For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. -- John 3:16-17
These words from John's Gospel are so famous, so well-known -- though perhaps the second sentence is less well-known than the first -- that I almost hesitate to write about it. I wonder if you are thinking right this moment..."Oh dear, not that again. If I hear that verse one more time..." Or, "Ho-hum. I already know all about that. Pass." But I hope you will give me a chance to explain. It's not what you think. Or, let me re-phrase that... it's more than you think.
John 3:16 is a verse that has bothered me for a long time. Because of the way many Christians use it. Mostly I've heard it used to claim that those, and only those, who believe that Jesus is God's one and only Son, will go to heaven. Everyone else is dammed to hell. It's as if that verse is the only verse you need to know in the whole Bible. Just pluck 3:16 out, and disregard the rest. You don't even have to know anything else about Jesus: just that he was God's only Son. Believe that, and you're set for life, literally.
I don't buy that. I actually think those words mean something totally different. I actually think it means that if you believe Jesus, not just in Jesus, but what Jesus said and did, to the point that you followed what he said and did, then your life would be completely transformed for the better, the world would be transformed for the better. You would even know God -- for that is what Jesus said eternal life meant: knowing God.
But as great a reward as that is, getting there is just too hard, and too scarey. What??? I have to love God more than anything else? More than my family? More than any other desire or object? And what else??? I have to put another's needs above my own? I have to be willing to die for someone else??? It's no wonder that Christians over the years have, as one person noted, taken the simple but hard Gospel and made it complicated but easy.
In many ways, following Jesus has made my life harder: I have had to look honestly at myself for one, and I haven't always liked what I've found; as I have grown and changed, I've had to face people unwilling for me to change; and I've had to stand up to people I love who are not being very loving to me, to themselves, or to others. None of this has been easy. For someone who would rather run away from conflict than face it, that last one has been the hardest of all. There is such a strong core of self-preservation engrained in me (and in
everyone else I'm sure), that it's always a struggle to release that hold and let any part of me die.
But, doing so has also made my life immeasurably better, and the lives of my family better, in ways that are so unexpected and so amazing, that I never fail to be surprised. Truly, unless a seed dies and is buried, new life and sweet new fruit cannot grow.
That is what Jesus's life, his words, his deeds, his death on the cross, and his resurrection mean to me. Jesus came to show us a better way of life, but one that required sacrificing that core of self-preservation that we all hold onto so dearly. He came to teach this way to anyone and everyone who would listen. All they had to do was believe him, trust him, and die to their old ways. If they could do this, they would be born anew. Jesus lived and died to show us this way, putting his absolute trust in God. And no one was more surprised at his resurrection than the people who knew and loved him best. I wonder if Jesus, too, was surprised.
For as I've learned to follow God, I've certainly surprised myself at what I have been able to do, at the fears I've been able to overcome.
Unfortunately, it doesn't get any easier. As long as I live, I know I will have to face new hard things. Speaking up, facing opposition, has always been the most difficult thing for me to do. Maybe God always asks us to do the things we find the most difficult. However, I have yet to be sorry. I have only been sorry when I have clung to myself, instead of listening to God.
May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you