During Lent, we are focusing on listening. When we are afraid, we can’t hear what the deeper message might be beyond our immediate sense of helplessness, shame or vulnerability. In Faith in Real Life, the discussion centers around how Jesus’s crucifixion reclaims the whole of the cosmos, and how that can help us face our own fears. Although Jesus had very normal human responses to his predicament, he innately trusted that he belonged to God and that even the worst possible outcome by our standards may be redeemed by God’s love.
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
One of the great ironies of the Christian faith is that a religion based upon love and inclusiveness has also become fiercely divisive and, in extreme cases, the source of blood shed. Christians are intent on defining who is in and who is out—who is saved and who is condemned—who is in the light and who lives in darkness. At one end of the spectrum, our verbal declaration of belief in Jesus is the sine qua non of membership in the Christian Church. It is required to make us eligible for salvation. At the other end, salvation is God’s prerogative and our assent is not required.
Passages like this one are used to support both sides of the divide. I hope my own interpretive lens has been well documented. I am suspicious of either/or dichotomies. I see God as loving and loving of the whole world. I do not see God as condemning or punitive. That said, it certainly appears that God’s love and eternal life are limited to those who believe ‘in the name of the only Son of God’.
The first two verses sets the stage for understanding the rest of the passage. They refer to an incident in the wilderness recorded in Numbers 21:4-9. During their escape from Egypt, the people became impatient and discontent. When they complained to Moses and to God about their plight, they were punished for their sinfulness by an infestation of poisonous snakes. I will skip for now the need of human beings to explain pain and suffering as ‘bad’ and an expression of divine displeasure because the remedy is what is interesting. As directed by God, Moses was to: “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
The people were asked to look squarely at what most frightened them. Salvation came from facing what they feared. John writes that the Son of Man must be similarly lifted up. We must look squarely at the face of a crucified Messiah. When you want relief from pain, suffering, and oppression, looking at a dying messiah hardly seems saving.
But intentionally choosing to face what we fear is a well-understood principle in counseling. A common aphorism in the field is: “The way out is through the bottom.” The typical and most human reaction to fear is to try to hide it or try to defeat it by force of will. But hidden fear is a fear that grows—and it almost surely will show up in life defeating ways. People will take absurd risks to prove themselves or just as likely, refuse to take the risks of ordinary living. In FIRL one of our members quoted a particularly apt acronym for FEAR that makes the same point. It can be viewed as Forget Everything And Run—or—Face Everything And Rise. On the one hand, when we try to avoid or deny what we fear, fear will control us. And on the other, when we face and claim our fears, we not only gain freedom, love becomes possible.
Looking at a crucified Messiah requires we face what we fear. We fear vulnerability, pain, and death. We fear the loss of loved ones and we fear that our best efforts have not only been in vain but are the object of ridicule. And in far less extreme cases, we fear what others would think of us. We fear how we are characterized. We want to prove ourselves; we want to argue the correctness of our point of view. ‘Letting’ people have negative opinions of us feels like giving in or giving up. On the cross, we worship, as divine, what we fear. And we believe that facing what we fear and seeing wholeness instead of shame is the way to love and eternal life. It is the way of Jesus.
Psychologically, love depends upon being known and being accepted. Anything we are ashamed of, we are likely to keep hidden with the consequence that no matter who would love us, we dismiss them with a silent ‘Yes, but if you knew the whole truth, you wouldn’t feel that way.’ It is always risky to expose our vulnerability to another—especially a vulnerability we deem bad. Yet the more that happens, the deeper the love that is possible.
Likewise, theologically, Genesis describes human sinfulness as hiding from God. Adam and Eve feared that they could not be accepted if their disobedience was exposed. By hiding they demonstrated their distrust of God’s love and turned away from him. They tried to decide what was ‘good’, what was ‘bad’ and what was loveable about themselves. They hoped if they could stay hidden, they could manage their safety. By deciding what God can love, human beings split God’s creation.
Jesus, on the cross, reclaimed the whole of the cosmos. He trusted that helplessness, death and unfair treatment were parts of life—very unpleasant, but still part of God’s creation. Every ounce of our being would fear such a fate. It is almost impossible to see such a death as anything but bad—with a capital B. Human categories of good and bad are shattered. God so loved the world, he showed us that the son of God can have the experiences we could not tolerate. Who are we to decide what is good or bad?
God loves us wholly. God loves the world wholly. Our job is to use what we are given—NOT to decide what is usable or acceptable. What we would reject and hide in ourselves, God can love. There is no human experience God does not share and cannot use. The light shines in the darkness.
It is not until Easter that we see the possibilities beyond our understanding. It is not until we see that he lives that we can begin to comprehend that God can use the most horrific of experiences for his purposes. But we are still in Lent. We, like Jesus, are called to live in the promise—even in the times we cannot imagine anything beyond our loneliness, fear and sense of abandonment.
Believing in Jesus is not so much a verbal affirmation as it is a pattern of living that trusts that the whole world is God’s—whether we like it or not. We choose to follow the Lord of all not just the Lord of what we think is right or good. Ours is not to understand or manage, ours is to trust that every experience and all of creation somehow belongs to God. This is a high standard—especially when we are in pain. In real life, it is a direction of living more than an accomplished fact. Jesus broke down every human division and he died in a way that said even the worst we can imagine does not mean we are separated from God. When we worship Jesus as Lord and Savior, we choose God’s way over our own.
This does not mean there is not a difference between good and evil. But God’s definition supersedes ours. For God, doing evil becomes our human insistence that we can discern who is within God’s love. Whenever we make such attempts, we create hierarchies of acceptability. We divide God’s creation. Christians are better than Muslims, power is better than weakness, rich is better than poor, one race or gender is more desirable, etc.. Creating the dichotomies is what is sinful and when we live by those dichotomies, we are self righteous and entitled if not downright evil. We create and sustain systems and prejudice that diminish others. This is a life of false self-reliance and a life that distrusts God’s care. Such a life loves the darkness and we are already condemned. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
One last comment. I am well aware that I am making judgments about what I believe God wants—and what God would call evil. That does not mean I am right.
First John proclaims that God is love and that love casts out fear. We learn that when we face and claim what we fear. We learn that when we see Jesus lifted up upon a cross. Let it be Good News. Let it be so.