I recently delivered the following lecture to all the 7th and 8th grade students of Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia.
I would like to begin this little talk with a word you might not be familiar with, but which I will use from time to time, and I would like us all to be on the same page: the word is malcontent. A malcontent is a kind of person— a person who sees himself as uniquely sensible, far more sensible than his peers and his contemporaries. A malcontent is never really happy with the way things are. He believes that, were he running the show, everything would go far more smoothly. A malcontent does not believe that the authorities are wicked, just that they are kind of ignorant, helpless, and incapable of good taste. A malcontent believes there are a lot of stupid rules in the world, and that people care too much about rules anyway, and to prove this, a malcontent loves to point out all the ways that he regularly breaks the rules and then he brags that breaking the rules has never done him any harm.
There is a higher percentage of malcontents in high school than there is in the world of adults, and this is simply because high school students are given very little responsibility, have not yet blown that responsibility, and thus generally think themselves far more capable at life than they actually are. By the time you’re an adult, and you have a college loan to pay off, a few physical maladies that you’ve brought on yourself, you’ve disappointed your spouse in a few ways which still embarrass you years later, and you’ve given up the idea that, “If the world just put me in charge, everything would be better.”
This said, I was a malcontent in high school.
As a former malcontent who graduated from a classical Christian school, many of my favorite students to teach have also been malcontents. When I was a junior in high school, I scorned study, loathed reading, loved violent films, mocked diligence and bragged to my malcontent friends that I passed tests on books I hadn’t read. I don’t know if I was cool in high school, but I will say this: I knew the deal. For the young man looking to acquire coolness, what currency has the highest exchange rate among classical Christian students? Friendship with the world.
What does “friendship with the world” mean? Well, before we can answer that question, we should probably talk for a moment about what “the world” is and what the world is not. The world is not the Church. The world is not the things of the Church, the beliefs of the Church, the music of the Church, the books of the Church, or the creeds of the Church. Christians sometimes describe certain ideas, people, places, books, music and so forth as “worldly.” Worldly music is music which encourages the listener to say, do, think, and feel things which God either prohibits or which wise men generally discourage. Sometimes worldly music blatantly glorifies drug use, casual sex, and violence. However, over the last ten years, more and more popular songs have simply become little hymns which the singer sings in honor of himself or herself. The plot of such songs basically goes something like this: You thought I wasn’t special, but I am, and pretty soon you’re going to see how great I am. This is the gist of most Katy Perry songs. Of course, Scripture prohibits us in about ten thousand different places from talking about how great we are, and so even though the self-esteem anthem isn’t about drugs or violence, it’s also worldly. A person who does not care about God, and does not obey his commands, is worldly. A movie which revels in violence, glorifies the accumulation of wealth, and parades women around like objects is worldly. A great many worldly things are dirty, vulgar, disgusting, however, the fact that something is not appalling doesn’t mean it isn’t worldly. St. Paul tells Christians that they should think on things which are excellent, praiseworthy, virtuous, and noble. Often enough, worldly things aren’t dirty and vulgar, they’re just stupid, unprofitable, basic, uninspiring, forgettable, and unimportant. Worldly things don’t always send our minds to the gutter, but they rarely send our minds to the heavens. Worldly things get us thinking about the world, not about heaven. Worldly things do not make us long for heaven. They make us comfortable and happy here on earth. Scripture tells us that Christians should regard themselves as aliens and strangers on the earth, but worldly things tell us, “No, you’re right at home here on planet earth. There is nothing truly important beyond this world which you need to think about.
Now, if this is what worldly things do, what does “friendship with the world” mean. The expression “friendship with the world” is one which you might be familiar with. It comes from a certain passage in the New Testament, and I will say more about the passage later. For now, it will be enough to simply think about what the expression means. So what does friendship with he world look like? I don’t think the question is all that difficult. Let us say that you have a friend named Tom, and someone asked, “What does your friendship with Tom look like?” I imagine you might say, “Well, Tom and I spend a lot of time together. I enjoy talking to Tom and hearing Tom’s stories. When I am upset, I tell Tom about my problems, and Tom makes me feel better. Tom and I care about the same things. Tom is there for me and I am there for Tom.” That sounds like a friendship to me. That’s what friendship looks like.
