Getting a Life

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The way we use the word “life” is revealing.

If someone works too much, we tell them to “get a life”. If we feel under the pump and can’t find time to see our friends or relax, we say we “don’t have a life.” More disturbingly, on a number of occasions in recent months, I’ve heard people counsel against having children on the grounds that parenthood stops you having “a life.”

On a number of occasions in recent months, I’ve heard people counsel against having children on the grounds that parenthood stops you having ‘a life.’

What do we mean by “life”? Obviously, we’re not talking about the medical condition of being alive. Medically, a doctor would conclude you are as much “alive” at work as at home—with children or without.

Living for Choice

I put it to you that when we use the word “life” in this way, we are talking about a quality of life. Indeed, we are naming the modern West’s definition of the good life. Which is to say, life is about choice. No choice, no life; know choice, know life.

I’m working too much so I don’t have a life; I’ve got kids and now I don’t have a life; I’m busy and have no life. What do we mean? Answer—I have less choice; I have constraints and obligations and responsibilities; lLess of what I do is what I would choose to do in an unencumbered situation. “Life” (in the modern west) is choices.

This is one the reasons we idolise youth. Pop culture, film, media, and advertising are dominated by twenty-somethings. Why? Because that is the age at which you have the most choice, or (in our language) the most “life”.

This vision of life creates problems and pathologies in our culture that are as real as they are tragic. The loss of meaning, the sense of acedia, of listlessness, of undirected action and unfulfilled longing are real and consequential. 

The truth is that constraint is essential to both community and meaning—both of which are essential to what the Greeks would call “flourishing”; what Charles Taylor would call “fullness”, and what the Bible variously calls “faithfulness”, “obedience” or “life”.

You literally can’t have community without constraint, a limiting of choices. Community, by definition, ties you to a particular group of people—this group, in this place and at this time. We name choice as “life”, and created a generation who are deeply lonely, who nevertheless believe the very thing that makes loneliness inevitable—that nothing matters more than choice.

It’s this vision of life that fuels the abortion industry. Not many months ago, the NYC skyline was lit in joyful pink, as the city burst into celebration when laws were passed to allow late-term abortions. Why the celebration? Because it was a victory for life choice. We say to children in the womb a paraphrase of what the Australian prime minister, John Howard, once said to those seeking refuge in Australia: “We will decide who comes here, and the circumstances under which they come.” It is not for nothing that the alternative to being pro-life is to be pro-choice.

This vision also drives the infantilization of our culture. All our art and wisdom and literature and cinema is focused on this tiny window of life when we are young. It leaves us completely unprepared for the challenges of work, or children, or middle age, or chronic sickness.

This vision also drives the infantilization of our culture. All our art and wisdom and literature and cinema is focused on this tiny window of life when we are young. It leaves us completely unprepared for the challenges of work, or children, or middle age, or chronic sickness. We have almost no spiritual, emotional, or aesthetic resources for how to live well in times of constraint—that is, for most of life.

Life according to Jesus

In the Gospel of John, Jesus often speaks about “life”. Life was in him, he is the source of life, he has life for the world, and he has come that we may have “life”.

What does Jesus mean by “life”?

There is a risk that we import a twenty-first century western meaning of that work onto the lips of Jesus. I have seen an Instagram a picture of woman on top of a mountain, with a back-pack, alone, her arms outstretched to the world with the words of Jesus underneath, “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.” (The fact that a picture of a woman caring for a disabled child, or a man helping to feed his aging father with the same words underneath would look absurd underlines the point.)

We are setting ourselves up for disappointment, and in both senses. We’ll be disappointed when Jesus doesn’t deliver “life” (i.e. limitless choice). And, in the long run, we’ll be bitterly disappointed with what the modern western version of “life” delivers.

