What Is Eternal Life?

Beware of defining it quantitatively.


If we believe that eternal life means solely living on forever without an end, then the curmudgeonly Jonathan Swift pops our balloon.

In his novel Gulliver’s Travels, Swift recounts how Gulliver visits an island kingdom named Luggnagg. There among his adventures, he meets a resident who tells him about a special category of people on the island, named Struldbrugs. The Struldbrugs are born with the rare gift of immortality.  But as Gulliver hears more about their story, we come to question whether it can rightly be called a blessing.

It is true that the Struldbrugs cannot die, but with the gift of immortality they are not given the gift of perpetual youth.  Instead each year they grow older and older … becoming ever more wrinkled, feeble, and disagreeable with each passing year. In the end their lives become so miserable that families on Luggnagg regard the birth of a Struldbrug as a curse on the family.

I think we need to recall this story whenever we are inclined … thoughtlessly … to define eternal life quantitatively … as everlasting longevity. Swift is saying to us, “If that is what you hope for, beware of what you ask.”

Eternal Life in the Gospel of John

This is not eternal life as the author of the Gospel of John proclaims it. Eternal life is an important concept for John, but it is certainly something more than longevity.

We get at John’s understanding in the prayer that Jesus prays on behalf of his disciples at the end of the Last Supper. In that prayer Jesus says:

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. [John 17:3]

That statement by Jesus has always stopped me in my tracks. Jesus says nothing about the longevity of eternal life. Rather he focuses entirely on its purpose.

There is a peculiar twist in the syntax of that verse in the original Greek. The first part of the verse sounds as if Jesus is going to give us a standard definition—This is eternal life…

 But immediately after this phrase in Greek comes the word hina. Hina is a conjunction that points to purpose. The NRSV translates it that. It would be more accurate to translate it so that, or for the purpose of.

This strange twist in the grammar suggests that Jesus (and John) knows that eternal life does involve immortality, but he does not want the accent to be on that quality. He wants to emphasize that what most constitutes eternal life is not longevity and agelessness but its purpose. And that purpose is that we may know God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.

The Semitic Understanding of Knowing

To understand the significance of this knowing, we must read the verb know in a Semitic way, not in a Greek way. For the ancient Greeks, to know meant to perceive intellectually. They wanted to understand the world and human beings factually. Their goal was to express their perceptions in abstract, philosophical principles.

In this Greek usage, if you knew a person, you could recount facts about his or her life. You could tell something about who they are or what they do.

The Semitic understanding of knowing, however, was very different. For the Hebrew used in the Old Testament, knowing was more practical, experiential, and emotional. To know a person did not mean you could talk about a person, but that you had some kind of relationship with that person. It had a connotation of immediate experience and intimacy.

The Hebrew understanding of knowing a person is captured in several different places in Genesis where to know is used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. The classic text is Genesis 4:1, where Adam is said to know his wife Eve and she conceives a son. Knowing is an experience that leads to a form of union in relationship.

British Biblical scholar E.C. Blackman captured this special Semitic flavor when he said that for the Old Testament, …knowledge of God meant not thought about an eternal Being or Principle transcending man and the world, but recognition of, and obedience to, one who acted purposefully in the world.*

American Biblical scholar Raymond Brown agreed with Blackman. He commented on the use of know in this verse: For John, of course, knowing God is not a purely intellectual matter but involves a life of obedience to God’s commandments and of loving communion with fellow Christians…This is in agreement with Hebrew use of the verb ‘to know’ with its connotation of immediate experience and intimacy.**

The apostle Paul also holds to this experiential dimension of knowing. We see that caught in Philippians 3:10: …that I may know him [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings…. Paul is clearly implying that he seeks to know by experience, rather than by abstract thought.

Although the verb to know would mean something to both a Greek and a Jew, I think it is absolutely essential that we understand that Jesus–and the gospel writer–are thinking like Jews, not like Greeks. The Semitic understanding of knowing can issue in intellectual understanding. But intellectual understanding is its fruit, not its defining characteristic.

