It was 5AM. I was the only one up and had not turned on any lights. I appreciated how quiet the house was. I looked out the kitchen window into the fading darkness of our backyard. We used to see deer a lot, but lately, not so much. I wondered if they had moved on, but my wife Candy said, no. She is a gardener and her half-eaten tomatoes told her the deer are still coming by. In the dim pre-dawn gray, there he was, a buck happily enjoying an early morning salad. I could hear Candy’s voice in my head. “Did you scare them out of my garden?” So I open the back door and they ran.
What if I had turned on the kitchen light before looking out? At 5AM, it is starting to get light outside, but it is still pretty hard to see. Artificial indoor light would reflect off the windows and make it impossible to see. If I had turned on the kitchen light, the world outside the window would appear as black as the dead of night, a starless night. The light that made it possible for me to read while sitting at the kitchen table would have blinded me to what was happening outside. How does a kitchen light bring both sight and blindness?
In our world, how do darkness and light exist alongside each other? How do these two – darkness and light – both exist in our hearts?
The Gospel of John says that Jesus is “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). First John 1:6 says, “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true.”
Darkness cannot overcome the light of God. When God is present, darkness must flee and all that was hidden by the darkness is exposed by God’s holy light. So how can we walk in darkness once we have heard the gospel? If we have met God in Jesus, is it even possible for us to walk in the darkness after that? First John says it is.
According to Raymond E. Brown, 1st John is first century Christian essay written for members of a church that has gone through a split. The author, the elder, is on one side in this split. He accuses the other side of walking in darkness. They knew Jesus’ story – the cross, the resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit. They knew, still they chose darkness. They claim follow Jesus, but the elder calls them liars.
God is the light. First John stresses the importance of men and women living in the Lord, walking in the light. Yet, verse 6 holds that some have done the opposite and walked in darkness. Even after being exposed to God’s purity, holiness, and perfect love, they chose darkness over light. They were able to choose to turn the light off.
How can one turn God off? It is a matter of free will. Many Christian theologians put it this way. God gives us choices and honors the choices we make. What makes us God’s imager bearers – those made in God’s image unlike any other animal – is our free will. By our free will, we create. God made the world and empowers us to live in the world He created. God enables and expects us to make things of the world. And we do. We make things like cars, houses, and computers. We are endowed with creativity by God.
It is by our free will that we create and it is by free will that we choose to worship God. Or, we have the option to not worship God. I do not believe God determines choices. God creates us with the ability to choose and some among us even after seeing God’s goodness choose to turn away and walk in darkness.
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says light means potentiality while darkness means death.[i] These terms appear throughout the New Testament. The Gospel of John and 1st John are unique in the way they present a duality of light and darkness. The concepts of light and dark carry theological and spiritual meanings in John not found in other works.
Reality is comprised of both and human beings are in one or the other; we walk in the darkness or the light. We turn ourselves so that we are oriented toward God (the light) or toward that which is not of God (the darkness).
The Holy Spirit will help us choose. If someone you know is in a dark place or has a heart shadowed by heavy, deadly darkness, you can pray for him. We can go to God on behalf of those we love who have turned away from the Lord. The Holy Spirit will respond to our pleas and reach out to those lost in darkness. Even before we pray, God pursues the sheep that are lost (Luke 15). However, a moment of choice always comes and the individual has to decide he wants God more than the darkness that has attracted him.
But, why are we attracted by darkness in the first place? If God is so awesome, why would we ever choose to turn away from Him? This question is as old as the world. Eve and Adam walked with God in the Garden of Eden. Yet, they chose to turn away from God’s gift of life ever since, humans have rejected God.
First John 2:15-17 helps me understand how they and anyone, myself included, can do indeed do this. The elder says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the father but from the world” (v.15-16). Darkness is not appealing because it is literally dark and foreboding and scary.
We run away from dark, foreboding, scary things. The other night I had a dream I was being attacked by a poisonous snake. I was literally running with my legs in the bed. I was so shaken when I woke, I could not return to sleep. The darkness John talks about is much worse than a snake, but it does not appear worse. It does not appear bad at all.
“Do not love … the things of the world; … the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches.” But we do. Several years ago, Richard Foster named the three great categories of temptations that draw us away from God – power, sex, and money.[ii] Last Christmas I received Andy Crouch’s latest book Playing God. In it he covers themes very similar to those discussed by Foster. Counterfeit Gods (2009) by Timothy Keller also deals with this. These books are written to show followers of Jesus how vulnerable we are. We love the things of the world.
Jesus was with the disciples in a storm at sea (Mark 4:40). They panicked. As long as he was with them, they should have had no reason to fear. He was bigger than any problem they would face. They couldn’t trust him though. They trusted dry land. They believed the storm. It sinks boats. Trusting Jesus was harder.