Jesus the bread of Life

In chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, Jesus has just provided the people with bread in the wilderness. In the event he massively over-caters, with twelve basketfuls of left-overs. The crowd think they’ve found their guy. The next day they find him on the other side of the lake, and Jesus unsentimentally calls them on their motivation:

“…You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (6:26)

They now have a choice. To use John Piper’s language, will Jesus be for them useful, or precious? Will Jesus be for them the person who has delivered the bread, or will he be for them the true bread from heaven? In short, does Jesus give us our bread, or is he our bread?

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (6:36)

Notice the connection between “bread” and “life”. Bread for them was life. It was the staple of their diet; the food source that stood between them and death. Jesus is saying he is the true Bread—the source of true and everlasting Life.

Their choice is our choice: do we come to Jesus so long as he gives us what we want? Or do we come to him for the life that he gives, which is life indeed.

Their choice is our choice: do we come to Jesus so long as he gives us what we want? Or do we come to him for the life that he gives, which is life indeed.

The crowd actually wanted to make Jesus their king then and there. And yet, Jesus refuses to be made their king. Why? Because they were there for the bread. And if you are making Jesus king because he provides free bread, then how long will you be loyal to that king? Precisely as long as the bread keeps coming. That’s the deal, right? Jesus gets to be king so long as he keeps delivering the bread.

But the moment someone else comes along, someone who can deliver what we want just like he can, well, no hard feelings, Jesus. You know and I know that this was never personal, it was just a transaction. I was here for the bread.

The risk for many Christians is that this is more or less exactly the terms on which we came to Jesus in the first place. We wanted (a very specific kind of) life, we heard Jesus was delivering. So long as he is, he can be our king. So long as he keeps clearing the obstacles that get in the way of my dreams he stays. He’s like the guy in the Curling Team at the Winter Olympics, feverishly polishing the floor in front of the curling stone so it has a friction-free ride to its goal. We set the direction, he clears the floor. That’s the deal.

How do I know we believe that gospel? Because of how we treat Jesus when we he stops polishing the floor.

“This floor is not smooth”

“This is not the direction I have set for myself”

“Where’s all the bread?!”

It’s when we get to those points that we discover the answer to the question—is Jesus useful, or is he precious? Are we loyal to Jesus because he has bread, or because he is Bread?

I’ve put that in a binary, but for many (most?) of us it’s not binary, but a question of degrees. Honestly, we’re kind of here for both: Jesus is precious to us—sort of. Is he the greatest treasure of my life? Would I stay if the lower-case “bread” stopped? I’m not always sure. Sometimes the best I can say is, “I wish he was my greatest treasure. I honestly do.”

Part of the work we do together in Christian communities is to reveal Jesus to each other as precious in our common worship and devotion. The truth is, it’s easier to treasure Jesus when others are treasuring him around me. This is part of the work of music and Christian song, because music (like almost nothing else) makes the truth we know in our heads truth we can feel in our hearts.

It’s for this reason that a practice of daily prayer and Scripture reading is consequential. It is the long work of tuning our hearts toward Jesus. When the best I can say is that I want to treasure Jesus more than anything, then church, song and Scripture—they seem like the places to start.

Conclusion

In John 6, Jesus pivots from “bread guy” to “the Bread of Life”. Strategically, how do you reckon that went down for him?

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (6:66)

In short, it’s a popularity disaster. Once the bread is gone, he’s left with his original disciples. Jesus turns to them and says, “Do you not want to leave too?” And Simon Peter answers with the immortal words: “Where else have we to go? You alone have the words of eternal life.”

I love that answer so much. It’s so earthy: “Jesus, we have not met anyone like you—and, frankly, we haven’t got a plan B”.

One of my personal strategies for sticking with Jesus is to periodically remind myself of how lame Plan B is. Jesus is offering Life. Not life as maximized choice. But Life. That is, Spirit-lead life, the life of the age to come, life in fellowship with Father, Son and Spirit, a life of proleptic participation in the new creation with the community of the forgiven and in mission in the world: the kind of life that is truly life, even when caring for a disabled child or wiping the saliva of the face of an ageing parent. 

That, or maximum choice.

 

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