This final post from Revelation is inspired by God’s haunting call in chapter 18.
“Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues” Rev 18:4
Leaving aside any arguments about how literally the events of John’s vision were or are to be fulfilled, or whether the events belong to first century, the whole of human history, or some future time, I want to distill this plea down to what I believe it communicates about God. And about the people of God.
Whether Babylon the great is a symbolic name for Rome or for some current or future empire, this Babylon is unquestionably a dominant, decadently wealthy, degraded, and corrupt society.
From this point on, I will be assuming that we all agree that this is precisely the sort of situation we have in the west today.
With that in mind, I have two observations about the relationship between this type of society and the people of God:
1. God’s people can be “in” Babylon the great.
2. God doesn’t want them to be.
I’m not going to make a fiery pronouncement that the contemporary western church is “within the harlot, Babylon the great,” but I do feel bold enough to say that I don’t see us doing much to avoid being in such a position, either.
It’s like we don’t think it’s possible to find ourselves there. Which, interestingly, is exactly what the unfortunate Babylon thinks about herself.
“…she says in her heart, ‘ I sit as a queen and I am not a widow, and will never see mourning. ‘ Rev 18:7
We all know that’s not what happens…
I believe that at least part of the problem is that (much like our view of false prophets) we imagine “worldly Christians” to be of a very different sort than ourselves. They wake each morning intending to be selfish. Their compromises are all premeditated. They shamelessly and blatantly chase after extravagant wealth, ease, and comfort, fully conscious of, but wholly unmoved by their willingness to sacrifice their relationship with God for the sake of their worldly goals.
Unless we wake one day to find ourselves being intentionally and unapologetically wicked and greedy, we feel we’ve got nothing to worry about.
Why on earth, then, are there so many warnings to believers to avoid the snare of loving the world?
This danger is a huge concern in scripture. The following is just a small sampling of passages that sound the alarm most succinctly.
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2
“For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.” 1 John 2:16-17
“You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” James 4:4
Were early believers so much more susceptible to the lure of worldliness than we are? If we believe that, we can be sure that we’ve at least got the market cornered on arrogance.
I’m guessing it happened pretty much the same way back then as it does today. The world is always talking—shouting, really. Telling us what we need. Which car, house, appliances, clothes, toys, vacations, schools, or connections will prove that we are a success. It tells us which lifestyle promises the most health and fulfillment. It tells us what to value, and how we should raise our children.
It will sing us a soothing lullaby or publically chastise us. Whatever works. Whatever keeps the spirit-filled, powerful, unstoppable people of God tame and docile. Manageable and unthreatening.
Of course, we’re all influenced to one degree or another, often without our even knowing it. But why is the voice of the world allowed to blast its message through a megaphone straight into the church? Why do we let it soothe us or shame us into submission? Why do we seem to not even know it is happening?
One major contributing factor is our biblical ignorance. We know the memory verses and have a lifetime of Sunday school theology, but remain unaware of fundamental Biblical themes. We think we’ve got it down, so instead of saturating ourselves in the word of God to set the standard of how we are going to live, we look to others in order to justify ourselves. We either assume / hope that whatever everyone else is doing is the acceptable Christian standard and we copy it, or we pursue the world a little less than our neighbors, feel good about the comparison, and continue basically living for ourselves.
Believers are to be in the world, but not of the world.
It’s a good saying. A succinct summary of a biblical concept (1 Cor 5:9-10).
I like it.
But from where I sit, it doesn’t appear we give much thought to what this would actually look like.
Or worse, we have the nerve to act like it is confusing.
We aren’t embarrassed to philosophize with each other about this. With our best wide-eyed, furrow-browed, Christian-thinker faces, we ask,
“What does “in the world, but not of the world” mean… really?”
Oh, come on.
We’re not confused.
We know that not being of the world means that we don’t live the way the world does. We don’t value what it values. We don’t think like it thinks. We don’t pursue what it pursues. We live for the things that are important to God. We base our worldview on HIS word. We invest our lives, ourselves, and our resources in eternal things. We put our treasure in heaven, so our hearts will be there too. We don’t live for our own comfort. We don’t live as though our emotional satisfaction and the optimal health of our physical bodies are the greatest good, or anything like our highest priorities. We assume that blessings come our way in order to be poured back out into others. We don’t amass stuff and wealth for our own pleasure and security.(And by the way, anyone with a comfortable home, a working vehicle, and plenty of food and clothing is wealthy.) We hold what we do have loosely. We take risks—physically, financially, emotionally, and otherwise—for the kingdom, and for the sake of love.
