Life to the full

What do most people mean by living life to the full? Dancing till dawn? Travelling to exotic places? Eating, drinking and making merry? Bungee jumping? All of the above? The answer may well depend on age, physical fitness and disposable income.

For many, the idea of living life to the full is future-orientated: ‘One day, I’ll…’ Young people fantasize about what life will be like when they’re free to do as they please. Adults work hard to fund pensions, eventually facing the dilemma of whether to build bigger nest-eggs or retire before their get-up-and-go deserts them. Some eagerly anticipate the day when they’ll be able to start really living, only to succumb to life-threatening illness.

When Jesus spoke of himself as the life-giving good shepherd, he set that picture alongside a description of ‘the thief’ who ‘comes only to steal and kill and destroy’ (John 10:10). Many today will dismiss the notion of being robbed by a spiritual enemy. They may, though—if pressed—admit to being dogged by life-sapping depression or anxiety. Others, forging ahead, apparently cheerfully, and declaring that the one who dies with the most toys wins, may nonetheless be wrestling with deep dissatisfaction. On gentle probing, they may confess to feeling disconnected from everything going on around them, or to a heart-numbing loneliness, which they seek to assuage in internet chat rooms or one-night stands.

The gospel message of abundant life—starting now—has obvious relevance to such 21st-century malaises. So it’s sad that eternal life is often characterized as eventual life—for later, not yet. Yes, there are aspects of the life Jesus promises that will only be fully realized after death, but God didn’t rescue us from the dominion of darkness and bring us into the kingdom of his Son simply to give us something to look forward to when we die. His plans for us may include world travel and good food (not so sure about the bungee jumping!) but they may not. What’s certain is that they’ll include fruitful participation in the life of his kingdom—oh, and a lifelong course in character transformation as well.

Are you being robbed?

Sadly, it’s not just those outside the church who are missing out, and it’s not a new problem. Centuries before Christ, when the prophet Isaiah proclaimed God’s invitation to the hungry and thirsty, he posed this question: why were God’s people feeding themselves the spiritual equivalent of junk food, and labouring over things that were never going to bring satisfaction, when they could be enjoying a feast for free? (Isaiah 55:1–2).

About 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter found it necessary to remind his fellow Christians of how they’d been ‘redeemed from the empty way of life handed down’ to them by their forefathers (1 Peter 1:18). Paul chided the Colossians for having such low expectations of life in Christ. The Message version tells it straight: ‘You don’t need a telescope, a microscope, or a horoscope to realize the fullness of Christ, and the emptiness of the universe without him. When you come to him, that fullness comes together for you, too’ (Colossians 2:9, my italics).

Ironically, a full life can be one of the most effective distractions from Jesus’ gift of life to the full. Jam-packed schedules leave some well-meaning Christians so drained by ‘hurry sickness’ that they overlook danger signals: the squeezing out of opportunities for fellowship and mutual encouragement; Bible reading and prayer feeling dry as dust; growing dependence on mood-altering substances.

Try running a mental video of your life over the past few days. Then picture the good Shepherd calling his sheep by name; the sheep attentive to his familiar voice, following because they know and trust him. Where are the similarities? The contrasts? (Does the pace of sheep following a shepherd seem awfully slow?) Don’t rush on; take time to reflect.

Choosing life

As the children of Israel prepared to enter the promised land, Moses issued a challenge: ‘I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life’ (Deuteronomy 30:19–20).

Each of us must also ‘choose life’, accepting Christ as our Saviour and Lord. But in addition we must choose to follow day by day, if we’re to be in the right place to receive all the nourishment, protection and other blessings the good Shepherd has for us.

Enjoying a climate of grace

Many outside the church cannot imagine life under God’s rule as anything other than a joyless slog punctuated by frequent exhortations to shape up and do better. What a travesty!

