Big Idea: Guard your affections by guarding your entanglements and influences.
It’s a general rule that, when you find a part of Scripture that seems offensive, it’s time to really pay attention.
This is one of those passages. It’s not that hard to understand. The heart of the passage is 2 Corinthians 6:14: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” It’s probably one of the best known verses in 2 Corinthians, mainly as it applies to dating, even though this passage is not directly about dating or marriage.
But here’s the thing: this passage has the potential to rile us. It could get us a little ticked off. And that’s a sign that we really need to pay attention to this passage.
Let me see if we can make sense of this passage. Let’s look at the real problem, the solution, and why we must take action.
The Real Problem
To understand why Paul writes what he does, we need to understand the problem he’s addressing. And there are a lot of problems to choose from. Some people in the church weren’t very happy with Paul. Paul had confronted them, and while most had repented and now accepted Paul’s authority, some within the church still opposed him. And of course, things were a bit sensitive after the conflict.
And so Paul’s addressing interpersonal conflict and a misunderstanding about the true nature of the Christian life. But underneath that problem is a deeper problem. It’s the sin beneath the sin — the problem that causes all kinds of other problems. What is it? Verse 12 tells us: “You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections.”
What does Paul mean? It’s easy to think that the problem is another person or circumstances. Paul goes a lot deeper. The problem isn’t out there. The problem is in here. The problem is their affections. They have a heart problem.
So the problem with the Corinthians is what we might call a “heart problem”: their heart lacks commitment to Paul and his mission. They have become emotionally entangled with someone or something that has dampened their affection for the apostle and his ministry. (George Guthrie)
The problem is never really the problem. Whenever you have a conflict or interpersonal tension or any kind of sin, the problem goes deeper than we think. The real problem is the heart.
So what do we do about the problem?
Paul gives us the solution in verse 14: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.”
What does this phrase mean? It’s a word picture about what happens when believers allow themselves to be entangled with influences that dampen their affections for Christ.
It brings to mind a whole bunch of passages from the Old Testament about mixing things that shouldn’t be mixed: crossbreeding livestock, sowing a field with two types of seeds, wearing clothing made of two types of material. The closet parallel comes from Deuteronomy 22:10: “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.” Why in the world wouldn’t you? There are at least two reasons. First: the ox was a clean animal in ceremonial terms, and the donkey was unclean. You shouldn’t mix what’s clean with what’s unclean. But there’s a second reason. “From a practical point of view, the animals have different temperaments, and their being yoked together could only create problems” (Warren Wiersbe).
It’s easy enough to understand. Your affections for God and God’s people are compromised by influences in your life that are unclean and that have different ways of looking at the world. Paul’s not saying to get rid of all relationships with unbelievers. He is saying that we are influenced by others. And we should guard those influences so that our affections are not pulled away from God and God’s people.
We tend to think that we’re not influenced by others. But we’re fooling ourselves. Paul previously wrote to the Corinthians, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals’” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Our relationships and influences determine our affections. Who do you hang out with? What are your closest relationships? What books are you reading? What shows are you watching? Who do you follow on social media? All of this will influence your love for Jesus and others. So don’t get entangled with any influence that dampens your affection for Jesus.
Friends, I find that we’re very naïve on this point. We think that we can be friends with anyone and watch or read anything and it won’t affect us. We’re wrong.
In a TEDx talk, John Sutherland, an officer in London’s police department, explains a principle in forensic science called Locard’s exchange principle. Developed by Dr. Edmond Locard, known as the Sherlock Holmes of France, this principle has a simple premise: every contact leaves a trace. In other words, every criminal leaves a trace behind him. One forensic expert put it this way:
Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks … the paint he scratches, the blood … he deposits or collects … This is evidence that does not forget.
Sutherland explains how this principle applies not just to forensic science but to all human relationships:
Every time two people come into contact with one another an exchange takes place. Whether between lifelong friends or passing strangers, we encourage, we ignore, we hold out a hand, or we withdraw it. We walk towards or we walk away. We bless or we curse… And every single contact leaves a trace.