Like Jesus did.
The more we are not of the world, the less we need Babylon The Great. Her demise isn’t our demise, because we were never really a part of her system. We didn’t invest in her and we didn’t bet on her.
I’m not talking about pulling all our money from the bank and burying it, or investing it all in gold. Neither am I suggesting that anyone should fill their basement with millet and bottled water, or build a fallout shelter.
It’s more about why we do what we do. If we define success as having engaged in an honest pursuit of God’s heart, and having endeavored to sacrificially give of ourselves and our resources for the furtherance of the kingdom of God, then there is nothing that can stop us from being successful. The world may insult us, mock us, fight us, and hate us, but it cannot stop us. Babylon has no power to destroy our work or take away our reward.
If, however, success in this life is determined by the arbitrary standards of our profession, our academy, our peer group, or our neighbors and family, we are constantly threatened by failure. And if the primary motive for our choices in life is attaining to a certain level of affluence, notoriety, or security, we will suffer loss. Even if our efforts produce the desired effect, these small and fleeting pleasures will be all the reward we get, and all we have to show for our lives. And should these conventions betray us or themselves be destroyed, we have nothing at all. We’re of the world and we will suffer it’s fate.
It seems like, inevitably, our dishonest hearts want to avoid wrestling with the obvious and the doable, and justify ourselves with the theoretical and potentially impossible. Instead of asking, “what can I do now with what I have in order to repent and begin investing in the kingdom more?,” we want to ask, “Does Jesus really want me to sell everything I have and give the money to the poor?” Or, “Am I really not supposed to care at all about food and clothing?”
If you really wonder, by all means, ask away, but please let’s not use those questions as a pause button for repentance. While we’re figuring it out, there’s plenty we know to do, and plenty at our disposal with which to do it.
My husband has this great question he’s been asking during a recent sermon series on Isaiah 58. He lists the things that make up our lives (time, money, possessions, interests, hobbies, life goals, education, relationships, etc.) Then he asks us to consider,
Do I see these things as a means to themselves?
Do I see these things as a means to invest in the kingdom of God?
By asking this simple question of myself, I become increasingly aware of how much I’ve swallowed the Kool-Aid and allowed the world to influence what I live for.
So, I understand.
I get how hard it is to even admit that I’ve had unbiblical, anti-kingdom habits and perspectives my whole adult life. I understand that it’s even harder to muster the courage to take practical steps toward repentance. And I know it’s harder still to persevere in those lifestyle changes long enough to establish new habits and see fruit. But since when is difficulty or trepidation a good reason to hide from our own purpose and drug ourselves with the world?
Allowing an intimidating ideal to rivet us in place is, at best, illogical and unproductive. At worst, it’s a diabolically dishonest attempt to justify our own unwillingness to let go of our love and pursuit of the world.
It has been said that religion is the opiate of the masses.
I think worldliness is the opiate of the floundering, unfruitful religious.
“If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” John 15:19
So what if the world doesn’t hate you? I don’t think the world hates me very much. They probably would if they knew what I believed. But they don’t. My life doesn’t confront the world enough for it to take any notice of what I believe, because my life looks too much like the world. Frankly, the same can be said for my church. And the church down the road.
Certainly, there are individuals, groups, and churches who intentionally opt out of Babylon, offering themselves and their resources for Christ and his kingdom. They make sacrifices and they take hits for their faithfulness.
You know how we see them?
Sometimes we see them as superheroes of the faith. Sometimes we see them as good-hearted, but misguided zealots who should slow down before they get burned out and become emotionally unhealthy.
You know how I think we should see them?
As normal Christians.
They don’t have a special calling. They have the same one as the rest of us.
They’re just doing it.
You know why?
I’m inclined to think it is because they really believe that investing in the kingdom has better returns than investing in worldly successes and temporary pleasures.
What could we be if we all really believed that enough to live like it was true?