What Qualifies as Worldly Music?
Levi, a podcast listener in Indiana writes in: “Pastor John, on whether or not to listen to music that includes themes of sexual immorality, materialism, and other forms of worldliness, is this a decision of individual conviction, or is this music categorically sinful? I know many people who say that it is a matter of conscience for individuals to determine for themselves. I would love your biblical thoughts on this!”
The first thing that comes to my mind that needs to be addressed is a cynic, maybe, or I don’t know what you would call him, a Christian who thinks, “Don’t we have bigger fish to fry than talking about what kind of music we listen to? Don’t you guys know that people are suffering in the world, and here we are squabbling about music?” So that person is looking over my shoulder as I contemplate whether even to answer this question.
Soil of Selfishness
And my answer to that person as a means to getting toward an answer to the question is: We always deal with the lesser things for the sake of greater things. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. That is why you are concerned about a little leaven. You don’t say, “Oh, little leavens don’t matter.” Well, Paul says, “They matter because big lumps matter.” So yeah, I am all into big lumps. I want my life to count for big things, not little things. Little things affect big things, especially when kids are growing up. Most things feel little at one level.
Here is the second question I would ask to this person who just told me not to waste time on this question: What is the root of Christ-dishonoring indifference to the poor and the suffering, temporal suffering or eternal suffering? What is the root of that in us? Because that is what this person presumes to be concerned about. I want to know: What is the root of that kind of Christ-dishonoring indifference? And the root is Christlessness — the absence of Christ as the supreme treasure of our affections, the absence of his word as a controlling force in our lives. That is the source of Christ-dishonoring indifference to suffering.
And where does that kind of non-Christ-treasuring heart come from? Well, it doesn’t come from anywhere. You are born with it. Jesus says, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). All that stuff is selfishness. And big acts of selfishness grow in the soil of selfishness.
Set Our Minds on What’s Above
So what about music? What about tending the garden of your heart with music? What about the ways we tend the soil of our soul that determine what kinds of things grow in it?
There is such a thing as worldly music. One of the marks of worldly music is the exultation in a worldly view of life. A worldly view of life is a life that leaves Christ out and approves of what he disapproves. That is worldly. Worldly isn’t a sound; worldly is leaving Christ out. That is why it is called worldly and not Christly. And it approves of what he disapproves. It is called worldly because it treasures the world above the one who made the world. It revels in the very self-centeredness that gives rise to the miseries of the world. And what does God say about this? Here are a few texts:
Romans 12:3: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:3) So my question is: Is the transformation of our minds helped by soaking them in a sin-celebrating world, the world we are trying not to be conformed to? Don’t be conformed to the sin-celebrating, Christ-omitting world. And I think the answer is patent: Garbage in, garbage out. If you soak your mind in the Christlessness of the world, you will be less Christful. Is the music of the world a helpful path to renewing your mind to love what the world does not love? That is the key question.
Matthew 5:8: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Is our pursuit of purity helped by enjoying the way the world enjoys impurity?
Colossians 3:1–2: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Does the music that exalts in Christ-less feeling and Christ-less thinking and Christ-less acting, does it help us set the mind on Christ? Paul’s concern is that we have the mind of Christ, that we love what he loves, we hate what he hates, we enjoy what he enjoys. Does the music we listen to help that happen?
Or Colossians 3:5, 8: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. . . . But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” We are to be actively putting to death in our hearts all things that we are prone to that are sinful. Does feeding these inclinations that we are supposed to kill help us kill them? Or should we starve them instead of nourishing them?
Or 2 Peter 2:2: “Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.” The fact is many who listen to Christ-omitting sensuality are made more sensual. Our sensitivities to sin are made more dull, and we are at home more and more with the world and not with heaven, not with Christ, not with his way, not with his kingdom, and not with his joy.
Proverbs 13:20: “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”
1 Corinthians 15:33 “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’”And the issue here is not whether you are free to go among the world and bear witness to the supreme beauty of Christ anywhere in the world among the world and among the unbelieving and among the sensual. The issue is whether we are at home in enjoying ourselves with the way the world thinks. Let me say that again: The issue is whether we are at home in enjoying ourselves with the way the world thinks.
Cover for Good Works
I am listening right now to Richard Wormbrandt’s Tortured For Christ, written forty years ago. He was imprisoned as a Romanian pastor during the Communist takeover in Romania. For fourteen years he was in jail and tortured. And just yesterday, I heard him say (and this is a rough quote; I couldn’t find it on the audio, so I am paraphrasing): “Many of those who were willing to deny their faith and accept the Communist rule were put in charge of the state-approved church. And then he said, “They often listen to worldly music.” That was his phrase: “They often listen to worldly music.”
And then what he said took me off guard. He said, “We, too, played worldly music very loud so that it would cover our Bible discussions in the underground church and make the Communists think that we were like the others.” So I would just say, if that is your plan, then listen to worldly music.”