Life to the Full
Last night I spent some time with a group of young adults discussing John 10:10 and what it means to have “life to the full.” What is Jesus promising in this passage? Is it just a spiritual thing? Is he referring to eternal life? A quality or character of life on this earth? What does it mean to say that Jesus came that we might have “life to the full” in a world where so many (including Jesus’ own followers) suffer tremendously? Is fullness related to our material lot in life? How? And, more personally, how “full” are our lives really? Is there a notable quality to our lives that is absent in those who pay no heed to Christ? It was a very interesting conversation…
After last night’s discussion, I was very intrigued to read this piece by Pico Iyer in the “Happy Days” blog (a blog designed, evidently, to help people through the current financial crisis) from this morning’s New York Times. The post is called “The Joy of Less,” and in it, the author talks about how he has come to appreciate a life of simplicity and contentment far from the frantic activity and anxiety that characterizes the lives of so many in the western world:
I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people—and my heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.
Like almost everyone I know, I’ve lost much of my savings in the past few months. I even went through a dress-rehearsal for our enforced austerity when my family home in Santa Barbara burned to the ground some years ago, leaving me with nothing but the toothbrush I bought from an all-night supermarket that night. And yet my two-room apartment in nowhere Japan seems more abundant than the big house that burned down. I have time to read the new John le Carre, while nibbling at sweet tangerines in the sun. When a Sigur Ros album comes out, it fills my days and nights, resplendent. And then it seems that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued.
I don’t know if Iyer thinks of the character of his life in Jesus’ terms or not (his spirituality seems eclectic, to say the least), but I obviously think he is describing a life characterized by a measure of “fullness.” Learning not only to do with less because of circumstances beyond our control, but to embrace a life of simplicity as a fundamental recognition of how we are wired as human beings seems like an important part of what it means to have life “to the full.” It’s a theme that resounds throughout the gospels (if not the lives of many Christians). A full life doesn’t come by reading a slickly packaged 10-step program to becoming/discovering your potential; it doesn’t come by learning a set of self-help techniques; it doesn’t come via comfort and material prosperity; and, though I’m hardly well-qualified to pronounce upon this, it doesn’t even seem to come from a life free from hardship.
Fundamentally, a full life isn’t the result of a life that is “filled up”—whether it is filled with stuff, activities, accomplishments, strategies, or even people. The full life that Jesus describes is at least partly characterized by a reorientation of our dispositions—towards God, others, ourselves, and creation. A full life is one in which we are oriented properly in these four directions, where each of these orientations have moved away from being defined primarily with reference to the self and its desires. I think that wise people have always known—or at least been on the path to discovering—that the fullest lives are those that have learned the value of emptying.