You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? (James 4:4)
Once upon a time, a young king made a disturbing discovery. He found a newborn baby girl lying out in a field. She was a mess: naked, covered with bloody slime, her birth cord still dangling. Nobody had bothered to clean her up or put any clothing on her. Apparently she had been abandoned the moment she was born. Nobody wanted her. She had been left to die.
The king’s heart ached with pity for the little one. He decided to give that filthy, helpless infant a chance to live. He picked her up in his arms, wiped her clean, wrapped her in his royal robe, and carried her to one of his estates. There, he placed her in the care of trusted friends and told them to give her an excellent upbringing and provide a superb education.
Years later, the king visited that estate and noticed that the baby he had rescued years earlier had become a lovely young woman. The king fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. She agreed, and they had a grand wedding. The king cherished his queen and lavished his riches on her. He gave her sweet perfumes, gorgeous dresses, costly jewelry, and a splendid crown. The queen became famous worldwide for her beauty. It seemed like a fairytale marriage.
But the fairy tale went bad. The queen became proud of her beauty, fine clothes, and jewelry. She got tired of her husband. She decided she could make money and enjoy herself more if she used her glamour to become a prostitute. She began selling her body to any stranger who was willing to pay, and she spent the money on wild parties. She didn’t want the babies who had been born to her and the king, so she had them killed. After awhile, her beauty faded. Nobody would pay for her body anymore. So the queen started paying others to act out filthy fantasies with her.
How was the king supposed to react to all this? He had shown his wife great kindness and given her many gifts, but she had decided to seek satisfaction elsewhere. In the end, the king called her before his throne and roared,
“You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband! Every prostitute receives a fee, but you give gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from everywhere for your illicit favors.
“Therefore, you prostitute, because you poured out your wealth and exposed your nakedness in your promiscuity with your lovers, and because you gave them your children’s blood, therefore I am going to gather all your lovers, with whom you found pleasure, those you loved as well as those you hated. I will gather them against you from all around and will strip you in front of them, and they will see your nakedness. I will sentence you to the punishment of women who commit adultery and who shed blood; I will bring upon you the blood vengeance of my wrath and jealous anger. Then I will hand you over to your lovers. They will strip you of your clothes and take your fine jewelry and leave you naked and bare. They will bring a mob against you, who will stone you and hack you to pieces with swords.
“Because you did not remember the days of your youth but enraged me with all these things, I will surely bring down on your head what you have done.”
God’s Unfaithful Bride
That’s not how a fairy tale is supposed to unfold, is it? But this is not a fairy tale. It’s a story God himself tells in the Bible, in Ezekiel 16. Why would the Lord tell such a disturbing, disgusting story? God told this story to show what it’s like when we forget his kindness, misuse his gifts, love other things more than we love him, and enjoy worldly pursuits rather than finding our supreme enjoyment in the Lord himself.
Originally, God spoke these words to his Old Testament people of Israel. Israel had once been a newborn nation, filthy, helpless, about to die in Egyptian slavery, with no one to help—but the Lord had loved her with tender pity and saved her from Egypt. As Israel grew and matured, she became a rich, impressive nation. The Lord loved her with the fierce passion of a husband for his wife, and he heaped blessings on her. What wondrous love! But Israel forsook her heavenly husband, went after worldly pursuits, and committed spiritual adultery by worshiping man-made idols instead of God. What hideous betrayal! God said that if Israel found other gods more attractive and wanted to give herself to the false gods of other nations, she could have them. God would hand Israel over to the cruelty of those nations and the ugliness and emptiness of their religions. Israel was invaded and carried off into exile.
Sad to say, history sometimes repeats itself. In the Old Testament, God spoke of Israel as his bride, and in the New Testament, the Lord speaks of the church as Christ’s bride. But how has Christ’s bride been behaving? Many of us are church members and call ourselves Christians, but how faithful have we been to our heavenly husband? All too often, our conduct has been as rotten and offensive as a cherished wife who becomes a prostitute. The Lord has gone out of his way to rescue us from ruin, he’s given us all sorts of good things, but many of us have responded, not by loving him, but by becoming proud of ourselves, misusing his gifts, and seeking satisfaction in anything but God.
When we don’t find our happiness and satisfaction in the Lord, we look for happiness elsewhere. Some worship sex and money, and if a baby is conceived and hampers sexual freedom or interferes with plans to make money, abortion is used to kill the baby God created. God’s story about a wife-become-prostitute, who kills babies as part of her lifestyle, is right on target. In ancient Israel people were killing babies as human sacrifices to idols of sex and success, and today many people—including some who consider themselves Christians—still kill babies as part of a lifestyle where sex and success matter more than the Lord.
Baby-killing is often a bloody side effect of spiritual adultery, but that doesn’t mean everybody who never aborted a baby or killed another person has not committed spiritual adultery. A spiritual adulterer is anyone who isn’t satisfied with God and falls into the embrace of the world. A spiritual adulterer is anyone who enjoys the world’s ways more than God’s ways.