Semitic Knowing and Christian Faith Today

I think this Semitic understanding of knowing is essential as we try to present the Christian faith to both believers and unbelievers today. There is a prevalent idea out there in our churches and in the broader culture that Christian faith is all about believing certain intellectual doctrines. Such faith turns into something dry and unemotional.

I suspect we owe that understanding of the Christian faith to the scholastic theologians in the late 16th and the 17th centuries who followed in the wake of the Reformation.  For the Reformers like Luther and Calvin the experiential dimension of the Christian faith was preeminent. It was what fired their preaching and writing. But their scholastic heirs turned the Reformers’ ardent faith into an intellectual affair. Faith was believing the doctrines, not a personal trust in God.

Intellectual knowing, however, seldom transforms a person. Rather it tends to make a person, especially scholars, arrogant and conceited. It is the personal relationship –with God and with other Christians–that changes minds and behavior. That has been proven time after time in the stories of the great conversions in Christian history.***


* Entry on “Know, Knowledge” in Alan Richardson, editor. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950. Page 121.

** Raymond E. Brown, S.S. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel of John (xiii-xxi). New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970. Page 752.

*** As a great resource for reading about these conversions, I recommend John M. Mulder, editor, Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.



A Christmas Option for the Arm-Chair Bible Reader

My study guide on Galatians is all about making the apostle Paul accessible to the lay reader.


You are a reader of my blog. That tells me you have an interest in the Bible. And you may have friends who share that interest.

Maybe yours is a strong interest; maybe just curiosity. But if you would like to explore one book of the Bible in depth, may I suggest you consider my new book as a Christmas gift option.

The book is titled: Charter of Christian Freedom: A Layperson’s Study Guide to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. It seeks to open up what has been one of the most influential theological writings ever written in the history of Christianity.

In addressing a crisis in a group of churches in what is today central Turkey, the apostle articulated a vision of the Christian life that has inspired theologians and ordinary Christians ever since. It helped spark the Reformation.  It even started a revolution in my own spiritual life years ago when I first read it.

Yet Paul’s thought can appear dense to people who do not understand the sometimes specialized vocabulary he uses. I try to translate that vocabulary for laypeople today. In this way I hope to make Paul’s thought accessible to people with no or a limited theological background. Periodically in the book I also take pauses to reflect on how I hear Paul’s thought addressing important theological issues today.

While not trying to dumb down Paul, I like to write in an informal, non-academic way that I think will communicate well to my readers. (It’s the same style I aim for in my blog.) From feedback I’ve received, it appears I succeed. One reader told me, “I expected your book to be a dry, scholarly tome. But it wasn’t. It’s really good.”

Copies may be ordered from Amazon or from the website of the publisher Wipf and Stock. If you decide to buy and read it, I would love to hear your feedback afterwards.



Why I Read and Study the Bible

Engagement with the Bible is a priority for me for one important reason.

Easter Bible

I have been writing this blog for five years. Sometimes the pressure of coming up with yet another new posting makes me anxious. Yet I continue to write because I continue to find myself captivated by the Bible. You may wonder why, so let me offer an answer.

It is not because I regard the Bible as a simple collection of ready answers to every spiritual problem or need. If I am feeling fear, then I turn to…. If that were the case, then the Bible would be just another volume of magic spells comparable to something Harry Potter might find in the library of Hogwarts.

I certainly have favorite passages of the Bible that I turn to in distressing times. But that’s not why I continue to invest my time and energies in reading and studying this book.

Nor do I read the Bible because I expect there to find infallible answers to every question I bring to it. To be honest, I give no credibility to any doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, although that was certainly the teaching in the religious tradition I grew up in. I am fully prepared to acknowledge that there may be errors of fact and viewpoint in some of what I read in the Bible.

