I sometimes feel like the doctor with the lab report that doesn’t have good news. I know people are not always going to like the diagnosis when they ask, as you have, to explain the stilted and limited growth in their lives.
I don’t know how to say this without provoking your ire. Your problem is worldliness. By even the broadest, loosest, most tolerant definition of worldly, you are that. The values, loves, and ambitions of this world are yours, and you smile, admire, and cheer for what the world does.
Now all Christians must battle with worldliness, for as John tells us, it is primarily a matter of desires, and so it begins in the heart, not in some external environment (1 John 2:16). But your worldliness is of a particularly spiritually debilitating kind. Yours is what I call amphibian worldliness.
An amphibian creature can successfully live in two environments: water and land. Most Christians become very uncomfortable when worldliness begins to suffocate their spirituality, and they come to church convicted and ashamed. They sense their need to forsake lukewarmness, and to be either hot or cold.
The amphibian Christian has unfortunately mastered the ability to live in two environments, and feel little conviction. Bikinis and tequilas on vacation, formal wear and King James Bibles to church. Game of Thrones on Friday night, Hymns of Grace on Sunday morning. Salacious jokes during the week, sobriety and study on the Lord’s Day. Club music on Saturday night, orchestral on Sunday morning. Ostentatious materialism on some days, conscientious frugality on another.
The amphibian approach is rooted in a conceit: “I am not a compromiser; I am adaptable. I am not two-faced; I am socially agile.” This re-casting of your worldliness as flexibility allows you to actually feel somewhat patronising to everyone you meet. When you are around me, or other believers at church, you can think to yourself, “Shame, such sweetly simple and devoted Christians; so oblivious to the sophisticated circles that I run in, so naive to the world.” When you are around worldly associates or acquaintances, you can think to yourself, “Shame, how little these people know about the spiritual side of life; how ignorant they are of the deep theology I hear every Sunday; how shallow their lives must be without God.” You see how it works? That way, the difference between you and others is always explained away as a deficiency in others. With this conceit, you feel no conviction for being more worldly than Christians at church, and no conviction for not being more of a testimony to the worldlings you meet. Everyone comes under your smiling pity.
In fact, attending a conservative church becomes a kind of foil for your worldliness. You are not drawn to worldly, pragmatic churches, for you know they are just the worldly pig with some Christian lipstick on the snout. So the conservative church becomes a kind of balance for your worldliness. The conservative church service serves as a kind of de-tox for the previous few days, or a kind of quasi-Catholic penance for sins committed. After a hard week’s immersion in worldliness, nothing like some 17th-century hymns and a 45-minute sermon as a spiritual emetic, or as a rod to the back to pay for the worldly indiscretions.
Of course, the longer you do this, the less worldly your worldliness seems. Your conscience readjusts to see it as liberty in Christ, or as just “edgy fun”, or some other word designed to make the worldly seem both exciting and permissible: “naughty”, “racy”, “party”, “epic”, and so on. Or, you begin the process of caricaturing Christians less worldly than yourself: “prim and puritanical”, “dowdy”, “legalistic”, “gloomy”, “narrow”. Now it may be that some Christians who reject your worldliness are as boring and glum as you say they are. But if so, that is their fault, and it lends no credence to your worldliness. That some Christians fail to find holy joy is no argument for the pursuit of sinful joy.
The apostle John explains why you cannot successfully live this way. Loves of opposing systems are opposing loves, both in object and in nature (1 John 2:15). Such loves cannot live in the same heart at the same time. One is ascendant, and the other is being strangled out. The problem with worldly Christians is that they spend all their time trying to defend their practices, not noticing that the real trouble lies in their desires. It is loving this world’s celebrities, brands, entertainments, and fashions that makes you worldly, not simply knowing them, or having them, or using them. This is why Paul spoke of “those who use this world as not misusing it” (1 Corinthians 7:31). It is necessary to use this world, and it possible to use it without misusing it. Misuse of the world includes idolising it, loving it as an end and not a means, viewing it without eternity in mind, failing to see its temporality, and coveting its accolades. Worldliness is a kind of loyalty: it finds some identity and citizenship in this world system. That is what God finds abominable, and that is where repentance must begin.
The second thing you will have to do is decide to be unpopular somewhere, with someone. “Woe unto you when all men speak well of you,” said the Lord. Displeasing some worldling, some family member, some provocateur, some old school friend is inevitable if you shun worldliness. Friendship with the world is enmity with God, and you have to accept that loyalty to Christ includes some division.
Third, you must become more discerning about the meaning of what you do and use, particularly in your recreational and leisure times. Instead of just “doing what we’ve always done”, start asking if that activity, that conversation, that drink, that song, that movie, drove you to the beauty of holiness, or increased the spiritual numbness of worldliness. Some things just have to be abandoned by consecrated Christians.
In the end, Ted, you are still wrestling with a very elementary question: can I put all my eggs in the basket of love for Christ, and still enjoy my life? You know what my answer is. You have to decide what yours will be.
Praying for you,