A spiritual adulterer would rather listen to ungodly music than sing God’s praise. A spiritual adulterer would rather watch a show filled with filthy language, violence, and nudity than be entranced by the beauty of God’s holiness. A spiritual adulterer would rather end an evening smirking with late-night comedians than studying Scripture. A spiritual adulterer would rather dress in showy, expensive clothing or in skimpy, seductive fashion than dress modestly as God commands. A spiritual adulterer would rather divorce a dull spouse than keep marriage promises as the Bible commands. A spiritual adulterer would rather spend hours playing golf than praying to God. A spiritual adulterer would rather spend Sunday shopping than worshipping. A spiritual adulterer would rather show off a fine house or a fancy car than boast of God’s riches in Jesus Christ. A spiritual adulterer would rather play the lottery or casino than be satisfied with God’s care and the fruit of hard work. A spiritual adulterer would rather sue somebody for millions than patiently endure being wronged for Christ’s sake. A spiritual adulterer would rather invest more and more in stocks and bonds than invest in spreading the gospel or helping the needy. A spiritual adulterer cares more about a healthy economy than holy morality.
Spiritual adulterers would rather fit in and be approved by the world than please God. Spiritual adulterers find their greatest pleasure in the world’s entertainment, the world’s success, and the world’s enjoyments. They live by the world’s standards. The underlying reason is that their love and desire is focused on the world rather than on God.
To all such people, the Bible says in James 4:4, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” Those are strong words. God doesn’t just mildly suggest that worldliness might be a bit of a weakness in the way you relate to God. He says worldliness makes you an adulterer and a prostitute! The Lord doesn’t say that if you’re worldly, you don’t love God quite as much as you should; he says you hate God and are his enemy. Getting cozy with the world is a fatal friendship. It’s fatal to the way you relate to God, and it’s fatal for your eternal soul.
The Lord tells worldly people what he told ancient Israel: “You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband! You prostitute! You have enraged me, and I will surely bring down on your head what you have done.” If you think this sounds exaggerated, keep in mind that these are the words of God himself—and God always means what he says.
So if you’re not sure what it means to be worldly or why friendship with the world is fatal, you need to find out. You need your worldliness replaced with godliness, with a longing to know Jesus, to enjoy his riches and his love, and to love him with your whole being.
There is nothing greater than to know Christ in his death and resurrection and to live in his love forever—and there is nothing worse than to despise God’s love and seek satisfaction in the world apart from God. Over and over throughout the Bible, God uses various pictures to make this point.
One picture is of working for a boss. “No servant can serve two masters,” says Jesus. “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Luke 16:13). You can’t work for two competing companies and two rival bosses at the same time. You can be loyal to only one. If you work for this world, you don’t work for God. In fact, you hate God.
Another way the Bible pictures this is in terms of citizenship. You can’t be a loyal citizen of two different nations that are at war with each other. If you’re a loyal citizen of one, you are an enemy of the other. People whose mind is on earthly things are enemies of the cross of Christ, says the apostle Paul. Their god is their appetite, and their destiny is destruction. “But,” says Paul to followers of Christ, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:18-20).
Still another biblical picture is one we looked at earlier: marriage. You can’t have a healthy marriage with your spouse and at the same time be involved in adultery and prostitution with others. In the Bible God shows himself as a tender helper and loving husband with whom we could be forever happy. He also says that loving the world instead of him is spiritual adultery and prostitution. This is one of the most powerful pictures for seeing the wonder of God’s love and the horror of worldliness. “You adulterous people,” exclaims the apostle James, “don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?”
This helps us to understand what God means when he says, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). The fact that God is jealous doesn’t mean he’s petty; it means he’s possessive, as any good husband is possessive. If a husband learns his wife is having an affair and smiles and says he doesn’t mind, does that mean he’s an excellent, loving husband? No, it means he doesn’t care about her or their relationship. A truly loving husband is jealous: he refuses to share his wife with others. So too, God’s love is jealous and possessive. He doesn’t want us to give our hearts to anyone but him. He won’t put up with spiritual adultery and prostitution. God requires undivided loyalty.
Sometimes, though, we think we can have it both ways. We want everything the world around us wants, but at the same time we want to maintain some sort of relationship with God. Even if we don’t really love God or enjoy him, we figure we may need him in order to get some of the things we want. We don’t really like listening or talking with God, but we pray anyway, in the hope that he’ll give us more of the worldly things we love.
What are your prayers like? Is prayer a time first of all to enjoy the company of your Father in heaven and seek the things he wants? Or do you go to God mostly when you want something and need God’s help to get it? In that case, don’t be shocked if your prayers aren’t answered. “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3). Right after saying this, James goes on to say, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?”
Of all forms of worldliness, perhaps the most disgusting to God is worldliness in prayer. What could be worse than going to God and asking him to give us the worldly things we love more than him? It’s like a wife going to her husband and asking him to arrange an extramarital affair for her to enjoy or like asking a spouse for money to go out and hire a prostitute. Spiritual adultery is bad enough without praying to God for the resources to embrace the world even more than we already do.