I hold this position because I do not believe that human beings are given the gift of infallibility, infallibility of any kind whether we locate it in reason, the Pope, general church councils, or the Bible. Only one is infallible. That is God. And human beings do not share that divine characteristic. To be human is to be capable of erring, and we all do, including I believe the authors of the Bible.

The very human process by which the Bible came to us

My study of how the Bible was written, edited, and compiled has shown me how thoroughly human was the process by which we received the Bible. No angel dictated the words of the Bible to its authors (as Muslims believe Gabriel did with the words of the Quran). The process that brought us the Bible is full of all the historical contingencies that accompany any human endeavor.

Furthermore, that process means we find different voices and viewpoints expressed in the Bible as a whole. The books of the Bible do not speak with one unified voice.

I offer one example. The books of Ezra-Nehemiah and the book of Ruth offer contradictory viewpoints on the legitimacy and value of Israelite men marrying foreign wives. Yet all three books are included in the Bible. And for that reason I must hear and take seriously what each of them says in their contradictory viewpoints. I cannot pick and choose to accept only one. The canon of the Bible means I must hear each voice with equal seriousness, for given different historical situations, one voice may speak a message that I need to hear at that time over the others.

 The divine mystery that is the Bible

So skeptics may say to me with some astonishment, “Why do you continue to read and study the Bible? Isn’t it a vast waste of time?” Some might even say a detrimental waste of time. Look, they say, at all the pain and hurt people quoting the Bible have brought into human history.

Their question reminds me of a scene in the movie Zorba the Greek, where Zorba asks his scholarly English companion Basil why anyone dies. Basil says that he does not know. Zorba responds, “What the use of all your damned books if they can’t answer that?” Basil responds: “They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.”

In an analogous way, I continue to read and study the Bible for one important reason. It may not answer all my questions, but tells me of the privilege and challenge of being called to be a child of God, of living in the divine mystery that lies around, beneath, above, and inside me. It feeds my spirit, nurtures my faith, shapes my mindset, guides my behavior, forms my character, and inspires my hope like no other book.

Because of all that I can affirm with full conviction what the Pauline author says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. 

 I would ask you to notice about this sentence (so often quoted as proof of the Bible’s divine inspiration) that its primary focus is not on the use of the Bible to proof text doctrine, but to shape the way we live and behave. The author is most concerned in the power of the Bible to form us as believers so we can live lives of Christian service.

I truly believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but not because the Bible claims to be so inspired or a church authority declares it so, but because of the mysterious power it has continually to nurture me in my life of faith. I do not understand the nature of that power, anymore than I understand the mysterious way the Spirit of God guided the contingent process of bringing the Bible into being.

Exactly how God has inspired the Bible is a mystery to me. Yet I continue to believe that God has done so because of the power the Bible has played in my life. I first became captivated by the Bible as a teen-ager. And through all the up’s and the down’s of my tumultuous spiritual journey I have been able to turn to the Bible as a steadying force in my life.

The dual pillars of my spiritual life

I said my spiritual journey has been tumultuous. I mean that. And through all the twists and turns of my spiritual and emotional life, two things have proved my anchor. One is my engagement with the Bible; the other is my regular participation in the Eucharist. They have been my personal Jachin and Boaz, those foundational pillars that stood at the entrance of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 3:15-17).

Together, the Bible and the Eucharist have grounded me spiritually. And I note that they also form the two foci—the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Sacrament—that have formed the historic Sunday liturgy of the church. That liturgy, too, has a mysterious divine power. It feeds me spiritually. It heals my emotions. It challenges my passivity. It shapes my character.

So why do I continue to read, study, and wrestle with the Bible? Why do I try to share something of the fruit of that engagement in my blog postings? Because here I touch the mystery of God and God’s ways and purposes in the world. Hear I touch the mysteries, the challenges, and privileges of being a human being.

