Jesus promised "life... more abundantly" (Jn. 10:10, KJV). What a promise! The possibility of spiritual vibrancy sets our souls quivering.
Yet, if we're honest, some of us experience something more like "the hollow life." We've been faithful in spiritual disciplines and ministry; we've worked hard for God. We believe the right doctrines, live upright lives, and attend a thriving church. But for all the tidy sincerity, our spiritual life often seems dull and empty.
Life seems more like a jumble than the joyful triumph others speak of so easily. The promised inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey, feels more like a pot of rainbow gold. As one friend put it, "I keep thinking I missed the one class in which that part of the spiritual life was explained."
We all cherish a special picture of the abundant life. Beth thinks it will bring tranquillity to her troubled life—you know, the peace "which transcends all understanding" (Phil. 4:7). Addicted to control, she believes that getting her spiritual life together will bring the peace and predictability she craves.
Carol equates abundant living with a surge of devotional intensity. She loves those flooding moments when worship sweeps her away with love for Jesus. If only it would last! But by Sunday bedtime, the devotion wilts or just gets lost in the jumble of mothering.
Jim is into power—a dynamic ministry. He wants to trust God for great things. He envies the shimmering faith of others' prayers. Jim views power as the sure sign of God's presence that would usher him into spiritual fulfillment.
Reduced to Results
These are good, biblical desires. Each holds a glimpse of the life that Jesus promises. But each also focuses on a specific result. And that can be harmful to our spiritual health.
By reducing the abundant life to a particular effect, we rob the rich fullness of what Jesus promised. We set ourselves up for failure. When we don't have peace, we reason that it must be our fault. When joy doesn't seem to well up in the middle of marital conflict, we think we have somehow lost the Spirit.
Defining the abundant life by certain effects dooms us to a life of disappointment. We experience times of peaceful tranquillity and moments of unstoppable devotion. But then life slips like a grocery bag out of our hands, and the sense of fulfillment we crave collapses into a heap just as we reach the front door. We can't seem to hold things together long enough to get inside. Maybe the seminar announced at church last Sunday will be the key we've been looking for.
Should we just quit the chase and settle for crumbs? Or is there another way to hear Jesus' promise?
Infused with God's Life
Let's take a look at the story in John 9 and 10. The religious leaders had domesticated the life of God, had figured out what exactly it should look like, especially on the Sabbath. The blind man's healing didn't fit because the Sabbath was to be holy, quiet, inactive.
By focusing on what the leaders assumed the spiritual life should look like, they had lost sight of the underlying life of God. In contrast, Jesus offered abundant life. The Greek word here carries the idea of an overflowing container. Full? Yes, and more than we can handle! Jesus' promise takes our focus away from effects and back to the Source—the very life of God.
Jesus told the Samaritan woman about this same inner well in John 4. For all her thirst and longing, she would never find it outside herself. Instead He invited her to find eternal life (God's life) like a spring of water gushing up within her. In John 7 Jesus promised that streams of living water would flow from within those who believe in Him.
Changing the image slightly, Jesus says in John 15 that, like branches on a vine, we experience the sap flowing through us. Our focus is not to be on the fruit but on the vine. As the old spiritual masters never tired of saying, we must continually relinquish focusing on the gifts to keep focused on the Giver.
What might it mean to stop fixating on certain effects and focus on the life of God that is emerging deep within us? One thing is sure—if we are truly dealing with the infinite life of a free God, it is beyond our control. This is no tame trickle. Not some domesticated, "careful" piety.
Jesus told Nicodemus that the Spirit blows wherever it pleases. We can feel the effects, but we cannot define the direction or bottle the intensity. God's life is bigger than the little jars we want to hold it in.
We reach a turning point in our understanding when we recognize that the abundant life is not predictable. It may be peaceful or full of longing. It may be sweet (Teresa of Avila's word), or a dark night (from John of the Cross).
This turning point also crystallizes a common stumbling block. Rejecting the full spectrum of life and limiting spiritual abundance to fulfillment has ravaged evangelical spirituality and created untold heartache. Suddenly by definition, struggles, doubts, loneliness, and unfulfilled yearnings must be denied or kept hidden. We tell ourselves we must be on top of our game. We believe we have to experience peace, power, and victory or else we aren't there yet. This makes the abundant life an impossible burden, a superficial happy face.
Scripture is clear that life lived in the presence of God is rich both with longing and fulfillment, times of darkness and times of light. The Spirit led Jesus into the desert. Jesus experienced darkness in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. Lament, in the psalms, is as familiar as an old pair of slippers. Even Paul, the model of Christian optimism, said he had times when he was "perplexed" and felt weak (2 Cor. 4:8, 12:10). In fact, in Scripture, the desert was often the place where people met God and heard His voice. Through the ages, the desert has been a profound motif in Christian spirituality.
I do not write this to discourage anyone. My heart's desire is to liberate people from reductive, oppressive notions of spiritual abundance and invite them into the wide range of life with God.
Clearly, the abundant life is not just about darkness or the desert any more than it is about peace or power. But until we accept the full spectrum as integral to our life with God, we will always struggle with feelings of hypocrisy and eventually a sense of emptiness in our spiritual lives.
The Riches of Surrender
Here, then, is the heart of enjoying God's fullness. Spiritual abundance is not about living a pleasant life but about living life richly. It is not primarily about intensity nor restricted to a few effects. We live richly when we surrender to God's presence however it clamors for expression through us.
The highs and lows, times of dark loneliness and times of great consolation, are all rich. It was the famous early church father Ireneaus who said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive."
