Most books have one key sentence. The book of 1 John has chapter 1, verse 5.
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. “
“God is light” is the key metaphor to understand everything John says.
John didn’t invent this picture of God as light. The rabbis and philosophers of Jesus’ day used it all the time. The Greek philosopher Plato based a whole view of the universe upon it. To Plato, god was photos—light--and He shone through all things. Anything that kept God’s divinity from shining was darkness. Lies and deception cast shadows which keep us from seeing and God.
For the Christians, God doesn’t just shine on us. He shines through us. Many Christians see their relationship to God like a sunbather on a beach, basking in the sun. But we are more like windows in a wall. We don’t just absorb God’s light. We become transparent, so that other people will see God’s light through us.
That’s the problem with the church today. We have lots of sunbathers and few windows. We are happy to catch some rays from God for ourselves, but we are not shining those rays of God’s light on others.
The quality of our Christian life depends on our transparency. If we fake a relationship to God or lie to ourselves we are not walking in the light. Phoniness and pretense diminishes our shine. A glass window that gets dirty can be washed, but if we let the dirt stay, it will be a poor window.
Let’s shift metaphors for a while. Recently, one of the local municipalities put out a notice of a water emergency. The drinking water was tainted by pollution that had seeped into the water line. The water didn’t smell differently or taste differently, but testing showed that the water was unfit to drink. It came out of the water treatment plant pure, but somewhere down the line sewage had seeped into the system. They notified citizens not to drink it until it was fixed. How did they know there was a problem? Because they regularly tested the water. Periodically, cities do purity tests on water to make sure they are pure enough to drink.
John’s book is essentially a purity test for the Christians. Is the divine nature that is flowing out of us pure or is it polluted? If we are not reflecting the love of Christ in all our thoughts, actions, and speech, then something is wrong.
John’s purity test is very simple. It’s love. God is love, that’s His nature. If what comes out of us is not love, then we are very poor reflections of God, who is love.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Greek word agape, which is one of three words generally translated as love in the New Testament. It’s divine love—the kind God has for us. Agape love is our purity test. Paul describes what agape is like in I Corinthian 13: 4-8
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Let’s reduce this definition further by using four words—empathy, charity, humility, and honor.
Empathy is the ability to feel what another feels. Psychologists tell us that the chief characteristic of a loving person is the ability to feel empathy. Robert Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence lists empathy as the most important characteristic a person has to be successful in the world.
If you can see a person hurt and feel nothing, then you don’t love. If you see a person hurt and feel something, then you may love them.
Some people do not have empathy for others. They are called sociopaths. They cause a lot of damage in the world, and in the church. They do not care what other’s feel. They are only interested in themselves. They cannot love, because they do not care about others.
Charity is love in action. The choice we make to put others above our own. It is not an emotion but an act of faith and will.
Imagine you are on a sinking ship with your wife and children. There are a limited number of life jackets. Do you put yourself in a life jacket first, or do you make sure your child has one? If you are a father, then it’s probably a no-brainer. Your child comes first, because you would rather have the child survive than you. It’s an instinctive love reaction.
This is what Christ did. “God loves the world so much, that he gave his only begotten Son” John 3:16. In love, the highest good of another comes before our own. That doesn’t mean we don’t love ourselves. It just means that we have made a conscious choice to set another’s good before our own.
That is what we do when we help the poor, speak out against injustice, give our time to charity, or volunteer to do the dishes. We are choosing to set aside our time, money, and reputation for the sake of other people. Love is a decision to put another’s welfare above our own.
Humility is recognizing that we are not always right, and being able to display it. Paul said that love was rejoicing in the truth, even if the truth was not our own idea. We have no compulsion to always be right or proven to be right. We can allow others the credit and a right to their opinion.
We all have a pretty big narcissistic streak in us. We think we are right, and we like to prove that we are right. A humble person knows that he or she is not always right, and even if the humble person is right, then he or she does not need to prove it. We are able to humble before others, even those who do not agree with us.
Many people feel an obligation to constantly impose their opinions on others, without any interest in what others think (Facebook is full of such people). We should not insist upon our own opinions, even if we think that we are on God’s side. Being right is no excuse for being rude, boorish, and opinionated. People have a right to their own opinions, and should be given credit for courage and intelligence, even when they are wrong. They treat every disagreement like a football game, with bragging rights for winning, instead of as a mutual search for the truth. They insist on being treated as teachers and experts, instead of learners and seekers.
It is better to lead a person to discover the truth than to browbeat them into accepting a truth they don’t understand. We should by our humility show people a better way, a loving way, instead of letting our tempers rule.
Honor is treating others with dignity regardless of who they are or what they have done. Every person, no matter who they are was created in the image of God and deserves to be treated with dignity. We should treat everyone with honor, from the homeless man on the street to the president in the oval office. It’s not that they always deserve it, but because we chose to be honorable ourselves. It is a choice we make to give honor, and an expression of divine love, who honors all people.
Last year I attended a seminar on work. The speaker made the point that all work, no matter what our job, is a calling from God, and valuable. One of the great tragedies of modern man is that we do not recognize that our work, even if it seems pointless is valuable. A garbage man is of equal value to society as a bank president. A maid is as valuable to the world as a teacher.
Jesus went a little further than that. In Matthew 25: 40, he said,
'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'
Do you want to know if you are walking in the light? Check what is coming out of you. Is it empathy, charity, humility, and honor? If it is, then your heart is pure, and your reflection of God’s divine nature is pure. If it’s not, then you aren’t walking in light.
John puts it this way in verses 2: 7-11:
Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
9 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
Some people who think they are being spiritual like to piously proclaim, “I don’t hate everyone.” That’s never true, and I am suspicious of anyone who says it! We should press them on this and say, “What about your no-good brother or sister? Do you love him or her?”
Again we reply with a lie. “O sure—well, I don’t actually hate them--not really!”
What is hate? We would rather leave “hate” undefined. Hate is not really an emotion. That’s not what the Bible means by hate. It’s not a feeling but rather the absence of feeling. Hate, like love is mainly a choice. Murderers do not usually kill people because they “feel” hatred towards their victims. They kill because they feel nothing. If we can look at a person and feel no empathy, give no charity, have no humility, and give no honor, then we hate them.
How do we stop hating and start loving? By opening our eyes to Jesus--God revealed in Christ. While we were still sinners Christ died for us. Once we see how Jesus loves us, then we just do the same to others. Love for Jesus’ sake is walking in the light. We just copy what He did, and we are walking in the light.