And here too I gain insight into the nature of this cosmos in which we live. The Bible tells me this cosmos is not meaningless, despite all our experiences that suggest otherwise. Instead the Bible calls me to trust in the hidden ways God is guiding this cosmos to its mysterious, but glorious destiny.




An Uncomfortable Meeting with Jesus

If we met Jesus in person, would we love him, hate him, or be baffled by him?


The nameless woman wipes Jesus’ perfumed feet with her hair. Image by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe, 20th century

Occasionally I fantasize meeting Jesus in person. What would the experience feel like? What would be my response? Would it mirror one of the many responses described in the gospels?

When we read those gospels, we hear of many people’s encounters with Jesus. Their responses are all across the board.

Some, for example, seem to fall passionately in love with Jesus. The most extreme example is the story (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9) of the nameless woman who interrupts a dinner party where Jesus is the guest. She pours an expensive perfume over his head and feet. She then wipes his feet with her hair.

The gesture is extravagant in the extreme. The perfume is expensive. It equals a year’s total wages for an ordinary laborer. All this is splurged in one sensuous moment. Jesus, unlike his disciples, is not alarmed by the gesture’s erotic overtones. He is deeply touched by it.

In the garden on Easter morning, we sense Mary Magdalene’s love for Jesus by her instantaneous embrace of him when she recognizes him (John 20:11-18). Women are not alone in showing such love. At the Last Supper Jesus’ beloved disciple reclines next to Jesus, manifesting his affection for Jesus and Jesus’ affection for him (John 13:23).

Others in their encounters with Jesus show profound awe. In John’s gospel we hear the story of the meeting between the risen Jesus and his doubting disciple Thomas (John 20:26-29). When confronted with Jesus, Thomas blurts out “My Lord and my God.” It’s the most awesome acclamation of Jesus in all the gospels.

We also read over and over again of how the crowds who hear Jesus teach and see him heal respond with astonishment. They wonder where his authority comes from. (See Mark 1:21-28.)

Others respond to Jesus out of their sheer confidence in his power to heal. The story of the woman with a blood hemorrhage who pushes herself through the crowd to touch the fringe of Jesus’ robe is one example (Mark 5:25-34). So too is the Roman centurion who feels unworthy to welcome Jesus into his house (Luke 7:1-10). He instructs Jesus to just say the word from a distance. He knows his slave will be healed. Something about Jesus has evoked such incredible confidence in Jesus.

Then there are those who hate Jesus. His enemies are numerous. In many cases they are religious authorities that, like the crowds, hear him preach and watch him heal. They respond, on the other hand, with hostility. Their anger seems provoked by Jesus’ subversion of their own authority and their inflexible rules for determining what’s right and what’s wrong. Jesus’ own disciple Judas ends up joining them out of motives we can no longer detect.

Baffled by Jesus

 And then there are those who seem baffled by Jesus. They just don’t know what to do with this strange man. He behaves in odd ways. They can’t fit him into one of the normal categories they use to pigeonhole the people they meet.

The Roman governor Pilate is one. He clearly sees Jesus as innocent, but can’t understand why Jesus does nothing to passionately defend himself against the charges brought against him. Jesus does not fit the pattern of most prisoners that Pilate is called upon to judge.

I find the most fascinating example of people feeling baffled by Jesus by the story in the gospel of Mark (Mark 3:20-21, 31-33) where Jesus’ own mother and brothers come to take him home. They believe that Jesus is deranged. He must have been acting in a way so out of character with the boy and young man they had grown up with that they feel he has lost his mind. The ones who should have known Jesus most intimately are the ones now baffled by him.

The one response to Jesus that we do not seem to find in the gospels is terror. People may feel threatened by him, but they never seem to tremble in fear in his presence. (The one exception is the woman with the blood hemorrhage I mentioned above. Jesus quickly reassures her.)

