Christian Detachment from Worldly Things

Our effectiveness as Christians hangs on our concept of what “Christian detachment from worldly things” means. Perhaps most of our personal and family, and Christian church and organisation problems would be solved if we had a proper biblical concept of what it really is.

The question of Christian detachment from worldly things has been a bone of contention among Christians for many years. Though Scriptures are clear on this matter, still we may not be able to solve all the problems in this article. But we do want to take a good look at the subject.

A. Misconception

1. Worldly Things

There are some very pointed warnings in the New Testament to Christians concerning worldly things:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world…For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world” (I John 2:15-16).

“Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2).

Regarding a young man who travelled with him, Paul says, “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me” (II Tim. 4:10).

So Christians, as a result of these warnings, have through the centuries drawn up lists of things they considered worldly. Naturally their ideas have differed widely on these matters. Whenever people had difficulty with some temptation or some particular type of recreation or some activity which gave them trouble, they learned a lesson from it, or thought they did, and marked that particular thing down as worldly.

So there came into being a great many different lists of worldly things, varying widely because of the different places of origin. As a result of this, we have today certain Christians in the US (Amish sect) called “hook-and-eye Baptists”. They are given that name because they believe that buttons are worldly and that the proper biblical way to fasten your clothing is not with a button but with a hook and eye. In their view button wearing Christians are worldly, and the hook-and-eye Christians are spiritual. It is as much a worldly thing to them as some of the things on your list are to you. And they feel quite as upset over violations as you do when your standards are transgressed. So on the basis of our lists of “Christian standards” we blithely determine ourselves and others either worldly or spiritual.

Standards differ widely in Christian circles about many things. We all have a tendency to think that the things that we have been taught while we were growing up are the inspired truth. Many of us often seem to mistake our prejudices for convictions. Few of us have ever taken time to check these with biblical principles as to whether they are really true or not.

When we make a list of “things” which we regard as inherently worldly and evil in themselves, we tend to withdraw into our own watertight Christian circle of affairs which results in people becoming insensitive and unsympathetic, and eventually smug and complacent in their views towards others. We become like the priest and the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, who each passed by on the other side of the road when they saw the wounded traveller, lest they become defiled by helping him. These are the Christians who are so concerned about being defiled with worldliness that they have lost touch with the world. They are no longer interested in helping people around them, in meeting their needs and addressing their problems.

2. Detachment

In contemporary usage detachment suggests separation, seclusion, aloofness and withdrawal from the world. To withdraw from household life, renounce possessions and adopt a solitary mendicancy in order to concentrate on spiritual life.

In colloquial usage, to say a person is detached implies that the person is not willing to become involved with others or that s/he is neither approachable nor sympathetic.

Must a follower of Jesus Christ completely isolate herself/himself from the world, and everything in it, in order to avoid being worldly? Must Christians be odd and weird, and sound and look “spiritual” in order to avoid worldly things?

We often cite the exhortation of “being in the world but not of it” as the fundamental tension of living the Christian life. Although it suggests, rightly, that we need some detachment from our concerns in the world, it does not mean that we should be oblivious of the world around us. Neither does it mean that there is nothing good in the so-called secular world. Rather, Christians need to examine values that have developed in the society and discern the goodness that Jesus revealed in his life.

As Christians we should be willing to not only notice the goodness or virtues in the lives of people, but also learn from them. Take the example of P. Kalyanasundaram, a gold medallist in library science. He worked as a librarian over 30 years at Kumarkurupara Arts College, Srivaikuntam, Tuticorin district, Tamil Nadu. He also did M.A. in literature and history. A will to serve combined with a sense of social justice has been guiding principle of Kalyanasundaram, who has spent in social service for over 45 years. In his 30 years plus service as a librarian, every month he donated his salary to help the needy. He worked as a server in a hotel to meet his needs. He donated even his pension amount of about 10 lakhs to the needy.

In recognition of his service, the United Nations Organisation adjudged him as “One of the Outstanding People of the 20th century.” An American organisation honoured him with the “Man of the Millennium” award. He received a sum of Rs. 30 crores as part of this award which he distributed entirely to the needy. The International Biographical Centre, Cambridge, has honoured him as “One of the Noblest of the World”. The Union Government of India has acclaimed him as “The Best Librarian in India”. He has also been chosen as “One of the Top Ten Librarians of the World”.

He stays as a bachelor and has dedicated his entire life for serving the needy.

On the other hand, being in the church does not automatically save us from the opportunistic, insensitive, and even vicious behaviour of fellow Christians which hinder the church’s development of values which Jesus himself embodied.

