Training Our Children to Fight Worldliness
Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.1 John 2:15-17
In his book The Age of Opportunity, Paul Tripp stresses that a war is being waged for the hearts of our children. This war began in the Garden of Eden and will continue until “the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). This war is a conflict between light and darkness, good and evil, righteousness and wickedness, holiness and perversity. According to Genesis 3:15, it is a war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, or between Christ and Satan. The world we live in is the great theater of this war, which has battlefields everywhere:
- in seats of government and centers of culture,
- in the legislatures and courtrooms of the commonwealth,
- in the offices and workshops of business,
- in the marketplaces and entertainment districts of cities,
- in colleges, schools, and churches,
- in our homes and families, and,
- most importantly, in our hearts and minds, and those of our children.
As long as we are in the body, we must live in the world. Retreat or escape is not an option. God wills that we live in the world as it is, but that we live here as the people of God, being “in the world but not of it,” or, in biblical terms, to “live godly in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:12).
As believing parents, we must equip and train our children to fight this war. We must teach and urge them, with the Spirit’s blessing, to “forsake the world, crucify the old nature, and walk in a new and holy life” (Baptism Form). Regardless of where your children grow up, what schools they attend, and what has happened in their lives, all of them are caught up in this war. Leaving them unequipped or untrained for this battle will abandon them to the world.
So what is worldliness? Worldliness means the state of being or becoming like the world; or as Paul puts it, “being conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). Because this world is the realm of fallen mankind, worldliness is any human activity pursued without God or against God, or using any of God’s good creations and gifts for the gratification of sinful desires, which ultimately serves the self-centered ambitions of fallen human beings. In short, worldliness is all that is antithetical to God; it rebels against the Lord and His Christ (Ps. 2:2), refusing to reflect the glory of God as we were created to do.
What Worldliness Is Not
Worldliness is not complete rejection of God. Though such rejection is worldliness, this rejection is not synonymous with worldliness. Worldliness begins much earlier than absolute rejection. First, worldliness begins with failing to view things from God’s perspective. We do not need to reject Him to be worldly but only to ignore Him and go our own way in life. We only need to flirt with the world, professing to love God but making friends with the world in our hearts and lives.
Second, worldliness is not merely living an “unchristian” life. Worldliness can wear the outward trappings of religion, and many Christians do live worldly lives, having a form of godliness but denying its power. The aim of a Christian life is to live for the glory of God alone, by faith in God, and according to will of God. All sin turns us away from God. Whenever we commit sin, we reject God’s rule over our life. So professing Christians who sin can appear to be no different from the people of this world.
Third, worldliness is seldom blatant. If all temptations were blatant, they would be easier to resist. We may think of worldliness as the girl who loves to shop. She buys lots of stuff – especially new clothes. She wears excessive makeup. She pursues all the latest trends. She dates only boys who make her feel good about herself. This is a form of worldliness, but it is excessive. Worldliness does not have to be so blatant, and seldom is.
John describes elements of worldliness as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,” or desire for pleasure, possessions, and the pursuit of status, wealth, or fame. In these ways the world bids for our love and loyalty. We often minimize our forms of worldliness in light of another’s sin, but worldliness is at work in the heart and mind of every human being. We must examine ourselves to discover the ways in which we are too much like the world.
A common strategy on the battle field is to know the enemy. This is also true of fighting worldliness. Worldliness can be very deceptive; sin rarely, if ever, appears to us as a horrendous beast. If the world showed its true nature as a house of bondage, a pit of corruption, and the realm of death, many would be repulsed by it. But this enemy disguises itself as something that is congenial, attractive, and fascinating and promises great rewards, much like the “strange woman” of Proverbs 5:3-6.
Let us examine in more detail what worldliness is, and offer some practical suggestions on how to fight worldliness in ourselves and our children.
What Worldliness Is
First, worldliness desires to please man, not God. It fears the censure of people and loves their praise; it loves self rather than God. It approves of what others approve to win their approval. It seeks to be like others and to be liked for this. In time this bid for approval develops into blind ambition for recognition, status, and success.
From the time they are toddlers, our children are pressed to perform for others. If they are parked in front of the television, they soon learn that happiness consists of the abundance of things. In school, our children are pushed to earn good grades so they can go to the best colleges, where they can train for the most lucrative professions. They and their friends encourage each other to be popular, to wear the latest styles and best brands of clothing, and to watch the latest videos or movies. They also learn how to deceive their parents, win favor with teachers, keep a boss happy, and do whatever it takes to get ahead at home, school, or work. Our children are under constant pressure to conform to the world to succeed in the world on its terms.