I find that striking. By the time we get into the Middle Ages and the era of great cathedral building, the favored image that medieval sculptors placed over the central church door was usually a picture of the Last Judgment.

There a stern Jesus sits enthroned separating the saved from the damned. It was a fearsome image. It must have been meant to sear the consciences of the faithful as they entered into the church’s sanctuary. But I don’t find any sanction for that emotion of terror in the gospels.

As I said when I started out, which of these gospel responses would I mirror if I met Jesus in person? I don’t know. Knowing the complex and disjointed human being that I am and the complex and integrated person Jesus is, I realize I could be capable of responding with any of those responses I’ve described…and some others as well.

I am sure that my response to Jesus would surprise me. It would reveal something about me that I may not have acknowledged before. That would make me very uncomfortable.


The Sign of Conversion

A puzzling parable offers a sure-fire sign of full conversion.


One of the most troubling of Jesus’ parables is his story of a landowner who goes out into the village marketplace to hire laborers to work in his vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). He hires some in the early morning, then returns every three hours to hire more, including some just a hour before the work day ends. Yet all the laborers, regardless of when they began work, are paid the same wage.

The workers who began work in the early morning complain about the landowner’s unfairness. They should be paid more, they argue, because they worked through the scorching heat of the day. That deserves greater remuneration.

The landowner denies their request, saying:

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:13-15)

Most of us are troubled by this parable because we agree with the aggrieved laborers. By our standards of good business practices, the landowner is indeed being unjust. The workers deserve a reward commensurate with the depth of labor they put into the task.

But if we are to understand this parable, we must leave behind our ideas about fair business transactions. When Jesus begins telling his story, he says it is an analogy to what happens in the kingdom of God. All who enter into the kingdom are beneficiaries of the generous grace of God.

All receive the same gift of God’s gracious salvation. That is a gift of surpassing worth. And anyone who receives that gift should take delight that everyone else is receiving that same surpassing gift as well. That, in fact, becomes a sign of full conversion (conversion understood as a radical change of mindset as I describe in my June 2 posting Transforming Repentance).

If I have been truly converted, then I will rejoice in the fact that God is sharing so widely the same gift that I have received. For that gift is such a superlative gift that I cannot hoard it to myself. I want everyone around me to share it too.

Such an attitude shows that one is no longer dominated by an egocentric religious mindset. Such a mindset is always concerned with what I will get from my faithfulness, devotion, and obedience. If we are dominated by that mindset, we will be consumed with our demand that we get what we feel we deserve. We will resent someone getting what we feel they have not deserved as much as we have.

The Character of Conversion

Conversion involves a reorientation of our mindset from an obsession with our own survival and wellbeing to a delight in the great and glorious cosmic plan that God is at work to bring into being, That includes a joyful acceptance of our own humble place and role in that plan whether that place and role always involve our immediate wellbeing or not. The surpassing worth and beauty of the kingdom so captivates us that we cannot help but rejoice when others come to share that same gift that we have received.

Now I think this parable speaks very pointedly to our spiritual situation as Christians. Egocentric concerns may play a huge role in bringing us to a conversion experience. (And there is nothing more egocentric that being worried about whether we are going to heaven or hell when we die.) When we begin our spiritual journey, we begin where we are as egocentric persons most concerned about what affects us personally.

But as we mature into our conversion, a shift begins to take place within us. We begin to be more concerned not with our own spiritual fate and wellbeing, but with the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Jesus describes that shift when he says in the Sermon on the Mount, …strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well (Matthew 6:33).

That does not mean most of us reach that level of spiritual maturity easily or quickly. For most of us, including myself, it is a long, slow, and gradual process of reorientation lasting a whole lifetime.

The parable also speaks, I believe, to our relationship with other Christian groupings and other religions. When we see the fruits of God’s kingdom manifest in them, if we are truly converted, we rejoice to see the Spirit at work in them as well as in us, regardless of whether they conform to our particular doctrines and practices.