Even if we wanted to, could we really have Jesus without also having worldly things along with him? If our piety involved relating to a God who had never entered the human condition, then it would follow that we can best be united with this God by stripping ourselves of all concerns of and for the world. But our faith is a matter of relating to God who has taken on humanity. So we should not expect our relationship with this God to remove us from either the joy or the pain of human life in the world.

If we take Jesus as the model for “being in the world but not of it”, we can see right away that he was very much involved in the world. Jesus showed his appreciation of the food and drink and hospitality offered by a respectable rich man such as Simon the Leper as well as that offered by tax collectors and sinners such as Zacchaeus. He lived a normal human life in the Palestinian society.

If so, what is meant by “Christian detachment from worldly things”?

B. Christian detachment from worldly things

Christian detachment is not essentially a physical act of withdrawal, let alone austerity. It is not an extreme turning away from that which nourishes the human body. Here it is important to distinguish between detachment and renunciation. Renunciation involves depriving oneself of something, actually rejecting it. In detachment you still retain it, but you cease to be its slave. For true understanding of detachment one must look away from external acts and look towards the area of inner attitude and motivation.

Detachment from worldly things is not a matter of things – of doing this or not doing that. But it is a matter of the attitude of mind and heart, the attitude of thinking and dealing with things. Detachment is not from the things of the world per se, but from “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” It is not setting one’s mind on the things of the world, not thinking or affectionately desiring them. Jesus says, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and they defile a person” (Mk. 7:21-23). Greed or acquisitive desire or grasping underlies these “evil things”. So when we talk about Christian detachment, the emphasis is on inner transformation – transformation of mind and heart.

Detachment is not separation from the world and the people of the world. It is being distinct or different. Distinct or different in our attitude towards material things and people. In essence, it is engaging with people and material things with a transformed mind and heart.

Detachment from worldly things is an essential component to draw towards God, fulfilling God’s will with total love and obedience.

1. Lust for material things

God intends that His children consider material possessions properly, to use them wisely, for the good of others as well as themselves. However, the problem occurs when a person sets her/his heart on gaining material wealth, when everything s/he does and thinks about revolves around GETTING.

In this age of consumerism material things play an important role in establishing one’s social standing. Because in unequal societies status competition is intense and we are sensitive to how we are perceived or judged by others. Consumption is about status competition. That’s why people spend thousands of rupees on “status goods”, such as cars, electronic gadgets, furniture and clothes, handbags and sunglasses with right labels, to make statement about themselves. Money is spent not on “things”, but on the value attached to some of the consumer goods in society. So consumer goods are not mere stuff, but LANGUAGE in social relationships. Through things we convey with one another our identity, social status and social affiliation. They play a role in our lives that goes way beyond their material functionality. That’s why consumer goods continue to be craved beyond the point of their usefulness, and houses are no longer for habitation but to store the “status goods” (we hardly find room for free movement inside some houses, because of lot of material goods). Companies intensify and maintain this craving for social identity, status and affiliation by stuffing the market with new consumer goods and promoting them by hiring popular brand ambassadors to entice consumers to emulate these popular figures in order to reposition themselves in the ladder of status in society.
Most of the time the expensive material things we surround ourselves with convey a void in life and a craving for acceptance, recognition and identity − the basic human needs. One may have all the money, yet live with the nagging feeling of emptiness, restlessness and even boredom. A void that can not be filled with wealth and material things.

2. Lust for sensual pleasures
God created the five senses – sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing – so that we could experience, enjoy, and take pleasure in physical things. No particular physical thing of itself represents worldliness. But lusting after that thing is wrong. Lust is an illicit and sinful desire. It is having a self-absorbed desire for a thing, person or an experience. It can make us desire or use something in a manner contrary to God’s will and purpose for which He created it. The object of our lust is placed above all other things in life, and thus lusting is idolatry. Lust represents a wrong attitude of mind and heart.

Notice the world of mainstream entertainment and media. It’s about what’s hot, what’s new, what’s the latest. Today entertainment is about “how far can we go?” in pushing (or blurring) the boundaries of decency and good taste. More pre-marital and extra-marital sex, more violence, more consumption and less morality. There is a continuous changing colour, caste and creed of money, movies, sex and relationships. A core slogan that reverberates in the present Indian society is “Greed, The City and The Pursuit of Happiness.”