Second, worldliness has a higher regard for one’s body than one’s soul, for external, material things rather than internal, spiritual things. Worldliness teaches our children to covet the best clothes, the hottest cars, the latest technological gadgets, the best-looking girlfriend or boyfriend, and other material things. Our daughters learn they must wear the cutest outfits, do their hair according to the trends, and do all they can to have striking figures. Our boys learn to resist maturity, surround themselves with toys, pursue money, and build up their bodies at the expense of their minds. In this our sons and daughters pursue the world’s images of manhood and womanhood. Worldliness in both men and women exalts outward appearance rather than “the hidden man of the heart” (1 Peter 3:4).
Third, worldliness loves material things and pursues riches. This form of worldliness is often excused as “enjoying the rewards” of our hard work in life or of fulfilling our perceived needs. We must have a reliable car so why not one with all the bells and whistles? We need a place to live so why not take out a mortgage for the large, spacious home we’ve been dreaming about? We need family vacations, so why not splurge on cruises or expensive resorts? We talk ourselves into self-indulgence and over-indulgence in many ways.
This temptation is also prevalent in our children. They must communicate with us, so why not give them what they beg for: a smart phone that takes great pictures, stores music, and connects to the Internet? They need shoes, so why not indulge their desire for the latest style, even if it is a bit pricey? While wanting phones or shoes is not inherently sinful, worldliness may lie at the root of such perceived needs. Wealth and possessions are a dangerous temptation for all of us. Jesus confronted the rich young man on this very point, and the man went away sorrowful because he could not part with his possessions, even at the cost of eternal life (Matt. 19:16-22).
Fourth, worldliness wants things that pertain only to this life. Setting our affections on earthly things prevents us from drawing close to God and seeking those things which are above. Our children, who lack experience, knowledge, and wisdom, often view life only in terms of the present. Even teenagers have not developed the judgment needed to see that their decisions today may have destructive consequences tomorrow. This lack of perspective puts our children at great risk. If this life were all we had, surely we’d tell our children to make the most of it. Our motto would be, “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32).
Fifth, worldliness fosters pride. Pride includes self-centeredness, self-approval, self-promotion, and self-indulgence. Preachers can be proud of their sermons or the number of people who attend their services. Elders can be proud of their position or the power they wield in consistory. Wives can be proud of their homes and furnishings, or the clothes they wear to church. We cannot simply tell our children, “Stop being proud!” because pride can be present in action or in attitude. Our children can be proud of doing good in self-congratulation, and they can be proud of doing evil in rebellion and self-assertion. They can be proud when commended by their parents and proud when rebuked by their parents. Children can be proud of their material possessions and they can resent not having the things their friends have. Pride is present when our children willfully sin as well as when they attempt to do good. Fallen human nature fosters pride and its high estimation of self. “Surely every man walketh in a vain show,” says Psalm 39:6. To conquer pride we must strike at its roots by forsaking the world and crucifying our old nature.
Ways to Fight Worldliness
We have the great responsibility of training our children to fight worldliness. It is not enough merely to identify the issues, for great measures are called for. Parents need to show their children that they must value their souls more than things of this world; to fear and love the Lord more than the praise or censures of people; to be more concerned about laying up treasure in heaven than treasure on earth. That requires much perseverance from parents and many sacrifices.
First, we must model for our children how to fight against worldliness. Our children struggle with worldliness because we also fight it. If parents live as people-pleasers and regard outward appearance more highly than spiritual things – if they love material things, live for earthly pleasure, mind earthly things, and embrace pride – how can they help their children? Many parents live vicariously through their children. They boast about their children’s popularity, physical beauty, success, or wealth, thereby confirming the worst traits in their children and in themselves.
Helping our children fight worldliness must begin with our own battle against it. If our children do not see us struggling, they will have no concept of what it is to fight worldliness. If they don’t see you living for greater things than the glory of people, they won’t live for things greater than that. If they see pride unchecked in you, they will become proud in their attitudes and actions.
Second, we must teach our children self-denial. The world targets self-love. It urges our children to gratify their wants, desires, and ambitions. We must combat that by teaching our children the power of self-denial. Self-denial is an act of faith which begins in the mind, heart, and will. We need the Spirit’s power to say no to the demands of self. We teach children what self-denial is by encouraging them to be other-centered. The best place to learn that is in the home. Teach your children the beauty of cherishing their brothers and sisters. Show them how to serve the people whom they live with day by day. Use family devotions to show your children what is most important in life. Guard your marriage with care, for marriage is one of the most self-sacrificing relationships that our children will ever see. It shows them how wives should submit to their husbands, and husbands must be willing to lay down their lives for their wives.
Combat the Lust of the Eyes
Third, John tells us that worldliness includes the lust of the eyes. Think of the bright eyes of your little ones that absorb a growing mass of objects, events, actions, and impressions. Over the past decades, we have learned the danger of letting our children watch too much entertainment, spend too much time on the computer, or have too much access to popular books, magazines, or movies. Allowing them to explore this world with no guidance, supervision, or accountability is simply wrong. We must teach them how to make wise choices by turning off the power source to these worldly temptations. We must not let our children go unguarded into the world while we engage in our own pursuits and interests.