When we have reached that depth of conversion, we can begin to hear Jesus’ parable not as a frightful malpractice but as a vision into the glory of God’s beneficent grace.


Know Thyself

Spending some time alone may be healthy before we rush into active service.

Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the Thinker placed in front of his rendition of the Gates of Hell, 1880, Museé Rodin, Paris.

Mark’s gospel (Mark 1:9-13) tells us that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness there to be tested by Satan. Why does Jesus need to be alone for 40 days in a barren landscape?

I like to think that need follows inexorably from the breakthrough experience Jesus has at his baptism. At the moment when he comes up out of the water, Jesus hears a voice in heaven say: You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:11).

The heavenly voice speaks a word of unimaginable affirmation. It singles Jesus out for the spiritual distinction of being the beloved Son of God. The voice is saying in effect, “You are uniquely close to me, as close as a son is to his father.” This affirmation is accompanied by a filling with spiritual power as the Spirit descends upon Jesus.

Talk about a mountaintop spiritual experience! It must have been an incredible high. That is precisely what made it dangerous. This high could have led to Jesus’ spiritual and mental unhinging. He could have become so full of himself and his special status that he could have become unbearable to be around. Or he could have gone mad, just as many mentally deranged persons have who have delusions about being god.

Either outcome would have defeated his mission. For Jesus’ status is given to him for the purpose of his mission. He needed to learn how to subordinate his ego-centrism to his mission.*

I think that was the task he faced as he was driven out into the wilderness. Jesus had to come to understand deep in himself what it meant to be the Son of God. What that status permitted him to do and what it did not permit him to do. He had to understand his identity in a profound way before he was fit to pursue his mission.

Matthew’s and Luke’s Takes on the Temptations

I suggest this interpretation of his testing in the wilderness because of what the gospels of Matthew and Luke bring to the story. Mark tells us nothing about the exact nature of the temptations Satan poses to Jesus. But Matthew and Luke do. We need to pay particular attention to the wording they give to the words of Satan.

When Satan poses his first temptation, it is a temptation to Jesus to use his spiritual power to gratify himself, in particular to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. But we need to note how Satan introduces that temptation. His first words are: If you are the Son of God…. Satan zeroes in on that very special identity that Jesus has been given by the heavenly voice at the baptism.

Again when Satan raises the second temptation, the temptation is to use Jesus’s special relationship with God to call attention to himself and to gain fame and admiration. He is to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that God’s angels will rescue him from killing himself.

Once again we need to note how Satan introduces the temptation. He begins: If you are the Son of God…. Satan exploits the heavenly voice’s words to Jesus.

Satan does not use these same words to introduce the third temptation. But the third temptation presumes upon the status which has been conferred on Jesus. In its Old Testament usage the words Son of God have royal associations.** Jesus is tempted to seize his right to be king by worshipping power as represented by Satan.

Each of these temptations derives its power as a temptation because it exploits Jesus’ new consciousness of being the Son of God. Jesus must penetrate into this revelation to understand it, to understand what behavior is appropriate to his identity and what is not. And that takes some solitary time alone to wrestle with his own self.

Out there in the wilderness Jesus was probably not spending the bulk of his time watching the gauzy clouds float by in the sky. He was probably struggling with his own thoughts and emotions trying to plumb the meaning of the breakthrough experience that had been his in his baptism.

The Biblical Paradigm of the Exodus

What I find fascinating about Jesus’ experience is that it seems to be a common experience for people who undergo breakthrough spiritual experiences. Take the apostle Paul. In Galatians 1:17, Paul tells us that after his breakthrough experience with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he immediately went away into Arabia.

Paul tells us nothing about what he was doing there nor for how long. But he does move out into the wilderness. I like to think that he did so to be alone, to try to begin to understand what had happened to him in his revelatory experience with Christ and what this now meant for him and his life. I suspect he was wrestling with his own new identity and calling just as Jesus was in the desert.