1 Peter 5:10 calls God ‘the God of all grace’. Unfortunately, his grace is often explained in terms of our unworthiness: God goes on loving and giving even though we don’t deserve it. This is true! But it’s not our failings that make God gracious. His grace—his love-in-action, creating, redeeming, empowering, comforting and much more—is a revelation of his essence, his character. He is full of grace because the God of all grace cannot be otherwise, and the atmosphere of his kingdom reflects this grace.

For those with eyes to see, signs of what God is like are close at hand. Have you ever been touched by the deep colours in a sunset? By sunlight reflected in dewdrops on a spider’s web? Have you found strength, wisdom or other resources you didn’t know you had, just when you needed them? Have you met ‘the God of surprises’ in unexpected places—in the supermarket, a hospital ward or a train? If you have yet to experience anything similar, try praying, ‘Lord, give me eyes to see…’.

You’ve probably heard of followers of Jesus, imprisoned for their faith, bringing a climate of grace to their prison cell. In this way, they’ve been able to offer guards and fellow inmates alike a glimpse of the one they serve, and a breath of ‘fresh air’. Within God’s kingdom, kindness, compassion and forgiveness for one another are the norm, whatever the surroundings—as normal as bitterness, anger and slander are where the Enemy is determining the climate. Who’s controlling the climate where you are?

Living the life

God’s plan is that, instead of allowing the world to go on imprinting us with its patterns, we cooperate with him as he renews us from the inside out. ‘We have the mind of Christ,’ wrote Paul, and then challenged Corinthian Christians about their quarrelling (1 Corinthians 2:16b—3:3). You’re probably aware of ways in which you fail to reflect the image of Christ. I certainly am. But in terms of good and bad habits, those we practise grow stronger, so let’s practise the good ones! ‘Train yourself to be godly,’ Paul urged Timothy (1 Timothy 4:7). Our daily ‘working out’ of what God has ‘worked in’ (Philippians 2:12–13) pleases God and makes us more fruitful. As a bonus, we find ourselves more at home in the kingdom climate.

Writing about Jesus’ paradoxical teaching that we must lose our lives if we are to find them (Matthew 16:25), theologian and philosopher Dallas Willard says that ‘life as normally understood, where the object is securing myself, promoting myself, indulging myself, is to be set aside’. He goes on, ‘“Can I still think about such things?” you may ask. Yes, you can. But you increasingly won’t’ (Renovation of the Heart, NavPress, 2002).

Meditating on the scriptures, alone and with others who are seeking to move on with the good Shepherd; revelling in creation while worshipping the Creator; listening to God in Spirit-directed prayer—these and other spiritual disciplines will allow the mind of Christ to hold greater sway within us, and they’ll expand our horizons in life-enhancing directions.

I find the Lord’s Prayer helpful, not least as an aid to remembering whose will is to be done, whose kingdom rule I’m committed to welcoming, and whose is the power and the glory. Psalm 23 is another rich resource for present-day ‘sheep’. Try reflecting on it, praying, ‘Lord, lead me deeper into Life today.’ Savour the images of faithful nurturing, wise guidance, strong protection and eternal security, and your relationship with the Shepherd will be strengthened, your trust in his goodness and love will grow, and your character will be nourished by his.

Finding fulfilment

Those who accept that Jesus offers not only a kind of life that serves God’s purposes, but also one that is truly fulfilling, and who daily choose to live in the light of that acceptance, find freedom and satisfaction. For two thousand years, saints have testified that this is so. Are you able to do the same?

Thinking about the most fulfilled people I know, I can see that they’ve attuned their ears to the good Shepherd’s voice and are happy to be following his lead. Each is glad to be identified as ‘God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works’ (Ephesians 2:10). Their activities are as varied as they are. But what’s striking is that such people know truly how to be. This influences not only what they do but also how they do it: their doing is characterized by God’s shalom peace, not anxious striving. At home in a climate of grace, they ‘grace’ others as part of normal living.

Are they living ‘life to the full’? I think they are. Is this what our friends and neighbours need? I think it is. Want to know how to reveal more of it to them? Ask the good Shepherd!

Originally published in Quiet Spaces Journal: The Garden, published by Bible Reading Fellowship, 2006.