Through Bible college, seminary, and five years as a missionary, I managed to keep my spiritual life together. But two profound experiences of losing control eventually cracked open my narrow perceptions and called me to a deeper surrender.
The first came about shortly after returning to Canada. I found myself in the midst of a profound spiritual upheaval. I lost my way in prayer and spent the next several years trying my best to recover a sense of God's presence. But I could no longer make it happen.
I longed for God deeply. Although I didn't know it at the time, God was there in the longing. God was deepening me, taking me beyond my little constructed spirituality and opening me up to receive what was given. Finally, when I couldn't fight any longer, I simply offered the longing itself as my love gift to God.
By letting go of defining the ways God would come to me, I discovered that I was blind to God's presence in myriad ways. Creation especially became, for me, a special place of intimacy with God. Spring, summer, fall, and winter each reminded me of the richness of my own spiritual life. I could touch a cold, leafless poplar and know that dormancy was a necessary season of resting and that in good time the sap of life would run free again.
The other event has been my wife's cancer. We have lived with her diagnosis for 14 years, and five years ago her cancer was declared terminal. Living with the continual threat of loss has called me to discover that God's life is welling up within my own soul.
I cannot primarily find life outside myself in things, job, marriage, or children. Nor can I hope for continuous tranquillity or unmitigated joy. But I have discovered God's indomitable life emerging in the midst of it all. I have learned that the source of my life is within me, not somewhere outside. I'm learning to trust that because life comes from within, I can risk the vulnerability of deeper intimacy with Miriam in the midst of, and without discounting, the pain.
The Path to Abundance
Can we cultivate an openness to this inner life of God? Yes, but we can be sure there is no method, no manageable "how-to." Let me, however, offer a few hints, ribbons tied on the trees, of things I have found helpful.
This is the easiest and the most difficult thing of all! We're told the key to abundant life is to "die to self." It is, as long as we empty the phrase of religious baggage. To what are we dying? We rightly think of a willful lust for power, self-indulgence, pride, or illicit sex. But death to self and surrender to Christ may have their surprises. As the religious leaders of Jesus' day found out, surrender meant the shattering of fossilized preconceptions of spiritual acceptability. They had to be open to receive the surprising way in which God was coming to them in Christ.
As God emerges from our very souls, we learn to surrender our spiritual notions and expectations to discover something wider and deeper. We may even have to "die" to comparing ourselves with others and trust God's life that is emerging from within us in its own unique way.
Commit to honesty.
Could it be that the greatest deterrence to abundant living is not the normal "sins" we frown on but the dishonest masks we construct and wear before the world? When we feel we have to maintain happiness, peace, or power to look like we are experiencing the abundant life, we become dishonest with ourselves and with those around us. Further, dishonesty keeps us from admitting our need and therefore limits our chance to grow.
Ironically, honesty creates the humility and clarity by which we can begin to discern God's presence in our lives, even in unexpected ways. Honesty allows the discovery that God loves us even in our weakness. If we have to be strong all the time, we might think God loves us for how well we are doing. When things fall apart and I still discover that God is with me and tenderly loves me, then I know He loves me for who I am and not how well I perform.
Cultivate a "receiving" stance.
For those schooled in the good old American way, toning down the doing and learning the fine art of receiving can be tough. Yet, for all its importance, doing can mask a need to control or achieve. If we are going to pay attention to the ways God's life is emerging within us, we may have to quit crashing through the forest and learn to observe the small signs of God's activity in our lives.
The psalmist compares his longing for God like a watchman yearning for the first sign of the dawn (Psalm 130). For someone on sentry duty, even the smallest pink tinge becomes thrilling.
Where is life emerging at the moment? Where is it agonizing; where is it gratifying? Look in these experiences for God and learn to receive God's loving presence in the midst of life.
Allow the questions to take you deeper.
Surrendering control of your spiritual life may produce questions like weeds after a spring rain. What will you do with these uncertainties? Do you fear they will take you away from God? They don't have to. We can ask our questions passionately, with our hearts "panting after God." We can allow the questions to help us molt out of restrictive notions of the spiritual life and open us more and more deeply to God's mysterious presence in our lives.
Treasure the longing as a gift.
Life between the first and second coming of Jesus is strange business. We enjoy the down payment ("firstfruits" says Ro. 8:23) of God's presence, yet long for the final fulfillment. We live times of painful desire and times of warm possession. We "taste Thee, O Thou living bread, and long to feast upon Thee still." We luxuriate in the wonder of a deep and satisfying union, and we also weather the emptiness and darkness of a desire that can never be satiated. Most of the time we live somewhere in between.
The church fathers called this desire the highway of God into the soul. The psalmist said, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God" (Ps. 42:1). Longing makes us thirsty for more.
The longing itself can be cherished as the sign of God. Life in a consumer society that idolizes immediate satisfaction can make longing seem deficient.
What's wrong with us? Why aren't we experiencing the warm glow of fulfillment? When we embrace the longing without demanding fulfillment, the longing ceases to be a threat and becomes a treasure, a sign of God's ongoing presence. It is, in itself, a sign of intimacy. "Deep calls to deep" as the Spirit of God keeps us pointed toward the God who indwells us but is infinitely beyond us.
What a ride!
Do you wonder why the abundant life seems so elusive? I would invite you to risk surrendering preconceived definitions and expectations. Return to the Source deep within you. Practice paying attention. Ask your questions passionately and befriend the longing. Hang on for the ride, knowing that God's life will come through whether you are in ecstasy or facing uncharted territory. Life may be more than you bargained for, but at least it's rich... maybe even overflowing.
– Discipleship Journal.
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