The very word “worldly” immediately conjures lavish sights and sensual sounds in our minds, conscientiously inscribed there by preaching and teaching we have heard over the years. The nightclub’s throb and strobe stroking embodied sensuality is instantly associated with a more blatant side of worldliness. More sedate icons of worldliness include the sleek BMW parked in the triple garage of a well-groomed executive dwelling, where crystal tinkles and shallow conversations hum. Or perhaps your mental images of worldliness encompass entertainment and fashion choices and the kind of friends you hang out with. Whatever our personal “photo album” of worldliness may be, each of us must be wary of the error of limiting our concept of “worldliness” to tangible elements. When we do so, we greatly disadvantage ourselves against more sinister attacks of a devilish kind.
In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the older devil Screwtape advises his nephew Wormword about developing worldliness in humans as a work of time. In the first section of the letter, he chides Wormwood for his failure to ensnare his “patient” (human victim) with the kind of worldly sins that probably flash into most Christian’s minds at the mention of the word “worldly.”
He has escaped the worldly friends with whom you tried to entangle him; he has “fallen in love” with a very Christian woman and is temporarily immune from your attacks on his chastity; and the various methods of corrupting his spiritual life which we have been trying are so far unsuccessful.
Wormwood’s patient lives in London during the German bombing blitz of WWII. Since he has volunteered as an air raid warden, his safety is increasingly at risk while he is “forced to attend to his neighbours” and is “taken out of himself” by his volunteer work in the war effort. Apparently the young devil Wormwood has taken undue delight in the human suffering caused by the nightly bombings, forgetting that the ultimate devilish goal is to ensure that humans end up in the “kingdom of our Father” (hell) and not in the Enemy’s eternal world (heaven). Screwtape urges his nephew that the death of his patient at this time – while “his worldly hopes take a proportionately lower place in his mind, . . .and [he is] daily increasing in conscious dependence on the Enemy” – will most certainly mean that Wormwood loses him forever.
If, however, the patient survives the war, Screwtape has another tactic in mind. He advises:
. . .you have time itself for your ally. The long, dull monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather [for devils trying to tempt humans]. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it – all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition. If, on the other hand, the middle years prove prosperous, our position is even stronger. Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is “finding his place in it”, while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home in earth which is just what we want. . . .
This is worldliness of a different sort. More insidious than the glare of a more visible worldliness, it seeps into our souls as we grow tired of waiting for the promised heavenly reality of God’s unveiled glory and eternal satisfaction in Christ. Screwtape advises that the “difficult task of unraveling [human] souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth” is aided by time – and lots of it. He states, “Real worldliness is a work of time – assisted, of course, by pride, for we teach them to describe the creeping death [being at home in the world] as good sense or Maturity or Experience.”
It is this brand of worldliness that goes unnoticed in many Christian circles. While we rant about worldly dress, worldly music, worldly friends and worldly movies, we forget that worldliness is also a comfortable state of mind that has lulled us into living as though this life is all there is. This is true even where our comforts are “spiritual” activities as long as these activities are replacing real hunger for our ultimate union with Christ. We can become comfortable in our safety zones “away from the world” while the world has found a comfy resting place in our very souls through complacency and self-satisfaction.
That “friendship with the world” is something for a Christian to avoid is undeniable (James 4:4). The question is, “What do worldly lusts (Titus 2:12) look like?” Lewis describes it as the “creeping death” and “a sense of being really at home in earth.” How do you define worldliness?