Friendship with the world means spending a lot of time listening to worldly music. Friendship with the world means really enjoying the company of worldly films, worldly books, and worldly stories. Friendship with the world means that when things go wrong, you seek the consolation of worldly songs. Friendship with the world means that you and the world care about the same things— you and Katy Perry, you and Taylor Swift, you and Post Malone care about the same things, you think the same things are neat and interesting and worth talking about. Friendship with the world doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, or that you’re not a Christian. It just means you let the world teach you what to spend your time and money on.
Now, I want to go back to a claim I made earlier, and that claim is this: the coolest student at any private classical school is pretty much always going to be the kid who has the most intimate friendship with the world. The student who has seen the most R-rated movies, the student who knows the most slang terms for drugs, the student who knows the most about music on the radio, the student who has the most friends who go to public school… kids at private schools tend to be really impressed by stuff like that. Kids who have a knowledge of the world are generally pretty good at making that knowledge seem more impressive than it is, and they do this by mocking kids who aren’t as intimately acquainted with the world.
Once friendship with the world has been accepted as the standard of cool, it becomes much, much easier to become a classical malcontent— someone who attends a private school but likes to complain about it, and brags about how much happier he would be going somewhere else.
The malcontent of a classical Christian school is not necessarily one to openly scoff at Christianity, but he is one to scoff at pious and religious people. Pious and religious people aren’t friends with the world, which is to say they aren’t cool, and lameness is more contagious than influenza.
Now, even students who aren’t in love with the world are still sometimes susceptible to the influence of malcontents, because even if you aren’t friends with the world, the devil still really loves it when people look around at their families, their churches, their schools, and their jobs and think, “I’m actually too good for this place.”
Of course, some kids at classical schools try to put a pious gloss of their love for the world. Having been fourteen and desperately in love with the world, I know all the lines. I, too, have claimed that my love for the world was going to help me witness to unsaved kids. I, too, have acted like I was going to be some kind of missionary to the unsaved kids, the public school kids, and that I needed to know what they listened to and read and watched on television in order to “reach them.”
I am often amazed when Christian kids who are desperate to get close to the world justify their desperation by comparing themselves with missionaries. They seem to not understand how ironic it is that they would compare seeing a popular R-rated movie or listening to rap music with going to a third world country and setting up a charity for the poor, because that’s what a lot of missionaries do. What is more, I’ve been a high school teacher for fourteen years, and I am regularly amazed at how little Christian kids know about the Christian religion, and how much they get wrong. It is often the case that the same kids who claim their knowledge of pop culture is going to help them reach the lost
1) rarely read their Bibles
2) cannot name the apostles
3) cannot explain the doctrine of the Trinity without lapsing into heresy
4) do not know the Nicene Creed
5) cannot explain basic ideas found in the Nicene Creed, like “the communion of the saints” or “one holy catholic and apostolic church”
6) cannot explain the dual nature of Christ
7) and cannot tell you the doctrinal differences between their church and the church down the street
At thirteen, your greatest need is not to be a missionary. That’s not what the world needs most from you. If you don’t read your Bible much, I’m not entirely content you know what the Gospel is. And if you don’t read your Bible much, there’s a good chance that you don’t even like the Gospel that much. You can tell some kid on your travel soccer team that Jesus loves him, but you’re not a missionary. Relax. Take yourself a little more lightly. Know yourself. Know your limitations. Judge yourself a little more strictly. Be a little skeptical of your own abilities. Your mother still buys your clothes for you. At thirteen, you’ve got more in common with a fourth grader than a senior.
