is ultimately most lovely. Daily we ought to pray, “In the path of your judgments, O LORD, we wait for you; your name and remembrance are the desire of our soul” (Isaiah 26:8).
Only when we are driven by a desire for God above all else will we truly embrace the gospel for all it is and bear fruit.
Yes, Christians are called to be worldly. We are free to enjoy family, work, leisure, food, drink, and perhaps even a good smoke (depending who you ask). We are called to impact culture as we live out the gospel in our families and other institutions. But we must be worldly without “caring.” Otherwise, the seed planted in us may spring up and suddenly choke.