There is no simple answer to the question: What is worldliness? But I am going to let James give what I think is his very definitive answer. What is worldliness? James says that worldliness is strife and envy. We need to go back to chapter 3 to pick up his thoughts. In James 3:13 we read, "Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? Let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom." Faith is the major in James' university, and all elective courses are related to faith. Works of faith bring meekness. Then we read, "But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle" (James 3:17). There is meekness or humility, and humility means submission.
In James 3:16 we read, "For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work." That is worldliness. And worldliness in the church has produced all the cults, denominations, factions, divisions, and cliques which have arisen and abound in the church today. There is a spirit of rivalry and jealousy in the church. In the previous verse, James describes this as "earthly" — that is, it is confined to the earth. It is "sensual" — that is, psychological. And then it's "devilish" or demonic, which is something quite terrible, my friend.
What do envy and strife produce in this world? They produce "confusion and every evil work." With this as background, we can recognize what James is saying now in chapter 4 —
From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? (James 4:1)
"Wars" have to do with the wars of nations. "Fightings" have to do with little skirmishes-that little fight you had in the church-you remember?
"Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?" You wanted to have your own way. "Lusts that war in your members" are actually sensual pleasures. Strife and turmoil are created by conflicts and the overweening demands of the members of the body for satisfaction.
Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. (James 4:2)
Selfish desires, James makes it very clear, lead to war. This spirit of strife is worldliness; it is not Christian, and it is not the Christian approach. These are the things which represent the old nature. A man must be regenerated by faith in Christ and be indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
What James describes here is the spirit of the world. When the spirit of the world gets into the church, you have a worldly church. My friend, do you think it is bad out on the battlefield? Did you think it was bad in Vietnam? Well, it was, but inside some churches and inside the hearts of some individuals it is just as bad. In the business world there is dog-eat-dog competition — that is worldliness. Political parties split, and one group becomes pitted against another. As capital and labor meet around the conference table, there is a battle going on. In the social world there are climbers on the social ladder who are stepping on the hands of others as they go up. In your neighborhood and mine one family does not speak to another family. Within families there are quarrels, brother against brother. Then that spirit gets into the church. That, my friend, is worldliness.
—From J. Vernon McGee's Edited Messages on James ©1994