In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s name be hallowed, that his kingdom come, that his will be done, that we live in the grace of forgiveness, that we not be led into temptation but delivered from evil. That is true prayer for someone who loves God and hates sin. As we pray for God to glorify himself and free us from sin, we may also pray for our daily bread, for enough to sustain us for another day of life. But that’s a far cry from presenting God with a long wish list of worldly things we think we need to be happy, without ever seeking the glory of his name or the growth of his kingdom. It’s a far cry from being so attached to this world that we pray eagerly to be spared from disease and death and find nothing attractive about leaving this world to be with Christ.
Worldliness can appear when we dress in worldly fashions or watch worldly entertainment or laugh at worldly jokes or pursue worldly wealth, but worldliness may be at its worst when we’re on our knees in what we think are our most pious moments. We may be talking to heaven, but our mind is on earthly things. We don’t want to talk to God about anything but our health, our finances, our success, our relationships, the big game we want to win, the good job we want to get, or whatever else in this world seems more important for our happiness than God.
You may wonder, “What’s wrong with praying for God’s help with day to day concerns?” Nothing—if you find your supreme happiness in God and not in those things. Many of these things aren’t bad in themselves. In fact, they may be good gifts from God. But they may never replace God in our affections.
It’s helpful to notice two different meanings of “the world” and two kinds of worldliness. Sometimes the Bible speaks of “the world” as a sinful system. “The world” in this sense—a group mindset of evil desires and peer pressure and rebellion against God—is something we must utterly reject and leave behind.
Sometimes, though, the Bible speaks of “the world” in a more positive way, as the earth God created and populated with living things and with people made in his image. In this sense, “the world” is something God made and upholds and loves, and it is something we should value and enjoy with thanks to God. It is a terrible blunder to take Bible verses about “the world” as a sinful system and misapply those verses to “the world” as physical creation. At times some religious people have wrongly regarded food or bodies or sex or science as evils to be frowned upon. But it is not sinful to savor a delicious meal or to delight in union with your spouse or to pursue scientific discoveries. These things are good gifts from God. However, even when we think of “the world” in this positive sense, we must beware of loving the created world more than the Creator. Many created things aren’t evil as such, but even when they’re good, we can become attached to them in a way that is evil.
We need to beware of two different forms of worldliness. One kind of worldliness delights in things in this world that are by nature degrading and sinful: pornography, perversion, immodest clothing, devilish music, cruelty to competitors, violence, gambling, gossip, lying, drunkenness, and other worldly practices that are just plain sinful and wicked. Doing these things, or being entertained by such things in movies and magazines, tabloids and TV, is evil and offensive to God.
But there’s another form of worldliness in which the problem isn’t so much loving bad things instead of good, but loving good things instead of the best. To enjoy a lovely spouse, to work hard and earn a large income, to read a fine book or watch a thrilling drama, to be healthy and good looking—there’s nothing wrong with such things in and of themselves. In fact, they are good gifts of God. But when we love created things more than the Creator, when we love the gifts more than the Giver, when we become proud of who we are and of what we have, without loving God or being thankful for his kindness, then our haughtiness and selfishness bring us into a worldliness that is just as deadly as more obvious, filthy forms of worldliness.
Don’t forget God’s story about the wife turned prostitute. A king rescues a helpless child, supplies her with everything to grow intelligent and beautiful, marries her, and gives her clothing, jewelry, and perfumes. What goes wrong? Is it simply that the woman in the story falls into gross adultery and prostitution and baby killing? No, that’s where she eventually ends up, but the trouble begins when she trusts her beauty more than she trusts her husband (Ezekiel 16:15) and when she takes the good gifts he has given her and turns them into gods (Ezekiel 16:15-19). Her clothes, jewelry, perfume, and beauty aren’t bad things. But she forgets she owes them all to her husband, and she prizes them more than she values her husband. Only after that do her more blatant crimes occur. So too, when we love God’s gifts more than we love him, we have already turned away and become his enemy, even before we fall into more obvious and outrageous sins.
In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape (a senior demon) advises Wormwood (a junior tempter) that in trying to ruin a decent, religious person, it often works best not to start by aiming for extreme evils but instead simply to get the person attached to some respectable, good things and make those things the supreme desire of his heart rather than God. Focus his prayers on earthly desires. Make him proud. Make him think the world he sees around him is all that matters. Lead him into sins that seem small, not grand and gory crimes. Screwtape tells the junior demon,
Doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [God]. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
The devil wants us to walk a road without signposts, love a world without standards, and end up in a hell without hope. Along the way, Satan doesn’t care what we love most—as long as it’s not God. Anything in this world will do.
But even as Satan tries to lead us down the broad, smooth road with no signposts, God keeps putting up signs that point us to the narrow way of Christ. When we love anything in place of him, God’s voice keeps warning us, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
Have you been committing spiritual adultery? Have you chosen a fatal friendship with the world that makes you God’s enemy? Now is the time to change. Ask Jesus’ forgiveness, trust his love, and love him as your supreme satisfaction.