At thirteen or fourteen, your greatest need is to pray, confess your sins, sing God’s praises at morning meeting and on Sunday morning and Wednesday night, be honest with your parents, obey them, take joy in the work God has given you to do, obey your teachers, and serve the people God has put in your path— and the people God has put in your path are the students at this school. God has given you your classmates to be your friends. In the same way that God put a needy man in the path of the good Samaritan, God has put your classmates in your path.
You still need to choose your friends carefully. God has given your classmates to you for friends, but you cannot be close friends with forty people. You still have to choose who you will spend time with, who you will prioritize, who you will be close with.
That said, I have a question: if a disobedient student and an obedient student become friends, who is going to become like who? Will the disobedient student become more obedient, or will the obedient student become more disobedient? What usually happens?
You all know the answer, and every class I’ve ever asked this question knows the answer. You are correct. The obedient student becomes disobedient. Why do you think that is?
I have seen simple students and foolish students begin to mend their ways and turn toward wisdom. I have seen students headed for destruction turn back and live. I have also seen obedient students lose their desire for wisdom and begin living exciting, unstable lives. In observing changes towards foolishness and away from foolishness, I have reached a rather simple conclusion about change: bad influence rubs off, good influence does not. When an obedient student and a disobedient student become friends, the obedient student becomes like the disobedient, and not the other way around.
Why is this?
Virtue is hard to come by, and vice is quite easy to obtain. Wide is the gate and broad is the path which leads to destruction. Narrow is the path which leads to life, and few find it. We are not surprised when people are evil, but we are shocked when they are good. Nonetheless, we want to believe that it is very easy to be good. We want to believe that people who are stupid can accidentally become intelligent. We want to believe that fools can pick up wisdom like you pick up a cold. We like fad diets. We like quick, easy, simple, painless solutions to old, entrenched, complex problems.
Goodness is more powerful than evil, of course. And yet, when we say that goodness is more powerful than evil, we do not mean goodness is a catchier tune than evil. Wickedness is a thing we slouch into, it is what we get when we do not try. Virtue and strength and health only come by way of great effort. Being fat comes naturally, being fit comes supernaturally. The fit man has tamed his nature, the fat man has been tamed by his passions. I have seen fools become wise, but only by Herculean effort. I have seen fools turn back, but the moment of turning back is painful, embarrassing, and very terrible. The Prodigal Son ultimately turns back, but only after a profound and embarrassing confrontation with his own failure. The goodness of his father does not rub off on him, but painfully breaks open within him.
Bad influence rubs off, but the righteousness of Christ did not rub off on the world. Rather, His righteousness came to us through His crucifixion, and if we would accept His righteousness, we must take up our own crosses and follow Him to Golgotha, not just once, but every day.
If you have disobedient friends, it will be very easy for you to become like them. If you think yourself the obedient friend, your disobedient friends will only become like you with great effort. This should give you pause, though, and I would like to invite you all to consider the friends that you are making. While friendship is good, not every friendship is good, and like everything else in life, examining your friendships from time to time is valuable? To that end, I have a few questions for you:
First, where do you do most of your sinning? Consider the ways in which you are tempted for a moment. Where does most of your sin occur?
Second, is there anyone you are usually with when you do most of your sinning?
Third, is there any activity you regularly engage in, which is not sinful in itself, but which often leads to sin? Who are you with when you perform this activity?
Fourth, which of your friends is least likely to inspire you or prompt you to sin? Which of your friends do you do the least sinning around?
Fifth, which one of your friends do you pray with most often? If you never pray with your friends, which one of your friends would you feel the most comfortable around were you to pray?
Having answered these questions, I would like to offer what might seem like a radical suggestion: over the next year, you should spend less time around the sin you do the most sinning with, and you should spend more time around the friend you do the least sinning with.
If you have two friends, and you would be horribly embarrassed to talk about God or the Bible around one of them, and you could very easily talk about God with the other, start spending more time around the friend with whom it is easy to talk of God.
You are obligated to flee from temptation, and you are obligated to seek the Lord in all things, especially in your friendships.