John 3:16: “God so loved the world”
In Christian thinking, the word “world” is often time used with a negative, pejorative sense. Throughout the New Testament, such as in Paul’s letters and James, “world” is used negatively. This language stems from the way that the the society around them engages in all sorts of practices that the God over Israel and in Jesus Christ has commanded against. So, it is natural for Christians to develop a Christianity vs. the world mentality, that see God and His People in a zero-sum conflict with the world that operates according to the following intuition: to love the world is to cease to be loyal to God.
Nevertheless, God’s own fundamental relationship to the world is described by love, not conflict. The familiar John 3.16 does not say “God was so angry and outdone with the sins of the world that he sent Jesus to fix their problems.” Rather, it was “God so loved the world…” This despite the fact that God knew their sins. This doesn’t mean that the Scriptures speak of God only loving, as the Psalms repeatedly speak of God’s hatred directed towards who live violently and destructively (Psalm 5.5-6, 106.34-40), but so many of the things that we fret over about sins that can make humans angry does not deter God’s love. The God who is slow to anger loves the world, even with all the times it fails to achieve God’s purposes for His creation.
How different would our mentality as Christians be if we didn’t adopt worldview that by default presumes a zero-sum conflict between the love of God and the love of the world, but rather saw the former leading to the latter?
Of course, we have to be clear what we mean by love. James warns against friendship with the world (James 4.4). But love and friendship are not the same thing. There have many people in my life that I loved and still love that have done some hurtful things to me that broke any friendship, but I still cared about their well-being. To be friends with the world is to celebrate and rationalize away the things that the world does, but one can love without rationalizing away the flaws.
As an analogy, consider the example of three different men who are in love. For the first man, his quarry can do not wrong. She is beautiful, fun to be around, and they enjoy some similar activities. She is self-absorbed with her wants and needs, quick to anger, incredibly manipulative, can needlessly stir up conflict, and avoids taking any responsibility. Nevertheless, he can see nothing wrong with her, but even supports and celebrates what she does. The second man is smitten by a similar female, but upon discovering her traits denies her entirely and eventually sets himself over and against her.
The third man, however, can see the multiple flaws of his beloved: she can be a little evasive and unwilling to communicate at times, she can be a tad controlling, she doesn’t always listen very well, and she can be a bit anxious at times. However, in his love he sees these things and does not celebrate them but his adoration still persists because he also sees her faith, kindness, strength, intelligence, beauty and how she came to his support through some rough times. He never idolized her. He expresses his concerns and frustrations only so that they can understand together where they are in the relationship, but he dreams of being the husband that can share a life with her and help her with her own struggles by being someone who listens to her, even as he accepts that this may not happen.
The first man resembles someone who makes friendship with the world. The second man resembles one who sets himself against the world after the world fail to live up to what he wanted. The third man, however, resembles God’s type of love, who loves with knowledge of the weaknesses and imperfections.
Too often times, Christians have made themselves live like either the first or the second man: either in unqualified friendship with the world or a deep, existential conflict with the world. In the West, we see this division often manifest with those Christians who identify as hard-line evangelicals as that who stand against the world and those who are committed progressives who make friends with the world. However, the Gospel of Jesus Christ rejects both of these orientations: God’s love is for the everlasting blessing of the world through His Son in spite of and actually because of its problems. The Spirit of God has gifted the Church with gifts to build up the Church but also to reach out to the world, but these gifts and opportunities are stymied by unqualified friendship that see no need for the gifts and existential conflict that blinds them to the opportunities.