We are the body of Christ. We give our tithes and do our mission projects and in different ways announce to the world around us that Jesus is Lord and in him the Kingdom of God has come. We trust him to meet our needs and carry the message we preach. Would it be easier if we had more – maybe $500,000 per year? Oh, Lord, what could we do with $1 million?
I don’t know if our deacons or treasurer ever has these thoughts. I do. Why? One million dollars seems reals. I take my eyes off of Jesus and set the world in my sights. John 3:16 says God loved the world enough to send Jesus to provide salvation from the sin and death. But we are not to love world so that we become like the world. We are to help the world know of the salvation we have in Jesus.
The duality of light and dark is a violent tug-of-war in the Gospel and in First John. Imagine God on one side. Imagine an undefinable darkness that smells of evil, that puts out an oppressive heat on the other side. You and I are in the middle. In this tug of war, God is not pulling us, nor will God allow the darkness to pull us. Rather, God’s arms are open. Jesus invites us to come to Him. It is an invitation of pure love and an invitation to enter into pure, unfailing, unending love.
On the side, darkness puts on the disguise of happiness – happiness that is purchased. But, if I get that raise, then I’ll be happy. But, oh, I needed a few thousand more. If God sent the tither who gave a $1 million gift to the church, we would suddenly discover we really need $5 million to be God’s church. If the disguise of money fails to attract, darkness puts up another temptation– sex. A man feels lonely, unsatisfied, unmanly. Darkness comes in the form of sexual temptation. We resist greed and sex, then darkness tempts us with power, or something else.
The temptations keep coming. Do we turn away from God? What form is darkness taking in the struggle for your heart?
Each one of us needs to do some work in interpretation. We have to examine our own lives and see our vulnerabilities. First John 2:15 is a general teaching – do not love the things in the world. Your work and mine is to specify that teaching. Money is a thing of the world. It can be managed wisely and used in God’s service. When acquiring money is a driving force in our lives, it becomes something we love and it drags us away from God. For one person the temptation is money, for another sex, and so on. Do not love the things of the world because, says 1st John, “the world and its desire are passing away” (2:17a). Each one of us needs to figure out what of the things of the world are dragging us away from God’s light.
Maybe it begins with disappointment. Because the world is a fallen world, the goodness of God’s original creation now corrupted, there is pain. Pain is a part of life and failure is something everyone faces. The greatest danger of it is it may be the thing that draws us to the darkness. In the Gospel and in 1st John, the way of darkness is the way of death: permanent, separated-from-God-for-eternity death.
But the light is always there.
I have dealt with disappointments, but God always kept me in His grasp.
I did not get the first big job in ministry for which I applied. There were weeks between that rejection and graduation from college that I did not know what was coming. My dad had warned me of how difficult it would be to graduate without employment.[iii] Before I had a job or knew what I would end up doing, I knew God was with me and I was in His light. I was disappointed but, I was in the light.
Through the decade of my 20’s I failed in romance. I was lonely. Before I knew Candy and knew she would marry me, I knew God was with me and I was in His light. The loneliness hurt.[iv] At times I was sad, but always in the light.
I had big dreams for my first pastorate and many never came to fruition. I thought I knew what the church should be and it did not become that. There was disappointment and I did not know what God would do in my life as a pastor. But, I knew God was with me and I was in His light.
When we were adopting children, there were interruptions in the process, years of waiting, and times when it seemed it would never happen. In the anxiety, we knew God was with us and we were in His light. There were agonizing stretches, but the light continued to shine.
Each person has the option of stressing over successes that are really desires of the world. We can fall apart over our temptations that originate in the darkness.
There is another way.
We look to Jesus. We give ourselves to him. He rules in everything in our lives. And that is when we live into an joy-filled God fellowship, the abundant life we are promised by Jesus. As 1st John says, “Walk in the light as he is in the light.” We do, and we have “fellowship with one another” and the assurance of eternal life (1:7; 2:17b, 25).
[i] G. Bromiley (1985). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. William B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI), p.1049.
[ii] Foster (1985). The Challenge of the Disciplined Life.
[iii] I do not mean to be crass and conflate any old job with the calling to ministry. But, work is important. A job, whether secular or religious is something all people need for income but also to be a means for the individual’s contribution to the good of society. If your work has zero cultural or social or human value, is it work you should be doing?
[iv] This season included a realization upon my 30th birthday that I could not accept that “singleness” was a happy condition, not for me anyway. I was single. And generally speaking, I was happy. But not content. I know many singles who like I did long to find love. It never comes to them and the sadness becomes a part of their lives. But, it is only a part. Even in that state, the unmarried individual can be in light of God and have the joy of God.