What I find further fascinating about both Jesus’ and Paul’s experiences is how they conform to the Old Testament paradigm of the Exodus. When Israel is freed from slavery in Egypt, especially in the breakthrough experience of the miraculous crossing the Red Sea, God leads the people out into the Sinai desert there to wander for 40 years before they enter the Promised Land.

There is, I believe, a very concrete reason why God does this. In Exodus 4:22-23, God refers to the people of Israel as his firstborn son. Pharaoh is to let God’s son go so Israel may worship and serve the Lord.

Israel as a people is given the same status as Jesus in his baptism. And Israel must learn to understand what that status means for them just as Jesus must. That is the important work that is going on in the Sinai wilderness those 40 years of wandering. They are being shaped into a people who will be able to live as the chosen corporate son of God when they enter into the land. We can then see the Exodus wanderings as a series of educational temptations.

Israel, of course, never fully passes the tests. When they enter the land of Canaan, they enter with an imperfect understanding of what their special status means. As a result they fall prey to new temptations to exploit and abuse their status as a son of God. In the Christian story, this sets the stage for the coming of Jesus, who will finally fulfill Israel’s destiny.

This Exodus paradigm has been lived out over and over again the lives of many Christian saints. An outstanding example is St. Anthony, the hermit in the Egyptian desert who helped launch the monastic movement in Christianity. And the monastic tradition has continued this paradigm by requiring candidates to undergo a lengthy novitiate (a time of spiritual formation and testing) before they take their final professional vows.

I believe we need to honor this Exodus paradigm as well as we individually go through our spiritual journey in life. When we have breakthrough experiences spiritually, it may be hazardous to our spiritual health to rush out into Christian service in the world. Instead we may need, just as much as Jesus, Paul, and Anthony did, to take some time to be alone, free of distractions, to plumb the meaning of what has happened to us. Unless we do, we will botch our mission by misunderstanding the meaning of our identity.

* Jesus will once again confront the issue of ego-centrism in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he must subordinate his own desire to live with the demands of God’s will. He does so in the words of his prayer, Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want (Mark 14:36).

** For examples, see Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14.

Transforming Repentance

Unpacking the message of John the Baptist.

Image of John the Baptist in the deësis mosaic in the church of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 13th century.

The gospels suggest that John the Baptist created quite a sensation when he began preaching in the Judean wilderness. All four gospel writers say that crowds streamed out of Jerusalem and the Judean countryside to hear him.

There must have been something electrifying about his preaching. I imagine the scene resembled the kinds of crowds who gathered in the camp meetings that launched the great revivalist movement in 19th century America. There must have been a surge of excitement in the air.

But what was John’s style of preaching? Did it involve a lot of shouting and yelling, like a sawdust revivalist? Or was it highly poetic and filled with vivid imagery? The gospel writers don’t say.

All we are told is that it was premised upon the conviction that the kingdom of God was about to arrive (see Matthew 3:2). That meant people needed to change their behavior. Luke suggests that meant adoption of a way life that prioritized social justice (see Luke 3:10-14).

Mark summarizes John’s preaching in his typically terse way. He says that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). He elaborates no further. So we are left with our imaginations as to what were the specifics of John’s message.

Understanding Repentance through the Greek

There is an important detail, however, in that concise summary. The word repentance is an interesting word in Greek. It is the word metanoia. Its primary meaning was not emotional, meaning a feeling of remorse, as the English word repentance has largely come to represent.

Rather metanoia meant first and foremost a change of mind. It was to change the way one thought, the way one looked at things, the way one perceived and understood life and the world. We might more accurately translate it as a change of mindset or a change of consciousness. To adopt an analogy, it means to change the mental software within ourselves that governs how we perceive the world and then how we behave.

