Grace can be a difficult concept to grasp tangibly. Grace is a rarity in day-to-day life. However, “tangibly” is the only way that grace is truly understood–it must be felt and experienced. When this happens, it allows us to be able to share it with others freely and naturally. This idea was central to the discussion this week at Faith in Real Life as they discussed 1 John chapter 3.
1 John 3:1-7
1 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.
In FIRL this week, we had to go through this passage line by line to make any sense of it. The first three verses are relatively straight forward. The second four however seem to be internally contradictory. Near the end of Monday night’s group we read the preceding chapter which, as it turns out, fleshed out these verses in our passage. So I would suggest you take the time to read Chapter 2. I will be referring to it.
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”
These are words of inclusion and grace most of us crave to hear. It is the promise that we are children of God and we are children by God’s declaration. Just as in ordinary life a child can be declared our child through a legal adoption, so too, our status as God’s children is granted by God’s choosing. We actually don’t have anything to say about it. Neither our behavior nor our goodness determines our status. We can rebel. We can refuse to acknowledge our standing but no matter what, we remain God’s children. God chooses us and God loves us. Our only choice is whether we will enjoy it.
That said, a common anxiety that goes with this theology, is that if our relationship with God is based upon his choice, What if he changes his mind ? What if we don’t please him. Instead of God’s choosing us becoming a rock solid base of support, it can become the source of constant worry, accommodating behavior and judgemental thinking. For centuries, human kind has tried to define what is acceptable to God. Sometimes this search is a way to honor the one who loves us but just as often it is an attempt to define the criteria that are required to keep that love. From the outside, these responses to God can look the same. But from the inside, the motivations are almost polar opposites. In one case, service is born out of trust and faith, in the the second service is born out of the fear that at any moment we will fail, will be unclean and finally cast out.
Our human experience belies the promises of God. We have no human experience in which all promises are kept. Humans break promises all the time—even familial ones. To believe that God will keep his promises is the leap of faith.
I have often written that there is nothing in our marriage vows that is enforceable. As much as we would like to believe promises given and promises received, all human promises include uncertainty. The best among us will fail the ones we love—-and we will be failed by the ones who love us.
Even children are not immune to our failed promises. In the extreme, you can google ads for ‘re-homing’ children. Sometimes they are called ‘second chance ‘ adoptions’ and others reflect parental limitations and still others, parental self centeredness. The motives and reasons for broken promises are not for us to judge. My point is that in the real world, even our most important promises get broken. And our real life experience is the lens we use to try to understand God. Knowing Jesus opens an entirely new way to see and know God.
I think this is what John is talking about when he says: ”The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” Christian values may well overlap with those of the world but they are distinctly different and are often in conflict with the world. Jesus relied on God’s promises even as he was crucified. The way of the world would say that Jesus’ crucifixion was proof of God’s unreliability as a father. Fathers are supposed to protect their children. “Letting” them die an unjust death does not fit. The world can not imagine trusting God in all adversity. Knowing Jesus is to realize that such a faith can be lived. If you ‘know him’, you realize that God loves in and through every hard time. That is our faith. If you do not know him, such talk is foolish.
One last comment on being God’s children. In the secular world, we say, ‘ You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.’ The implication is that we have greater responsibilities toward family as opposed to ‘not’ family. Family is more permanent. We can walk away from friendships that go bad but it is harder to do so with family. Family requires greater effort to reconcile with one another. By declaring that we are all God’s children, we have new responsibilities for one another. The way of the world is that we take care of self, family, clan, tribe etc. in roughly that order. In the world, some people are more important than others. God’s way obliterates those distinctions. No individual or subgroup gets special status.
God’s inclusiveness is saving but it is also deeply demanding. “By this we may be sure that we are in him: 6 whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.” (1 John 2: 5-6) That is Jesus’ way. He treated all he encountered as the family of God. You can not believe in him and act otherwise. As John elaborates, “Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.”
As we walk in and toward his light, we are purified as he is pure. We are transformed. Jesus’ purity is not what we typically think. Godly purity is the ability to see all of us as one when we stand in the light. Human purity is gradations of respectability that humans use to divide the creation and rank human acceptability.
The paradox in verse 6 (No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.) is difficult. We have all turned from God. We have all sinned. To say otherwise is to deceive ourselves. How can we be saved from sin and remain sinners?
It is extremely important to realize that sin is turning away from the light. It is misdirection more than misdeeds. Whenever we make lists of sins or try to differentiate between misdeeds—is one sin worse that another—we run the risk of viewing differences as tests of worth before God. Such tests are man made. Such tests are ways to measure ourselves before God— and are, in themselves, sinful. They may be very important to our judicial system but our categories of righteousness and sinfulness do not belong to God. This is the heart of grace and grace is outside of human experience—except through Jesus. The light illumens our differences and obliterates them. He does not hold our sins against us
Martin Luther addressed the dilemma by saying we are simultaneously justified and sinners (simul justus et peccata). We all turn from God AND we trust God with our distrust, doubt and fear. We are all afraid we can not be loved if we are fully known. Our self judgement leads to our hiding from God. But by bringing our whole selves to God, we learn we can be loved as the sinners we are. This is where I found chapter 3 most helpful:
18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God….(1John 3:18-22)
Trusting God whenever our hearts condemn us reassures us and allows us to be bold before God. We call many of our thoughts and deeds disqualifying sins. Our hearts would condemn us. But God is greater than our hearts. He loves us. If you have had the human experience of confession and acceptance, you know the relief, freedom and gratitude that follows. That freedom and gratitude leads to treating others more compassionately. Such grace always calls us to love, justice and deeper connection. We cannot receive such grace without offering it to others. That is the core of 1 John.
I close with a prayer by Thomas Merton that Alex shared with me:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Let it be so.