“Be in the world, not of it.” So, Catholics are called to live – engaged in worldly affairs, but not shaped by them. But what does that mean, practically speaking? And what is “the world” that we have to be wary of? How ought we approach it?
This commandment of living comes directly from Jesus Himself at the Last Supper, when He refers to “the world” a staggering thirty-eight times. (John 14-17) Sometimes He means the physical place, such as “I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” But more often He refers to “the world” as a spiritual force that is inherently at odds with Him and His mission. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 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, therefore the world hates you.”
Christ takes us “out of the world,” away from the people and spirits opposed to Him, with the goal of transforming us to be less like the world and more like Him. But we do not get to stay on Mount Tabor. Jesus also prays, “As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.”
This has been the model of priestly and religious formation for centuries: those who are called to serve leave the world – temporarily – for the seminary or the cloister, so that they may be formed and then return to the world to fulfill a mission: to convert “the world” by combating evil with the grace of God.
St. Paul, and the Christian tradition thereafter, has understood “the world” in the same manner – it is the forces that lead us away from God:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?. . . .If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. . . .Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. (Colossians 2:20, 3:1-3 and 5)
“The things that are above” are the driving force of Christian life. Obstacles to heavenly things – sin, above all – must be eliminated: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:29) Over the centuries Catholics have demonstrated the priority of heaven over earth in different ways. On the more radical level, for the primitive Church, it was through martyrdom. In subsequent ages, it was via asceticism, celibacy, and the monastic life. The principle, though lived with varying degrees of fervency, endured, as seen, for instance, in Thomas à Kempis’ 15th-century Imitation of Christ: “The only way your soul will find rest is to turn to God with your whole heart and abandon this wretched world.”
Modernity, however, has embraced “the world” as its god, a consequence of its repudiation of the things that are above. Salvation now is indulging in the world’s allurements and political causes. What was once immoral now is promoted actively in schools, while evil has been reduced to “systemic injustices” remote from most people’s daily lives. With this fatal shift has come the absorption of many Catholics into “the world” so that there is seemingly little difference between them and everyone else in terms of how they live.
To reverse these priorities, we need a Biblical response. First, with our Lord and St. Paul, we must restore the things of God to first place and recognize “the world” for what it is – forces that keep us from God. Ideas and practices that contradict the Bible must be condemned as evil, no matter how popular they may seem.
But we cannot stop here, arguing against evil without offering a counter-vision of the good life. Following St. Paul, we have to make attractive, seek for ourselves, and live “the fruit of the Spirit,” which “is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22)
Third, we all must practice regularly, to the degrees we are able, Christian asceticism, which restrains the desires of the flesh and reminds us that spiritual goods are greater than temporal ones. Our sacrifices can be as grand as tithing or as small as foregoing salt on food. To forsake prayerfully any good of this world is a profound expression of our love for God.
Finally, we must constantly render thanks for all the good things we enjoy in life – faith, family, sports, leisure, technology, art, literature – for what they truly are: gifts from God. Through the Holy Spirit, St. Augustine teaches, we can see that “a thing is good because it derives from Him who simply Is.” In this way we can use the goods of creation as God desires, and not as the world dictates.
Our Lord knew that being in, and not of, the world would never be easy. So, He rigged the outcome for us, even if we still have to struggle through the game. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
*Image: Christ, the True Vine by an unknown artist, 16th century [Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Greece]