Through our many conversations during this furlough in the US, I’ve been struck by how many of our friends are struggling in major areas in their lives. Marriage relationships are distant or dissolved, parents have been rejected by their children, friends are fighting a life and death battle with illness, several are facing severe economic stress, and many have abandoned long-term, formerly cherished church relationships. We have not encountered a majority of Jesus followers that would describe their lives as “wonderful”, “happy”, or even “good”.
One fifty year old friend, while facing several of the above challenges at once, said that he questions the validity of Jesus’ claim regarding “abundant life”. He stated that he has devoted his life to Jesus for 25 years and this is where he ends up, with his relationships in shambles, abandoned by his wife and family, and his life yielding little satisfaction and contentment.
What did Jesus mean when He said, “I came that you might have abundant life?” Is abundant life success, prosperity, being loved, good health, acclaim, status, contentment, peace, joy, love? Is abundant life something that can be experienced in all cultures, at any time in history? Is it relative or absolute? Can it be measured? Can it be experienced in poverty, sickness, and tragedy (in war and death, in a concentration camp, in a fly-infested, 100+ degree shack in the Amazon, while being tortured for your faith, while losing all that’s “yours” in a hurricane, while fighting and losing a battle with cancer, etc)?
Can a Jesus follower experience abundant life while imprisoned unjustly or only with release from prison? Can a Jesus follower experience abundance while ill or only in healing? Can a Jesus follower experience abundant life while in desperate need or only while prosperous? Can a Jesus follower experience abundance in humiliating failure or only in success? Can abundance be experienced in painful, impossible to understand circumstances or only when all is well?
As I try to look at the whole of God’s word, I see a great deal of encouragement toward relationship and some encouragement toward obedience/performance/reward. I see a priority given to love with obedience/performance/reward resulting from relationship. I see a Father seeking to communicate His love to His creation in so many ways and, for the most part, I see this love rejected or received with indifference. It is lost in “Christian” lives busy pursuing “abundance” and even obedience.
So then, what is the “abundant life” that Jesus wants for us? Could the “abundant life” be the result of one’s certainty of God’s affection? The certainty that He can be trusted to monitor and control, through this unconditional love, every circumstance and interaction in one’s life? The certainty that God is “for me”? All of this regardless of whether I understand my circumstances (or the “results” of my efforts) to be “good” or “bad”? If we chose to really believe this, would this result in something that might be described as “abundance”? Could it be that we don’t let this truth of His unconditional love for us settle deeply in us? We say the words but do we know their reality in our core?
I fear that we too often have traded the most profound truth of our Father’s affection and grace for such self-absorbed creatures (me) for something else and called it “abundant”. We all are quite broken and needy (no matter what kind of “christian” face we put on) and my experience over thirty years of a stumbling, wandering, error-prone journey with Jesus is that, indeed, only an intimate, conscious knowledge of His love and grace for me can provide the “abundance” that He was referring to.
Great ministry won’t do it. Having all the right answers won’t do it. Painful self-sacrifice won’t do it. Trying our best to obey Jesus’ commands won’t do it. Achievement and success on any level won’t do it. Fame and recognition won’t do it. A contemplative life won’t do it. I can personally attest that all of these, in the absence of knowing His affection for us, will leave us quite empty.
Each of these can provide a degree of pleasure and satisfaction but they are to be a result and not the pursuit. As we make anything our pursuit (including abundant life) other than our relationship with Jesus, we worship the created rather than the Creator, the provided rather than the Provider, the result rather than the Cause.
As we consider our life today, and where we are vs. where we want to be, let’s turn our consideration into a conversation with our Father and renew the intimacy we once knew. I would challenge all of us to rethink what we believe about “abundant life” and what we are communicating to others about the same. Is closeness with our Father what we are seeking? Is this what Jesus desires us to pursue? This pursuit of intimacy with Him may not provide healing, prosperity, or success, but perhaps it will provide something far better – abundant life – that can be experienced in any circumstance.