I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).
During a radio broadcast in 1939, Winston Churchill was asked about what the Russians might do in a world war. Here was his response (the 2nd sentence has become a classic):
“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
For me, and I suspect people who grew up in unreligious, hedonistic, secular homes like myself, the statement above by Jesus in John’s gospel seems like a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
My childhood and early adult years did not prepare or train me to recognize, embrace, or live the abundant life. I have no memories of love in my childhood. My parents didn’t love each other and neither of them seemed to love me. Everything at home was cold, distant, and sometimes violent. When I was 6 or 7 years old my mother left home one day and didn’t come back. My father turned to alcohol and drugs which meant he never held a job for very long which meant no money and a lot of moving (to dodge rent and creditors).
I hated my parents for most of my life. But one day, not too many years ago, I realized that neither of them had been prepared or trained to be loving. They walked into marriage, parenting, and life responsibilities with little or no help from their own parents. And you cannot pass on to your own children what you never possessed for yourself.
In some ways, I’ve done better than my parents. In just a couple of months, I will have been married to the same woman for 38 years. Our four children range in age from 34 to 18. Though I’ve changed churches and contexts I’ve been in some form of ministry full-time for 33 years. And soon I will have been in the first home I purchased for 10 years. That is all very different from my childhood and youth. But I’ve got scars that still haven’t healed and no green pastures or still waters in my past to assure me of continuity in either my own future or that of my family.
I recently finished a really good book by Mary Jo Sharp titled Why I Still Believe: A Former Atheist’s Reckoning With the Bad Reputation Christians Give a Good God. Toward the end of the book she wrote the following:
“I feel like it will take the resurrection to fix me. And that saddens me. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be.”
I read and reread those words over and over again. I realized that she said what I’ve always felt as a Christian but either couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate. However, there it was. Someone else said it but it is a perfect description of how I feel. I was never trained, equipped, or prepared to be happy and live joyfully. When I took the Myers-Briggs personality evaluation it came back (not surprisingly) as ISTJ. Like Professor Sharp, I find it difficult to perceive any kind of major “fix” for my bland, melancholy, and morose outlook on life until I’m dead and resurrected.
Now, scroll back up to the top of this page and reread those words of Christ from John 10:10. You’re right Professor Sharp: “This isn’t the way things are supposed to be.” So now, on top of everything else, throw in a good measure of guilt. According to Jesus, I am supposed to be enjoying “life…abundantly.” But I know I’m not.
Interestingly (providentially?) I just finished reading the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament (click HERE for a really good but short video that explains Leviticus). Critics of biblical faith just love going to Leviticus to supposedly prove the hypocrisy of believers who condemn the practice of homosexuality while having no problem with eating shrimp and bacon (the difference between dietary restrictions and moral law is a bit over the critics’ heads).
Leviticus is about holiness. God is holy and He commands His people to be holy (Leviticus 19:2 & 1 Peter 1:16). But think about this for a moment. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for more than four centuries. They had become completely acculturated. When God called Moses to deliver them He said He saw their affliction and “heard their cry, because of their taskmasters [emphasis mine]” (Exodus 3:7). They weren’t crying out to God for help. They were merely crying out because of their suffering. In other words, God delivered the Israelites because of His covenant with Abraham and not because they believed in Him or worshiped Him or called out to Him for deliverance. They didn’t know Him anymore.
Leviticus was written as a training manual for people who were completely unfamiliar with holiness. God didn’t just snap His fingers at Mt. Sinai and make everyone holy. They had to painstakingly learn how to be what God said they were supposed to be (holy).
The same thing is true about Jesus’ statement regarding the abundant life. After He offered His own life on the altar of Calvary, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, He didn’t walk over to some switch on the wall of the heavenly temple, flip it up, and then declare that all believers now have abundant life. Remember, the text says “may have life and have it abundantly.” “May” not “shall.”
You have to be acclimated and trained to live and walk in the abundant life just as the Israelites had to be acclimated and trained to live in holiness. The big difference is that rather than another meticulous training manual filled with new rituals and festivals to observe to teach us abundant living, we were given the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). But training it still is. That’s why Paul exhorts the Galatians (and us) to:
[W]alk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for they are opposed to each other… (Galatians 5:16-17).
Temporal happiness is found in gratifying the flesh. Abundant life is the result of years and years of spiritual training. Walking by the Spirit is regularly humbling (there is a lot of sorrow for and confession of sin when following the Spirit), sometimes disappointing (see Acts 16:6), and always a choice (the exhortation by Paul to “walk by the Spirit” inherently implies an act of the will; a decision).
Following God sounds fun and easy but it is not. In 2 Corinthians 11:24-29 Paul lists some of the major hardships he had endured as an apostle for Christ. Beatings, a stoning, shipwrecks, constant persecution, imprisonments, hunger, and even subjection to the “danger from false brothers.” And yet, he would tell you that he was walking by the Spirit when all of it was thrust upon him. He later wrote to the Philippians,
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13)
The abundant life isn’t a swollen bank account, a large family that adores you, and a comfortable retirement waiting in the wings. The abundant life is the faithful life. It is the obedient life. And anyone who has tried living faithfully and obediently to God knows firsthand that pain, regret, and disappointment are your constant companions. Abundant living comes not when you get your way or what you want. It arrives when you can say as Paul says,
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Excuse me, but I have some more acclimating and training to attend to.