John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world . . .”
1 John 2:15 says, “Do not love the world . . .”
There’s an apparent contradiction—a mixed message—here. You can’t get around it linguistically. The same author wrote these verses using the verb agapaō for
love and the noun kosmos for
world in each case. Either we are not supposed to imitate God by loving the world, or there’s some other explanation.
Let’s take a closer look.
. . .
What is Love?
If the first thing that comes to your mind is
baby, don’t hurt me, I’m truly sorry. Love, by divine example, is self-sacrificing. Jesus demonstrated his love by dying for us while we were still his enemies. Love is the power that strengthens us to turn the other cheek when unjustly assaulted. Love is the ability to utter that famous prayer,
Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34, NRSV).
Loving the world is something else entirely. It’s described in the next verse as lust, greed, and pride—three vices that are self-centered, rather than self-giving. Kruse makes this point well:
The love involved in this exhortation carries a different meaning from the love (of fellow believers) mentioned in 2:10. There love is focused on the well-being of another, whereas here it is focused on the pleasure and gratification one hopes to receive.
What is the World?
Again, there’s something different going on here. Sometimes kosmos refers to the entire creation (something God declared good). Other times, it refers to people living on the planet. At still other times, it takes on a negative meaning: the good creation led into rebellion by the Evil One. Here’s how a couple other venerated commentators describe this usage of
The life of human society as organized under the power of evil. (Dodd)
The order of finite being regarded as apart from God. (Westcott)
I hope the mixed message is cleared up. Yes, God loved (self-sacrificially) the world (his created order, including humans). Yes, we are not to love (a twisted, self-centered lust) the world (creation-in-rebellion).
Why not, you might ask? John offered two good reasons.
. . .
I would be remiss here if I didn’t mention one of my favourite songs by Mike Roe (from the 77s): “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes, and the Pride of Life”. Why not give it a listen?
Let’s take a closer look at these three vices:
- Lust of the flesh: This refers to morally negative human cravings. Often, the first thing we think about is sexual lust, but this expression is certainly not limited to that. Dare I mention gluttony?
- Lust of the eyes: This is what makes democratic society spin ’round. Consumerism, greed, and covetousness are all ways of speaking of this lust: the desire for things you don’t have.
- Pride of Life: As if the lust of the eyes (greed for what you don’t have) isn’t enough, this third vice is taking pride in those things that you do have! Anything in the created kosmos has the ability to be used as a temptation when commanded by the Evil One.
So, then, why shouldn’t we love the world? Because continual love for the world (as exemplified by those three vices) show that the love of the Father is not in us! If our so-called love is self-centered and ingrown, there’s no room for the Father’s love.
. . .
The world-in-rebellion (and all those things we desire, lust after, and are proud of) is transitory. Passing. On it’s way out.
We’ve heard this before:
The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. (v. 8, NRSV)
It makes no sense to spend our time lusting after the world when it is passing away. We could be doing things that last eternally! I should mention here that I’m not just referring to witnessing. In my tradition, that was often preached as the one thing that bears eternal value. It does bear eternal value, but there’s more to life-in-Christ than that. John said that those who “do the will of God” live forever. God’s will is life-encompassing. His will is life-giving. God’s desire is that we live eternal life now, doing those things that will endure in the new creation.