1 John 2:12-17
The highest grossing film in British cinema history is ‘Mamma Mia!’. You may well know that it began life as a West End musical, in which the story is woven around songs by ABBA. It tells of a bride-to-be named Sophie, who is trying to find her real father. She discovers from reading her mother’s diary that her father could be any one of three different men, and so invites them all to the wedding.
In a conversation with her fiancé, a character called Sky, she says, “I want to know who I am.”
He replies, “That doesn’t come from finding your father; that comes from finding yourself.”
Knowing who you are is vital to healthy living. And knowing who we are seems to be John’s point here in the battle against sin. When he tells us not to ‘love the world’ (verse 15) – that is, the parts of creation organised in rebellion against God – it would be easy to issue a list of what to do and what not to do. A set of rules. He could tell us what is wrong in terms of the greed and lust he describes ‘the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of riches’ (verse 16), naming and shaming all the wrong behaviour. It would all be so easy.
And so wrong.
It would fail. A list of rules on its own doesn’t work. Telling us what is right and wrong isn’t enough to induce good behaviour. It doesn’t transform us. If anything, it makes wrongdoing more appealing.
John has a different tactic here. He encourages us to know our identity first. He wants us to know who we are in the sight of God. Because that will make a difference.
So to get to how we resist the allure of a world in opposition to God, we examine the words before that, the words addressed to ‘children’, ‘young people’ and ‘fathers’ – because in spiritual terms,
All Christians should have the innocence of childhood, the strength of youth, and the mature knowledge of age.
To be innocent, strong and mature in the face of temptation to sin requires knowing our spiritual identity. We need to know who we are in God’s eyes.
Firstly, we are forgiven:
I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name. (Verse 12)
You will recall, no doubt, that my predecessor was a big fan of Doctor Who. I do not share his passion. However, Rebekah and Mark avidly watch repeats of the children’s spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures and Debbie loves the adult spin-off, Torchwood. This last summer, there was a Torchwood story called Miracle Day, where suddenly humanity becomes immortal. A convicted child killer thus survives execution and lives to make this statement:
I have been forgiven, a substantial number of people have forgiven me. I can feel that in my heart, my guts. And forgiveness is like a tide or storm – it clears the air. I’m very lucky to have been forgiven and I feel very blessed. And I think of forgiveness as a cure.
The character is right. Forgiveness clears the air. It is a cure. Amongst other things, it is not only a cure for past wrongs, it is a cure as we face present temptation.
How so? Like this: if we face temptation and simply invoke the ‘right and wrong’ approach, we shall get worked up about failure, because we shall feel both guilt and hopelessness on the occasions when we fail. There is no good news for someone who breaks the rules, if that is all there is.
But what if we know we are forgiven? People who are forgiven still have a deep sense of right and wrong. They too do not want to depart from God’s ways. However, their motive is different. They know they are loved, even when they transgress God’s laws. They still want to do what is right, but it is not out of fear. It is because they long to please the God who loves them enough to forgive them in Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Next time you face temptation, remember that God has already forgiven you in Jesus Christ. Remember what that tells you about the God of love, grace and mercy. When fear paralyses you, remember what kind of God we believe in: the God of the manger, the Cross and the empty tomb. He offers forgiveness before we receive it. Let that set you free in the face of temptation.
Secondly, we know Jesus:
I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning. (Verse 13)
‘Him who is from the beginning’ could be God the Father, but he gets a name check in the next verse, so we’ll assume this is Jesus. In any case, knowledge of one is similar to knowledge of the other. However, for the purposes of this point we’ll stick with knowing Jesus, and see that as covering what John says about knowing the Father, too. But what is the significance to overcoming sin of knowing Jesus?
Let me approach it this way. I expect you remember the quiz show Mr and Mrs. Husbands and wives took it in turns to answer questions about each other while their spouse could not hear their replies. Then the spouse came back and we saw whether the answers were correct. You would see how well they knew each other. Sometimes it was surprisingly accurate, sometimes the surprise came in what they didn’t know about each other, however many years they’d been married.
Let me venture to suggest that our relationship with Jesus is a little bit like that. We come to know him through the forgiveness we have just talked about, and that relationship grows over the years. Our knowledge of him is far from perfect, but as we get to know him better we discover someone who is an amazing support in our struggle against sin.
It isn’t that Jesus is like an indulgent grandfather who trivialises the misdeeds of his grandchildren, who explains away their actions and makes easy excuses for their wrongdoing. Such an answer would not go down well on a spiritual ‘Mr and Mrs’.
Nor is it true to envisage Jesus as a severe monster, ready to rip to shreds any being that puts the slightest foot wrong. Again, that would be a wrong answer about our relationship with him.
The Bible presents an image of Jesus as full of both acceptance and holiness. His holiness means he cannot abide sin, but he also accepts us through the Cross, in which he has conquered sin. And furthermore, he is the Lord of the broken and the weak. If he has a particular group that he targets for criticism, it is religious leaders who harshly apply the rules and end up excluding people for no good reason.
When you know you are loved, warts and all, you can stand strong. If you doubt whether you are loved or accepted, you will wobble in the face of sin. If you are unsure of Jesus and his love, you will struggle. But if you know a relationship with Jesus in which you are accepted then yes, you will still stumble and fall from time to time, but you will be able to pick yourself up because Jesus does that for you and sets you on your way again. To know he loves you is to be in a different place when facing temptation.
Remember – Jesus is ‘him who is from the beginning’ – and since the beginning of all things, the Father and Jesus have had grand designs on your life. They have planned good things for you. Jesus is called ‘the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world’ (Revelation 13:8). Jesus is on our side in the war against sin. He is not standing back, waiting to condemn us at the earliest opportunity. He is for us, he has always been planning for our welfare, he is our cheerleader and he gives us all we need to fight against the lusts and desires of the world.
