There’s a common assumption in Western culture that faith is blind—that it’s a matter of wilfully closing one’s eyes to the reality of the world and choosing to believe in something else. This is a charge hurled at Christians by atheists—thus, for instance, we’ve seen a number of prominent folks on the anti-Christian left dub themselves the “reality-based community,” in distinction to the “faith-based community.” That doesn’t bother me, but more worrisome is the fact that many who consider themselves believers have a similar view of faith; they seem to think that what matters is not what their faith is in but simply that they have faith. Power, for them, is in faith itself—which is to say, really, that it’s in them, and faith is just a means of unlocking it. Either way, both groups agree that Christian faith is not about understanding things as they really are.
John has no time for that nonsense. The point is Jesus Christ; and yes, we follow him by faith, but faith in Christ isn’t about closing our eyes to the world, it’s about seeing truly. It’s about coming out of the darkness of the world to walk in the light. It’s about exchanging deception for truth. It’s not about believing what we want to believe, it’s not about choosing to believe for the psychological or emotional or spiritual benefits, it’s not about religion as a coping mechanism or self-help strategy or organizing principle; he doesn’t offer any of these things as reasons to follow Jesus. Instead, he says, believe this because this is reality, because we know this is true, because we’ve seen it for ourselves.
Now, here as in most cases, we have to be careful of the equal and opposite error; there are certainly those who treat Christian faith as a matter of intellectual assent to ideas which can be proven by rational argument. That’s not the point here at all. But John does clearly assert that our faith is based on evidence, beginning with his own testimony and that of his fellow disciples. What he says here is much like the beginning of his gospel: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes”—in other words, no metaphor here, we literally physically saw this—“what our hands have touched—the word of life—was revealed, and we testify to you that we saw it, and so we proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father”—he’s breathlessly piling up words here, trying to somehow capture a reality that’s almost beyond words: the eternal God, the source of all life, the one who is life, became a human being, he’s saying, and I saw him. I saw him, I touched him, I knew him, he was my friend; and I want you to understand this so that you can fully share in what I have.
Note that: “that you may have fellowship with us—a fellowship which we have with the Father, and with Jesus Christ his Son.” That’s the goal. And remember, we’ve talked about this, that this word is much stronger than “fellowship” makes it sound; it comes from the word “common” and means to have or to be in common—one commentator translates it “joint ownership.” This isn’t just getting together once in a while in a friendly way, it’s a matter of living life together with Christ, and thus all of us together in Christ, sharing each other’s lives, being in joint partnership in life with each other and the Lord. It’s a deep union, and a deep unity, that is supposed to be the fruit of our faith in Jesus. That’s why John is writing this letter, so that we will truly be captured by and filled with the life of Christ and so live together as his body in this way.
Now, if you know anything at all about 1 John, you probably know that it talks a lot about love; that theme is right here in sum in verse 3, and as we explore this book together in the next couple months, we’ll spend a lot of time unpacking it. But John doesn’t go there right away, because he has some other things he needs to say first; it’s not until chapter 4 that he makes the famous declaration, “God is love.” The reality is that it can be a dangerous thing to just tell people that without taking the time to tell them what it means. The word “love” might not be the most misused word in the English language—but it might be, as people keep twisting it and redefining it to try to push their own agendas. “God is love” does not mean that therefore I should be able to go out and sleep with anyone I want, or that God wants me to do whatever I think will make me happy, or that we have no right to tell anyone anything they don’t want to hear; but if that’s so, then what does it mean?
The answer to that question begins with John’s statement in verse 5: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. That might seem like an odd statement at first blush, but follow me on this. If God is love, then true love is an expression of the character of God. Our understanding of what love is must be defined by, and must arise out of, our understanding of who God is, because to act in love is to act in a way which is in accordance with the character of God. It’s not about what we find pleasurable, or what makes us happy, or what another person tells us we would do if we really loved them—it’s about what pleases God.
Of course, that raises the question: how do we go about living in a way that’s pleasing to God? Unfortunately, we tend to mentally frame that question purely in terms of morality, and thus to answer it moralistically, and so this part of 1 John gets read in that way, as a bunch of commands and threats; and that’s not quite right, because the focus is off. John isn’t commanding us to walk in the light, as if that’s purely a matter of our own effort; he is, rather, making a simple observation. There is light, and there is darkness. The light is from God alone; the darkness is not from him, and there is no darkness in him. You can walk in one or the other, but not both at the same time.
Which points us to a few key truths. First, consider the obvious: when there is light, we can see what is around us, where it is, what’s happening, where it’s safe to walk, where we can sit and rest. When there is no light, we can only guess and feel our way, and construct our own version of things in our heads. Do you ever get up in the middle of the night and move around with the lights off? It works fine as long as everything’s where you think it is; but if you don’t know the laundry basket is there—or if there are toys on the floor over here—then walking becomes a painful experience. Walking with God is about seeing things differently from the rest of the world, not because we close our eyes to how things are, but because God is light, and in his light we see truly.
Second, everything else flows from that. If our culture looks at our faith, if it looks at how the Scriptures say we are supposed to live, and objects, that isn’t a reason to change our faith or how we read the Scriptures—it’s just reality; those who do not walk in the light are not going to be able to see in this world’s darkness what we see by faith in Christ. No amount of argument on our part can change that; God may use our argument to bring others into his light, but it’s only as he gives light that anyone can see.
And it’s only as we begin to see differently, only as the truth of God lights up our lives, that our lives begin to change as he desires. We tend to focus on controlling our behavior—or the behavior of our children—at the output end: reminders, restrictions, laws, punishments, limiting options, keeping busy. Nothing wrong with any of those things, but they leave the root of the matter—the self which acts, the desires that drive us, the ways of thinking that frame and shape our decisions—untouched. God changes us by changing us right at that level, by shining his light right into the heart of that darkness. When you turn the light on in a dark room, it changes how you walk through it, and how you behave in it; when God turns his light on in a dark heart, it does much the same. That’s where true change of life comes from.
Of course, that doesn’t happen all at once; lasting change, whether in a person, a church, or a nation, is a process, which takes the time it needs to take. Part of the effect of walking in the light of Christ is to show us just how much darkness is in our hearts, and just how sinful we are; it’s a lot easier to imagine ourselves free of sin when we’re standing in the darkness, with no light to show us we’re wrong. It’s been my observation that the holiest people I know are the ones most humbly conscious of their own unholi-ness—not obsessed with it, trusting in God’s grace in Jesus Christ, but keenly aware of their absolute dependence on that grace. Indeed, more than that, rejoicing in that depen-dence, desiring nothing more than for the light of God to fill their hearts, driving out the darkness. May the same be said of us.