“I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
This verse, in my experience, surely ranks among the favourite scriptures of contemporary western Christians.
After all, who could not want the abundant life? Who could refuse the promise – from the lips of Jesus, no less – of more and better?
However, call me a cynic (go on, call me a cynic!), but I see a couple of problems here.
First, our idea of what constitutes the abundant life is substantially influenced by the consumer capitalist culture in which we live. Ask any person in the street – or, more pertinently, in the church – what they understand by the “abundant life”, and chances are they’ll respond with something along the lines of more influence, a better job, more money, more status, more possessions, a bigger house… After all, how can an adjective like “abundant” mean anything other than bigger and better?!
In sum, the culture in which we live has exclusively defined “abundant” as clearly meaning nothing other than more, bigger, and better. And a large section of the church – notably the charismatic and Pentecostal wing thereof – has gone right along with this understanding. What else could Jesus have possibly meant? What else can “blessing” mean other than more money, more health… in short, more power and influence?
But let us stop for a moment. When Jesus said he had come “that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”, did he really mean that the reason for his coming was that people might enjoy more creature comforts and greater societal influence? Remember, we are speaking here of the teacher who said that “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”. (Matthew 8:20). To insist on such an interpretation of Jesus’ words is to more or less ignore the thrust of his message and the way he himself lived his life – i.e. in relative poverty and lack.
Second, I suggest we really need to stop and think about what is meant by the idea of “abundance” or fullness.
What is it that life is full of? Perhaps we would like life to be full of nothing other than health, wealth and happiness… but this is rarely the reality in which we live. Life is full of contrasts. Thinking back over our rich and varied experience, each of us can no doubt remember both deeply painful events and other events that were sources of abiding joy. We are each of us formed by pain and happiness, grief and joy, light and dark.
I would venture to suggest that, in this present world, “life in all its fulness” includes all of the contrasts of human experience: all of life’s agony and ecstasy, all of the valleys and the mountaintops, all of the storms and the sunshine. Indeed, I would even be so bold as to suggest that one cannot fully experience the glorious joys of life without also experiencing its more troublesome moments. The darkness of the one makes the lightness of the other all the brighter.
Perhaps what Jesus invites us to is not a life of uninterrupted bliss but a life in which we fully experience both the light and the dark, both the day and the night, both the grey and the glorious technicolor. Maybe Jesus is calling us to be fully present to our own pain and woundedness so that we can not only help others come to terms with the reality of their own darkness and struggle, but that we can also help them find life and meaning and hope in that darkness and struggle… life and meaning and hope that that they, in turn, can share with others.
So… I invite you into the journey of life, knowing that it will not be all sweetness and light, but also knowing that Jesus will be with you in both the sorrow and the joy, helping you experience and share the abundance of both.
[ Image: Philippa Willitts ]