In the opening lines of the gospel of John, we read these lines:
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”
John is fond of poetic metaphors and his gospel teems with them. John is giving us a whole world in these two sentences if we attend closely.
John says that in him (Jesus) was life. This is not just “life” as we normally think of it (“well, I guess that’s just life” or “eww, is it still alive?”) but LIFE, something vibrant and energetic, something strange, shocking, and real that hadn’t been seen before in the world. This is life beyond the set of chemical processes currently held by the scientific consensus as constituting life, more than the few struggling years we string together between birth and grave, more than the moments of duty and plodding we experience punctuated by a few joys and horrors along the way.
Whatever was in Jesus, those who saw it recognized it as something wonderful; and they dropped everything they were doing to see what it was. This word John uses, “life”, is a simple word with which we are familiar, but John elevates it, making it new and strange and a little bit shocking again. I say “again” because it really isn’t new. John says in the lines before these that this life has been around a long, long time. But for those who saw this life (and for us), it is shockingly, turbulently, delightfully new.
Then John takes another simple word and extends his metaphor. He says that the LIFE that was in Jesus was the LIGHT of men. Not the radiant photons emitted by the chemical action of combusting lamp oil, not the visible spectra raining down upon the earth from the sun’s sustained nuclear processes, not the processing power of human rods and cones into a 3D image of our surroundings. This LIFE was LIGHT, something that illuminates, makes visible and comprehensible the true world around us. With LIGHT, we see and understand. Without it, we know nothing but confused stumbling. Light we know. We experience it with the rising of the sun or with the flick of a switch. But this was LIGHT. This was new.
This is beautiful language, a poetry of the ordinary that causes us to look a second time. And it’s about to get personal. The life and light of Jesus burst onto a scene of darkness. When they encountered Jesus, people realized that everything else they had ever seen or known was darkness. When confronted with the shocking, glorious reality of his LIFE, they realized that whatever they had been doing up to that moment was not life, but some dim, dark facsimile of it, a withered lie that they hadn’t noticed until LIGHT illuminated their reality for what it was.
This is personal. These words, written by John long ago, are meant for us. John is asking us to face the fact that we have dwelt in darkness for so long that we have become accustomed to it, our natural faculties shriveled like the eyes of cave fish.
But his message is more than this. His message is the beautiful truth that God does not leave us here; the light that Jesus sheds still draws people out of darkness. And in the light of Jesus Christ, we find life.
A people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light
These lines introduce the central problem of spiritual formation: because of our long adaptation to the darkness, we don’t recognize the life and light of Jesus for what they are. Said a little differently, we don’t quite know what it is Jesus is trying to do in us. He’s calling us to a new kind of life but we misunderstand a lot of what he says because our frame of reference is darkness.
This is why the apostles struggled to understand the plain words of Jesus. Jesus asks Peter, “who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You are the Christ,” which is the correct answer. But it’s also the wrong answer, because what Peter understands by that word isn’t what Jesus understands by that word.
This is why I speak often about the “good life”, because every time I do, it’s an opportunity to let Jesus take apart that statement and rebuild it before our eyes one more time. Our idea of the good life is shriveled. The “better life” we often chase is like comparing a dried apple slice with a moldy rind. The dried apple is definitely better than mold, but it pales spectacularly when set next to a ripe honeycrisp, fresh from the tree.
The life that Jesus himself lives is a life so powerful and inextinguishable that it simply wouldn’t stay dead even after the might of Imperial Rome brought down its worst on him. This is the same life to which he calls us, holding it forth in his hand. We look at what he is offering and blink in confusion, trying to understand when he says “those who lose their life for my sake will find it” and “the kingdom of God is among you” and “you will do greater things than these”.
Stay close to Jesus
We are not alone in the darkness and we haven’t been left behind, trying to figure this out on our own. The center of spiritual formation is remaining with Jesus, sticking as close to him as we can, even as we misunderstand him and stumble along the narrow road to full maturity. He did not give up on the apostles, misguided and confused and faithless as they were, and he will not give up on us. As the writer of Hebrews put it, “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)
Attend closely to Scripture, and closest of all to the words of Jesus in the gospels, as we see him living and moving and teaching, shining the light of his wisdom on any who will pause long enough to listen. Linger and pray over the Word of God that speaks of the Living Word. Do not fear the struggle, because he who calls you is faithful. He has begun a good work in you and he completes what he begins (Philippians 1:6).
So begin! Spiritual formation starts with the acknowledgement that we do not understand the simplest things—light and dark, life and death, breath and wind, bread and wine, friendship and love. Then we go to Jesus with these fragments and watch as he breaks and remakes them for us, putting them together the right way up. And as he does so through the very material of our lives, we will gasp for joy.
Spiritual formation is the effort we make to stay with the light. There, with Jesus, we find the good life of the kingdom.