Greed is fathered by aspiration and grows in the womb of determination, so no one can fault its lineage. Its problem, like those of the failed brakes, is that it doesn’t know when to stop. Someone said, “What does a person who has everything want? The answer is ‘More’.” It’s that four-letter word which makes desirable “aspiration” transform into unconscionable greed. The surrounding sound of consumerism brainwashed us with its anthem: “Give Me More”. From soft drinks to sex, from moolah to ooh la-la, the yearn-churn screamed, “Yeh dil mangey more!” This greed has turned ordinary people into unflinching murderers, extortionists, and heartless neighbours like the rich man in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. If we have so deliriously chosen Aspiration Unbound, we have to learn to accept its uncontrollable cousin, Greed. The antidote for greed is contentment. As Paul says, “For I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Phil. 4:12).

Attachment to sensual pleasures destroys the mind’s ability to think clearly and objectively. Detachment is linked to the practice of mindfulness, and to seeing into the truth of things. It is seeing true nature of things. If lust always arises when an opportunity for gaining a quick pleasure or satisfaction is glimpsed, sensual pleasures will never be seen objectively as they really are – as transient, subject to change, and no answer to the search for happiness. The presence of lust appreciates neither the consequences nor the alternatives. In fact, if any decision has to be made, the alternatives will not be seen clearly as long as the mind is clouded by lust. Dishonesty and manipulation of others in order to gain what is craved might result.

As greed for material possessions and lusting for sensual pleasures lead to disputes and contentions both within family and nation, detachment from greed and sensual pleasures leads to concern for the welfare of others and to create a just and harmonious society.

3. Lust for power

One particularly destructive way of attachment to worldly things worth looking at is the lust for power. When the disciples argued about who is the greatest, Jesus placed a small child in front of them and told them to be like that child. The point is not that we should be like little children, because they are always sweet and adorable. Rather, we should be like children because they have no power in the world. That is how much power a follower of Jesus should want! Great harm is done by those addicted to the exercise of power, whether it is a dictator moulding a whole country to his image, a Christian mullah who prefers exercising control over others, or parents who try to make their children into copies of themselves.

However, Christianity cannot be reduced to a naive protest against any use of power at all. Power is not something we can just throw out of this world so that there is no more of it lying around for anybody to pick up. In any case, society cannot function without a structure of authority.

Power exists and is a part of our lives whether we like it or not. We have to face the fact that we will affect other people in our lives, no matter what we do or don’t do. And that is power. Since we will have some influence on the other people in our lives, we must be concerned with what that influence will be. Are we encouraging other people to grow in virtue, or are we reinforcing their self-centeredness or life of selfishness?

The way to UNWORLDLY use of power and authority is shown by the way Jesus used them. He showed his power in serving others – casting out evil spirits, healing various diseases, providing food, forgiving sins and addressing what he considered evil. Yet Jesus did not claim to have either power or authority on his own account. He did not come to do his own will but the will of Him who sent him. Even Jesus, the Son of God, willingly derives his power from his Father rather than presumes to act on his own initiative. If we are to follow Jesus’ example, then we should also be more concerned that our authority and power come from God and not from our own desires for authority and power on our own terms.

Moreover, the power and authority Jesus exercised never violated anyone’s fundamental freedom to believe or not to believe, or the freedom to follow or not to follow him. These are freedoms which Christ still gives to all of us. Is this not the freedom the Church as the Body of Christ should offer her members and the world?
There is a terrific risk in renouncing the desire to remake other people according to our desires. We do not feel secure when we relinquish our attempts to control other people. Not only that, but if we do relinquish control, we are sure to suffer all the more from the shortcomings of others. How often we wish we could find the magic words that will turn other people into what we want them to be! When we live with the otherness of others, there is no choice but to give others space to find themselves in God, just as we assume this right for ourselves.

At the bottom of our turning away from worldliness is an emptying of self. In order to appreciate other people, to “regard others as better than (ourselves)” and to “look to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4), we must have “the same mind…that was in Christ” (Phil. 2:5). We must empty ourselves of our tendency to possess or grasp and use them for our own agendas in life. We must also empty ourselves of the illusion that we can pull ourselves out of our worldliness by our own bootstraps. God does not give us bootstraps, God gives us grace.

With the self put in God’s hands, the self gains new life, the life of God. The emptying of self begins to purify our hearts and minds so that we may become faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

“Some people wish to be pretty, rich and famous or popular. Me? I just want to be happy.”

“The measure of your life will not be in what you accumulate, but in what you give away.”

“Greatness is not found in possessions, power, position, or prestige. It is discovered in goodness, humility, service, and character.” – William Arthur Ward


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One Response to “Christian Detachment from Worldly Things”

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