Jesus came to give us life, and life to the full. Life that is abundant, excessive in quantity. We know the words of John chapter 10 well enough, but I think it’s difficult for us to picture what that means.
I hear the phrase “life to the full,” and I inevitably picture someone into extreme sports—perhaps a surfer—who is living their life to the full by chasing the thrill of adrenaline coursing through their body.
Or, if we look at the culture of our churches rather than the things we say, we might wonder if ‘life to the full’ had more to do with being Middle-Classed and living a nice well-adjusted life where our psychological drama is kept to a minimum and we earn a good salary and live in a nice-looking house with our 2.4 children. You might scoff at the characterisation, but when 70% of the British church is degree educated, something is off, even if this is unlikely to be the cause.
Life to the full cannot mean living like a beach bum. It cannot mean living like an upwardly mobile knowledge-worker in the suburbs. It cannot mean being employed by a church. And, it must be possible for people in all three of those situations.
Why can’t it? It must include Jesus’ own life. If his life cannot be described as ‘to the full’ or ‘abundant’ then we are defining our terms wrongly. When Jesus said ‘life to the full’ he must, as Alain Emerson points out in his beautiful memoir Luminous Dark, surely have meant a life like his own.
At this point I suspect you’re still with me. Most of us know this implicitly, even when our cultures speak differently. We imagine instead that life to the full is a life replete with joy, with friendship with God, and with demonstrations of God’s power dogging our footsteps.
A fully charismatic ‘naturally supernatural’ lifestyle, that sounds more like it! That lines up with Jesus’ own ministry and sounds like ‘life in abundance’ as well. That’ll be it, right?
A life like his own. Marked by suffering as well as joy. We should imagine that our abundant life will be as marked by struggles, disappointment and pain as his was.
What is life in its fullness?
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.Matthew 16.24-25
Lay your life down. That’s what abundant living looks like.
Emerson’s book is a memoir of his coping with the death of his wife. It’s raw. It’s truthful. It’s beautifully written. I’d differ on a few points of theology, but his story is profoundly powerful. His contention is that as we face the darkness of our lives, we discover God in that darkness such that the darkness becomes luminous (Psalm 139). I found it moving and helpful.
He describes contemplating Jesus’ statement that he would bring us ‘life to the full’ in the midst of the darkness of his grief and loss. He says that in an ineffable way, difficult to grasp and harder to describe, the experience of choosing to lean into the pain and walk into the darkness was itself lifegiving. This is the Christian response to the deepest and most shockingly awful things that happen to us: walk into the pit, find God right at the bottom of the grave, and join him in his resurrection.
That’s life to the full. It can’t be reduced to a shortcut, and it makes a bad self-help book: we have to die to rise. Everything that dies in Christ comes back to life.
Emerson says there is something transformational in the middle of the darkness, and illuminating depth and meaning which requires the broken path to breath into life within us. I’ve experienced glimmers of this in my own life, I think he’s right. We find God at the bottom of the pit.
Life to the full is the resurrection, which means it’s also the death that comes before. From the little deaths of shattered dreams, and repentance from sin that sticks, to the great griefs that our path through the world writes in the wrinkles of our faces.
Pursuing happiness, or a spiritual high, is a poor substitute for chasing after the life that Jesus offers us. He doesn’t promise happiness, but something much better and more different to it than we think: he promises joy. Jesus is inviting us into the reality of being alive in every moment that life throws at us.
Emerson describes following Jesus as being open to the highest of highs and to the lowest of lows. Abundant life is real. It knows the taste of ash on the tongue. The brush of death is not so easily washed away by a burst of temporary joy—though the scars of his teeth will be washed away as we enter the land of the living in the age to come.
Friends, there is no pressure in Christianity to be happy. There is instead an invitation to feel. To truly enter into the reality of the things that life throws at you, good and bad. To discover the emotions of God, what he loves and what he hates.
We are invited to live life to the full. And that may look more like your life than you realised as you read through tear-stained eyes. Or it may not, and you may have to truly enter the joy and the sorrow of the situations that you find yourself in. Jesus did, and he invites us to follow him, with a cross on our shoulder.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash
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