If you had to choose between befriending a maple tree, the nature of sin, or a slightly unpleasant person, which would you choose?
The BFFs Church is a blog for us to rediscover the lost practice of Christian spiritual friendship, and thus learn how to Befriend the Lord, Befriend the Church, and Befriend the World. Understanding these three “Befriending Acts” is how the Church can remedy America’s loneliness epidemic (especially now with all the social distancing taking place amidst COVID-19).
I think many of us can get on board with the first two Acts. Befriending the Lord is entering into community with the Triune God, learning what it means for God to be our Friend, just as he is our King, Savior, Lord, Teacher, Father, and so on.
Befriending the Church is intentionally acting upon the shared commonality of Jesus as our Lord and Savior. The friendships that result are some of the greatest joys we could ever experience on this earth, as each friend deepens the heart of the other’s love for Christ and pursuit of holiness.
But to “Befriend the World” can sound counterintuitive. What does it really mean to befriend the world? On the surface, it sounds like a trendy way to talk about evangelism. But the language of befriending the world from a missional perspective collides directly with passages like James 4:4, which says,
“You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” – James 4:4
This absolutely makes it sound like we can’t—and shouldn’t—befriend the world. We want to be friends of God, not enemies.
But as it turns out, we can befriend the world. We just have to know which “world” we need to befriend.
Words in any language can have multiple meanings. For example, if I say, “I like oranges,” am I talking about the fruit, or an array of orange shades on a color palette? If I say, “I need to book it,” am I talking about booking an event that’s about to be sold out, or that I need to leave right away before I’m late for an important meeting? If I say, “Drop the beat,” am I commanding a DJ to start the catchiest part of a song so I can break out in dance, or commanding a child to drop a vegetable they picked prematurely from my garden before they take a bite?
Words have multiple meanings, and the only way we can know which meaning someone is talking about is by understanding the context in which it’s being used.
The greek word for “the world,” kosmos (or κόσμος for my fellow Greek nerds) has multiple meanings, just like many of our words. There are 8 definitions for kosmos, but for our purposes let’s focus on 3:
1. The World as the Created Order.
This is the physical world in which we live. The kosmos includes the earth, maple trees, fertile soil, the Indian ocean, the animals that inhabit it, the Milky Way, and the entire universe as we know it. It’s the physical realm that God created and called very good. So “befriending the World” could literally mean to become friends with the physical world. That does not mean become a psychopath and befriend maple trees or make Venus fly traps your pets or be raised by wolves. Rather, pick up your trash. Don’t litter. Treat your pets well. Recycle. Be friendly to the kosmos.
2. The World as the Ungodly Multitude.
This is the sinful world, or often referred to as “worldliness” throughout Scripture. When Paul speaks in Romans 12 about “Do not conform to the patterns of this world,” he’s talking about the pattern of sin that’s infected his people. Kosmos in the sense of sinful worldliness is what James is talking about, that anyone who is “friends of the world becomes enemies of God.” In other words, the problem is not about befriending sinful people as it is befriending the sin of people. It’s one thing to welcome a pagan into your house to show him Christian hospitality. It’s another thing to welcome the pagan’s sin into your life to which you become influenced by his sins.
Jesus was a friend of sinners. He hung out with sinful people all the time. But never once did he let people’s sin influence him to deviate from his holy nature. Befriending people’s sin means not only tolerating their sin, but allowing it to influence you. Rather than influencing them to become like God through befriending Jesus, you let them influence you to become more like them through their sinful behavior. That’s an obvious no-no. We are not to befriend worldliness. Rather, we are to befriend the third definition of kosmos…
3. The World as the Inhabitants of the Earth.
This is the people of the world. When John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son,” I don’t think it was because God is a tree hugger (though he does love his trees) or because he loves sin (which is complete heresy). It’s because he loved his people (kosmos) who live in his created order (kosmos) who are infected by worldliness (kosmos). Same word. Three different meanings. It’s the people of the earth whom God loves and seeks to save through the blood of his Son, our Chiefest Friend, who sends us on mission to reach the lost, befriend the lonely, make disciples, and cultivate holy friendship with them as one way to forming them into God’s image.
That’s what I mean by befriending the world. It’s capitalizing on the power of our friendship to minister to a broken people held captive by “the world of sin.” Friendship is discipleship. Friendship is ministry. Friendship is the intimate process of engaging with the world to influence it to Christ, our Chiefest Friend and Lord of All.
But what does engaging with the world as friends look like? It turns out there are multiple ways of how Christians relate with the world, from what it means to reside in the “world of sin” to our role of transforming culture. To what extent should we be engaging with the culture around us? And what role does friendship play in all of this?
That’s what we’ll discuss next week. But in the meantime – care for the maple trees, despise the nature of sin, and with everything you can, befriend the unpleasant person.