Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3.21)
Before I got to college, I had to sneak off to the movies. Our church’s by-laws strictly prohibited film-going. (Which gives you an idea how clubby its faith approach was. What kind of church has by-laws?) This, of course, made movies the greatest thing since sliced bread, and I saw everything the studios released. I often had to lie, “borrow” loose change from my mom’s purse, and cajole friends and neighbors to (unknowingly) help me dishonor my parents’ wishes. But the lure of a fairly benign off-limits activity blinded me to the fact that I was breaking God’s laws to defy an idiotic human rule.
While spending the summer with our grandmother, my brother and I convinced her to drop us off at the local cinema, where Young Frankenstein was playing. She made us promise not to tell anyone. “I don’t see anything wrong with it,” she said. “But the church teaches against it and people will pitch a fit if they find out I took you.” On the way home, she didn’t say much as we told her how funny the film was. When we walked into the house we realized why. Her twin sister, Pearl, had dropped by to see us and, on learning where we were, took it on herself to set us straight. “You boys ought to be ashamed—and you, too,” she said to our grandmother. “If Jesus had come while you were in the theater, you’d be bound for Hell.” Really?
I challenged her: “Where does the Bible say, ‘Thou shalt not go to the movies’?” Without a second’s pause, she fired off John 3.19 from the King James Bible: “Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.” So sitting in the dark theater was the problem, not defying our parents’ teaching or being exposed to unhealthy material on the screen. Grandmother jumped in. “Pearl, that doesn’t even make sense.” Wanting so much to have the last word, I added, “Mom and Dad took us to Mammoth Cave last year. It was really dark. Was that a sin?” Aunt Pearl shot back, “The truth is the truth and you can’t change it. I’d fear God if I were you!” To put a final nail in my spiritual coffin, she whipped out 2 Thessalonians 2.11-12: “And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” Ergo, I was delusional to think it was okay to enjoy a silly comedy in the dark—and, worse than that, none other than God fed my delusion!
Living Truthfully Now
As absurd as this exchange was, I remain grateful for it to this day. Even at 14, I knew that God was too big to succumb to such small-mindedness. I knew the real truth of God and gravitated toward it, not allowing petty dogma and ignorance to sway my confidence in that God. I kept going to movies—in fact, I grew increasingly bolder about breaking the rules—because Aunt Pearl’s reproach, despite her sincere and loving intentions, convinced me I had nothing to fear. She taught me how easily being afraid of God causes us to cobble together a lot of loose scriptures to rationalize irrational fears. Looking at her anti-movie “evidence” in context (John 3.14-21; Sunday’s Gospel), it’s indubitable that Jesus teaches us not to be afraid of God. In fact, Aunt Pearl’s “be afraid, be very afraid” citation turns up no less than three verses after Jesus’s immortal promise of God’s boundless, perfect love: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (v16)
This is the Good News of the Gospel: believe God’s promise of love and life. And regardless how many times we’ve heard or quoted John 3.16, it’s beholden on us to comprehend what Jesus is saying, as His message is just as radical and earthshaking today as when He first spoke it to Nicodemus, the curious Pharisee who wanted to know what Jesus is all about. For starters, Jesus isn’t talking about Heaven or Hell. In fact, life after death doesn’t enter His conversation. He’s talking about living truthfully now and how trusting God’s promise of love brings about new life.
In the Looking
Rather soon, Jesus realizes Nicodemus is stuck on the erroneous idea that God’s love and acceptance must be earned before they can be trusted. It’s a misbegotten, Old Testament idea that has perpetually set Israel at odds with God—and Jesus wants Nicodemus to know that He’s come to uproot this rickety notion once and for all. So He takes Nicodemus back to Numbers 21.4-9 (Sunday’s Old Testament text, recently explored in the post, Snakebit), where God pledges to heal anyone stricken with snakebite if they simply look at a bronze serpent suspended on a pole. They don’t have to prove anything. God doesn’t even ask them to apologize for the grumbling that brought on the venomous scourge. They just have to look up from wherever they are and they’ll be cured. In the looking they’ll express their faith in God’s promise of healing and new life. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life,” Jesus explains in verses 14-15, going on in verse 16 to redefine the terms of God’s promise so that it includes everyone in the world. “God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn it,” He stresses in verse 17, “but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” Jesus tells Nicodemus (and us) that God’s lavish love and new life aren’t rewards for righteous behavior. They’re promises we access by simple trust and belief.
So why doesn’t everybody in the world claim these promises as offered? Jesus answers this question with shocking candor. Many recoil from faith’s full light because they’ve grown to love the dark life, He says. They’re like cave dwellers; their adaptation to fearful darkness blinds them to God’s bright promises. It hurts their spiritual eyes to envision a world where God raises a life-giving, life-changing Christ Who welcomes and heals all who look to God in faith. They’ve developed finely tuned skills—many passed down over generations—that keep their radar on high alert. Anything that feels dangerous to them must be wrong for everyone else. As a result of feeling their way through darkness, they create evil that seeks to prevent those they love or fear from living in the light. In faith terms, they fabricate elaborate screens to block God’s light and condemn those who believe God’s promises. “But those who do what is true come to the light,” Jesus says in verse 21, “so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Living as God Lives
God promises us eternal life—a new life that we live in God, as God lives, a life that cannot be comprehended because it has neither a beginning nor end. It is a life as limitless and enduring as God’s love, whose vastness reaches out to everyone who ever lived. What is true is that God loves us eternally. God loves us now. God has always loved us, and will never stop loving us. God’s love is perfect, which 1 John 4.16-19 stresses: “We have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as God is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because God first loved us.” (Emphasis added.)
The unconditional, unconventionally fearless love and life Jesus promises in John 3.16 is ours for the taking—and the living. When we forsake dark doctrines and ideologies to live truthfully as believers in God’s eternal love, we come to the light so it may be clearly seen that our deeds have been done in God. Basically, this is just a fancy way of saying, “Let God love you for who you are, where you are right now.” As dangerously radical as some may think that is, it’s why Jesus came.
Confidence in God’s promises of love and life opens the door to live truthfully in the light.
Podcast link: http://straightfriendly.podbean.com/2012/03/17/what-is-true/.