Thirdly and finally, we are winners. Compare the two statements John makes to those he calls ‘young people’:
I am writing to you, young people,
because you have conquered the evil one. (Verse 13)
I write to you, young people,
because you are strong
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one. (Verse 14)
When our children are having one of their altogether too frequent wars with each other, they insult one another by calling out, ‘Loser!’ And sadly that’s what a lot of us think we are. We don’t see ourselves as winners, but as losers. We know our failures. The idea that we are in any sense winners makes little sense to us. We are conscious of our many failures, and some of us go further, tipping into low self-esteem, practising what someone once called ‘worm theology’ – as if we say, ‘I am only a worm.’ We might see ourselves the way Elvis Costello once described in a song:
I was a fine idea at the time
But now I’m a brilliant mistake.
So talk of being winners in the spiritual life may sound like a foreign language to us. But John says we have conquered the evil one, we are strong, the word of God abides in us and we have overcome the evil one. In other words, whatever mess we have made of our lives, whatever mistakes and failures we can count, whatever disappointments we have caused, the Holy Spirit gives us the tools that can enable us to be winners – to ‘conquer’ or ‘overcome’ the evil one.
What are those tools? They come in our being ‘strong’ and in ‘the word of God [abiding] in [us]’. We have a new strength in that the Gospel is about more than the forgiveness of our sins. The kingdom message is not only that we are forgiven through the Cross of Christ. It is also that we are given power to live differently, because the Holy Spirit lives in us. Therefore, in the face of temptation, we have new resources to call on. When we struggle on our own, we frequently fail. But we are a new creation in Christ, the Spirit of God resides within us, and sometimes what we need to do is call out to the Holy Spirit for help.
We also have the ‘tool’ of ‘the word of God [which] abides in [us]’. The message of the Gospel, encapsulated in the Scriptures, is available to us, just as Jesus used it time and again in the wilderness when he was tempted. One of the things we can do to build up our defences ready to withstand seasons of temptation is to soak ourselves in the Scriptures. Not so much the quickly dashed off reading of the Bible for daily devotions, but taking the time to meditate on the Scriptures and give time for them to soak into us.
All in all, then, we don’t have to face the temptations of worldly lusts and desires with just our own willpower. We face temptation, knowing that it is not about struggling to achieve a certain performance level of holiness, because we are already forgiven. We face it too, in the knowledge that we are known and loved by Jesus and his Father. We cannot earn their love by attaining perfection; rather, we know already they are on our side, full of grace, mercy and love for the broken and the failures. And to our astonishment, we are no longer weak but strong, because the Holy Spirit gives us not only his own power but also unlocks the power of the Scriptures, as we take deliberate steps to store them up in our hearts and minds during our ‘seven years of plenty’ before the spiritual famine comes.
Let us be encouraged, then, that by the grace of God, the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the resources to resist worldly appetites. May we live more closely according to this Good News.
 Marshall, op. cit.. p 140.
Sometimes, you meet someone who longs for change but just keeps defaulting back into the old bad habits. Meet Derek:
“When I grow up, I want to be slim like Sophie, not fat like Louise.”
That was Rebekah (aged six, if you’re new here), at bath-time tonight.
She had said the same during the Easter holidays when she returned from a two-night sleepover.
Six years old and worrying about body image.
The other day, she’d been telling me she was stupid.
“Who tells you you’re stupid?” I enquired, knowing that we might get frustrated with her but we never call her that.
“I do,” was her reply.
So tonight when she came up with the slim versus fat line again, we reinforced all we’d said before (to no avail). The most important things are to know you are loved, and therefore to be happy and want to be healthy. Yes, slim is better than fat, but only if you are loved and happy.
But with it not having worked before, we explained further. Big mistake. We explained about how some get so obsessed with being slim they make themselves ill, and even die.
At this point, Mark starts wobbling and dissolves into tears. “Am I going to die because I’m not eating?” He never eats much when he’s ill (as at present), and we’d totally put the wind up him.
It took a lot of reassurance. No Mark, remember how we’ve been saying that you’re heavier than your sister, even though you’re younger? This sort of thing generally happens to girls. Etc.
I think we got out of jail alive. But were we both devastated to have that effect on our son.
It’s one of our major goals to build up our children’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth, not for any pop psychology reasons, but because we believe that’s a consequence of the Gospel. It’s in creation: we’re made in the image of God. It’s in redemption: God loves us so much he gave up his Son, and even wants to dwell within us by the Holy Spirit. We even build something into our nightly prayer with the kids, where we pray that they will know how much God loves them and we love them, and that this will have a positive effect on them psychologically and spiritually. OK, we don’t quite use that language, but that’s a summary for grown-ups.
In my work as a minister (to which I shall be returning in an active sense on Sunday week), I find there is an epidemic of low self-esteem in our churches. It isn’t just the obvious theological causes, where people have been brought up to live in permanent fear of divine wrath, or with ‘worm theology’ (“I’m just a worm”). There is also the damage so many carry around from various life traumas, not least their upbringing. These damaged people then damage others, both within the church family and in the next generations of their biological families.
And yes, I know that a central component of the Gospel is that it addresses the problem of human sin. And yes, I also know that ‘grace’ makes little sense without an understanding of why we need it. And yes, I’m aware it’s easy to turn talk of God’s love into ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ slogans. But – without losing those things – I want to share all the more the knowledge of a God who is passionately committed in love to his creation, who doesn’t stop with weeping over human sin but who also, in the words of Zephaniah, rejoices and dances over that creation.
Of course, I could be crazy. What say you?