Question: “What does it mean that we are not to love the world?”
Answer: First John 2:15-16 says, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.” Yet John 3:16 begins, “For God so loved the world. . . .” So, God loves the world, but we are not supposed to? Why the apparent contradiction?
In the Bible, the term world can refer to the earth and physical universe (Hebrews 1:2; John 13:1), but it most often refers to the humanistic system that is at odds with God (Matthew 18:7; John 15:19; 1 John 4:5). When the Bible says that God loves the world, it is referring to the human beings who live here (1 John 4:9). And as His children, we are to love other people (Romans 13:8; 1 John 4:7; 1 Peter 1:22). The parable of the Good Samaritan makes it clear we cannot pick and choose whom to love (Luke 10:30-37).
When we are told not to love the world, the Bible is referring to the world’s corrupt value system. Satan is the god of this world, and he has his own value system contrary to God’s (2 Corinthians 4:4). First John 2:16 details exactly what Satan’s system promotes: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life. Every sin imaginable can be summed up in those three evils; envy, adultery, pride, lying, selfishness, and more spring from those three roots.
The world is what we leave when we come to Christ. Isaiah 55:7 says that coming to God involves a forsaking of our own ways and thoughts. John Bunyan, in his book The Pilgrim’s Progress, pictures the believer’s position as having “his eyes lift up to heaven,” holding “the best of books” in his hand, and standing with “the world as cast behind him” (p. 34).
The world often applauds sin. Hollywood encourages us to envy sinners and to foolishly compare ourselves with the “beautiful people” (see Proverbs 23:17). Often the popularity of “stars” is due to their ability to stir in us dissatisfaction with our own lives. Advertisers prey on our natural tendency to love this world, and most marketing campaigns appeal in some way to the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, or the pride of life.
Loving the world means being devoted to the world’s treasures, philosophies, and priorities. God tells His children to set their priorities according to His eternal value system. We are to “seek first” God’s kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6:33). No one can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24), and we cannot be devoted to both God and the world at the same time.
When we enter God’s family through faith in Christ, God gives us the ability to exit the world’s rat race (2 Corinthians 5:17). We become citizens of another kingdom (Philippians 1:27, 3:20). Our desires turn heavenward, and we begin to store up eternal treasure (Luke 12:33; Matthew 19:21; 1 Timothy 6:18-19). We realize that what is truly important is eternal, not temporal, and we stop loving the world.
To continue to love the world the way unbelievers do will cripple our spiritual growth and render us fruitless for God’s kingdom (Matthew 3:8; Luke 6:43-45; John 15:1-8). In John 12:25, Jesus took this thought a step further when He said, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Not loving the world extends to our own lives as well. Jesus said if we love anything more than Him, we are not worthy of Him (Matthew 10:37-38).
In general, the term world in the Bible refers to the evil system controlled by Satan that leads us away from worship of God. John Calvin said, “The human heart is an idol factory.” We can make idols out of anything. Any passionate desire of our hearts that is not put there by God for His glory can become an idol (1 Corinthians 10:31). Loving the world is idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:7, 14). So, while we are commanded to love the people of the world, we are to be wary of anything that competes with God for our highest affections.