If we believe the world is a dangerous place, afflicted with scarcity, and full of duplicitous people, we will most probably become defensive, greedy, and suspicious people in our attitudes and ways of living. If we believe the world is a beneficent place, overflowing with abundance for all, and full of caring people, we will most probably become open, generous, and compassionate people in our attitudes and ways of living.

What makes the fundamental difference between these two ways of living? A deep-seated way of perceiving and understanding the world, our core mindset.

John premises his call to change our mindsets on an amazing claim. The kingdom of God is about to arrive. (Again see Matthew 3:2.) When it does, everything in the world and in society will change. Our old strategies for living will no longer work. We will need to adopt a new mindset or consciousness. And we can begin to prepare for that new reality by starting to adopt that new mindset now. It is the way we can get ready for the kingdom’s arrival.

And to represent our commitment to adopting this new mindset, John calls upon the crowds to be baptized. We do not know how John baptized specifically. But in the early church, when one came to be baptized, one stripped out of one’s street clothes and was dipped into the water naked. One then arose out of the water and assumed a new festive garment. In this way, the action involved a kind of spiritual rebirth.

If John baptized in a similar way (and we don’t really know that he did), then the people he baptized were making a dramatic statement of their commitment to changing their mindset.

The Challenge of Changing a Mindset

But changing one’s mindset or consciousness is no easy feat. In most cases the way we look at and understand the world is grounded in early childhood experiences.

Erik Erikson taught that the most fundamental challenge of the newborn infant is to develop a deep-seated confidence that the world can be trusted or not. It is the foundation on which all later work in growing into a healthy human being is grounded. Whether that healthy foundation is laid or not depends upon the child’s experience with the adults in his or her life. Can they be depended upon to meet the child’s needs, and thereby nurture within the child a core of trust? Or do they engage in neglect, intentional or not, breeding instead in the child a core attitude of mistrust?*

By the time we reach adulthood, our fundamental mindset is so deeply entrenched in our being that it is nearly impossible to change it by sheer will power. If we seek to change it by will power, we must apply ourselves to a steady, unrelenting commitment to thinking in a new way regardless of how the experiences of our lives seem to deny that new way of thinking over and over again.

Over time, that new way of thinking may settle into a trait of character that governs our behavior without conscious effort. But that requires such a strenuous application of will power over time that few people have the inner stamina to do it.

That’s why I have become convinced that a fundamental change of mindset or consciousness requires some kind of transformative experience that reshapes our whole way of seeing the world and consequently our way of behaving. In the language of traditional Christian spirituality, that transformation is seen as a change of heart, the seat of the inner personality. And as the heart changes (in Biblical language, becomes soft and warm rather than hardhearted)**, then our mindset will change with time as well.

Once again, in the language of the Bible, such a change of heart is tied to an experience of God loving us, just as we are, with all our strengths, gifts, and, yes, all our flaws and weaknesses. When we come to experience that love deep in our beings, it changes us.

That experience may come all at once for some people, in a dramatic, breakthrough experience (as it did for Bill Wilson, founder of AA, or Thomas Merton), or it may come through a gradual buildup of almost imperceptible experiences of God’s love coming to us through the routines of daily living (as it did for Brother Lawrence or Evelyn Underhill). The speed of the experience is not the issue; it’s the reality, however that happens.

Maybe this is why the gospel writers tell us that another part of John’s message was:

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1-7-8)

 John may sense deep within himself that the metanoia that he is calling the crowds to practice is something beyond their power to do or his power to accomplish. It requires a greater power.*** And that is why he looks for the coming of the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Only a divine power can truly transform our hearts.

* A summary of Erikson’s ideas are found in an article on his stages of psychosocial development on the Simply Psychology website.

** One example is the language used in Ezekiel 36:26.

** I am reminded of the fact that at the heart of the Alcoholics Anonymous therapy for overcoming alcoholism is the nurturing of a reliance upon a “higher power, however it is understood.” That trust in one’s “higher power” is the key to recovery.