Paul isn’t saying to withdraw from unbelievers. If we did that, we’d have to leave the world, he wrote earlier (1 Corinthians 5:9-10). But he is saying to curate your influences.
- Who are your closest relationships?
- What books and articles do you read?
- What do you watch on TV or at the theater?
- What accounts do you follow?
Don’t fool yourself. The answer to these questions will determine the strength of your relationship with God. You can’t avoid being influenced no matter how hard you try. Hang around people who love God and you will grow in your love for God. Hang around people who don’t love God and your love for God will lessen. Read and watch stuff that everyone else watches and you’ll think like everyone else. Read and watch stuff that is all about Jesus and you will grow in your love for Jesus.
A brief sidetone: This is why what we do hear matters. This is why we need each other. Chris Brauns writes:
We must not live the Christian life solely as though we have an individual relationship with Christ. Rather, to experience more joy, we must be actively investing in body life. No Christian will experience true joy apart from fellowship in the body of Christ, any more than an amputated finger will be healthy.
We need each other! Withdraw yourself from regular relationships with others in the church and you will begin to lose your passion for Jesus.
Guard your affections by guarding your entanglements and influences.
Why Should We Listen?
I know that you may not be convinced yet. So Paul gives us two big reasons for what he says. Here’s the first:
God and sin are fundamentally incompatible.
That’s Paul’s point in verses 14 to 16. He asks five rhetorical questions:
- What do righteousness and lawlessness have in common?
- Or what kind of close relationship does light have with darkness?
- What harmony is there between Christ and Belial (Satan)?
- Or what part of the life God has given his people does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?
- In what way can God’s temple and idols come to an agreement?
The answer, of course, is that these things are fundamentally incompatible. If you are a follower of Jesus, there are all kinds of things that are now fundamentally incompatible with your allegiance to Jesus. They just won’t work for you anymore. You have a completely different agenda, a different allegiance. There’s no longer any common ground.
Paul gives us a second reason for guarding our affections by guarding our entanglements and influences.
God’s presence with us demands that we be holy, separate from the world, cleansed from impurity.
That’s what Paul argues in verses 16 to the end of the chapter. It reminds me of the time I took my mother to see a movie. I thought the movie was fine, but my mother’s presence changed that. I could not watch the filth on the screen with my mother present. Her presence changed everything. It demanded that I remove myself from that impurity. How much more when God is present with us?
He concludes in chapter 7:1: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
I’m calling all of us today to take this seriously. I want to conclude by giving two actions to take today: a corrective action and a positive action.
Here’s the corrective action. It’s to take an audit:
- Who are the main relational influences in your life? Especially think of your romantic partner and your closest friends.
- Who are the main intellectual influences in your life? What books do you read that shape your thinking?
- What shows, movies, and music are the main sources of entertainment in your life?
- Who do you follow on social media?
Here’s the action to take: curate these. These are the main influences that are shaping who you are. Anything that deadens our devotion to Christ is sin. Don’t fool yourself. You need to curate these influences on your life, because they’re not neutral. Don’t be unequally yoked. Guard your affections by guarding your entanglements and influences.
That’s the corrective action. Here’s the positive action. The good news is this: God cares so deeply about you that he doesn’t just want your obedience; he wants your affections. He wants your heart. If you have turned from your own self-righteousness and trusted Jesus, hear what is true of you. God says:
I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.
(2 Corinthians 6:16–18)
The old preacher Charles Simeon writes:
What astonishing words are these! “I will receive you, and be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” What need we care about being cast out by men, if we are received by God? yea, if even disowned and disinherited by earthly parents, what loss do we sustain, if God himself acknowledge us as his sons and daughters, and provide an inheritance for us worthy of that high relation? Think of the sweet access which a child has to his parent, the delightful confidence he has in his love, and the full assurance he enjoys of all suitable provision in the time of need. This, and infinitely more than this, does the believer enjoy in the presence of his God: and beyond all this he looks forward to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away. Say, believer, how small are thy privations, when such are thine enjoyments! how contemptible are thy losses, when such are thy gains!
So: guard your affections by guarding your entanglements and influences.
May the treasure we have in you outweigh the influences and relationships that would draw us away from you. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.