Parents, do you know what your children are doing on the computer? What books they are reading? What videos they are watching? What they are texting on their phones? What do you know about their daily lives? What part do you play in them?
While we cannot take our children out of the world, we can challenge the ways the world works on our children. We may have to preview what they desire to read or watch. We must be wise in explaining why a movie or book or magazine is not fit for Christians because it promotes falsehood or immorality, encourages materialism and self-indulgence, glorifies violence, or presents an ungodly view of human sexuality.
Think carefully before giving your children access to any form of media, be it a computer, i-Pad, or smart phone. Are they old enough to use it responsibly? How will you monitor their activities? In addition, go shopping with them. Be a part of their decision process, whether for clothes, music, or accessories. Encourage them to spend money wisely. Be prepared to say no when you need to, but also let them make some mistakes, such as spending so much on new shoes that they can’t have a new shirt. Living with the consequences of a bad decision can be a good way to learn.
One of the most helpful ways to help your children fight worldliness is to talk to them. Family worship is a great time for such discussions. Use an appropriate Bible verse or passage as a springboard for these talks. Daily activities also offer opportunities for one-on-one discussions, but remember to listen as much as speak, and to instruct and impart wisdom more than to criticize or condemn.
Unveil the Heart Problem
Fourth, help your children fight worldliness by teaching them that material objects are not inherently sinful. As creations of God, most things are good as long as they are received with thanksgiving and used as God intends. But our sinful natures are prone to pervert all good things and use them for our harm. Our children give way to worldliness in the most outrageous things. Five-year-old boys argue with their friends about whose dad can beat up the other’s dad. Little girls argue about who has the prettiest dress. Worldliness can feed on almost anything in life. We who acknowledge that Christ is Lord agree with Paul that whatever we do should be done for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). No area of your children’s life should be outside the Lordship of Christ, whether it is material possessions, personal relationships, family, school work, vocations, leisure activities, or entertainment. The war against worldliness must be fought in all things. As human beings we are apt to forget that we are at war. We let our defenses down and cease to fight the good fight. We need to teach our children about the war they are in and to equip, encourage, and lead them in the fight against worldliness.
Stress the Positive
Fifth, it is not enough to merely sweep the minds of our children of worldliness (see Luke 11:24ff). Simply denying them access to the media often increases the power of temptation. We also cannot withdraw from the world like the Amish to preserve holiness. Buying our clothes from secondhand stores or limiting what we own is also not a cure-all for worldliness, for worldliness and pride can attach themselves even to frugality, austerity, and rigorous asceticism (Col. 2:20-23).
To truly fight worldliness we must fill our children with good things. Fill their minds with Scripture and offer them good books to read. Look for good films that reinforce Christian values. Let them learn to make music of their own on the piano or guitar. If your children should not go to a worldly party on Friday night, let them have a supervised and wholesome party at home. Spend time as a family doing a favorite activity. Offer to go camping with them. Encourage them to have their friends over. But also, pulsate with the gospel in your children’s presence, so that they may imitate you in fellowshipping with believers, evangelizing unbelievers, and serving both. If all we ever do is say no to our children without offering alternatives, we will simply discourage them. The best way to discourage worldliness is to teach our children God-honoring ways to enjoy the good things – both spiritual and natural – that the Father of lights sends to us.
Fight by Faith
Finally, remember that the battle against worldliness is not simply against external things. Worldliness is a disease of the heart and must be fought by faith, so do more than regulate your children’s outward behavior. To fight against worldliness, our children need a new heart and a new will. They need faith in God and love for Jesus Christ. Above all things, pray for your children without ceasing. Keep the offer of the gospel before their eyes and ears. Lead them to Christ, urging them to cast every part of themselves upon Him as Savior and Lord. Pray they will be given faith to claim all that was promised to them in their baptism. Pray that they will cleave to God, trusting in Him and loving Him through Jesus Christ, for only He can deliver them from the power of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Without prayer, the Word, and the work of the Holy Spirit, anything we do for our children will fail.
Our Greatest Encouragement: Victory Promises in Christ
Our greatest encouragement in the fight against worldliness is this promise of our Lord Jesus Christ: “In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). God has declared that He is for us (Rom. 8:31), even in our fight to deliver our children from the deadly snare of worldliness. He promises victory – yes, eternal victory – to those who stay in the fight until the war is done (1 Cor. 15:57-58). The world’s best pleasures are temporary, but Christ’s victory in and through us by faith is eternal. Remember Spurgeon’s graphic statement, “If you had got all the world, you would have got nothing after your coffin lid was screwed down but grave-dust in your mouth.”
May God so work in you and your children with the saving power of His Spirit that the world will lie as dead at your feet as you are dead to the world. May He richly bless you and your children with His covenantal mercies and place His divine approval on all your efforts to preserve your covenant children from the sinful enticements of worldliness.