In John 10:27 Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” Eternal life in John’s Gospel is as much about quality of life as quantity of life. It is not merely life without end; it involves a particular kind of life that is without end.
This Gospel offers a rather simple, but profound explanation of what it means by eternal life. In John 17:3 we read: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” From the perspective of the Johannine community, eternal life is knowing God and Jesus Christ whom God sent into the world.
This “knowing” is not simply knowing about, it is not information based knowledge. It is intimate knowing, experiential knowing, relational knowing, intuitive knowing; it is deep, innate, inner, spiritual knowing.
Faith, of course, is vital in nurturing this kind of kind of knowing. It is critically important, however, to understand that faith includes both belief and trust, but these two aspects of faith are not the same thing. We enter into an intimate knowing of God, not through belief, but through trust, through a living faith. When John’s gospel issues a call to believe it is actually calling the reader to trust, not simply give intellectual adherence to certain beliefs.
What we believe, however, is important. What we give mental assent to, the way we imagine and think about God, the ideas, perceptions, and images we have about God can be helpful or harmful to this process of actually knowing God. What we believe about God greatly impacts our capacity to trust God.
For example, if one images a God poised over the smite button ready to smite us for our sins, if one thinks of God threatening us with eternal torture, then frankly I can’t imagine why anyone would be drawn to such a God. How could you trust or love that kind of God?
So what we believe about God makes a difference. This is why in the first book I wrote, The Good News According to Jesus, I have an entire chapter on “Imagining God.” And what can be said about our beliefs about God can also be said about the religious systems wherein we develop these beliefs.
Unhealthy religion sets up roadblocks and fosters a false confidence and security that actually prevents us from knowing God. Toxic religion disguises our wants and desires, dressing them up so they look holy, but are still rooted in the ego and saturated with selfish ambition. Unhealthy religion blinds us to our real motives and intentions. We call our sins holy. We think we want God, but what we really want is power and control and to feel morally superior.
Good, healthy religion leads us into an intimate relationship with God. It provides some boundaries and guidelines that help us get to know God and experience God in the inner self where God resides. It provides a context that inspires a genuine desire for God and one that is conducive to hearing and following the inner voice of the Spirit/the living Christ.
For Christians the voice of God is the voice of the living Christ. We see God through the lens of Jesus. The only way to hear the voice of the living Christ is by spending time with Christ. One has to invest time with Christ to be able to discern the voice of Christ.
John Ortburg tells about a friend of the family who became really upset when her daughter told her that someone at school had been talking to her about God. This woman wanted nothing to do with God, or so she thought, and didn’t want her daughter to have anything to do with God. That night, however, she couldn’t sleep. For some reason around midnight she got up, went downstairs, and picked up a Bible. She couldn’t remember the last time she had even held a Bible, let alone read one.
When she opened it she noticed it was divided between an “old” part and a “new” part. She decided to start with the new part. So, in the still of the night she began to read the Gospel of Matthew. By the time she had finished all the Synoptic Gospels and was half-way through the Gospel of John, she realized that, in her words, “she had fallen in love with the character of Jesus.” She said a prayer: “God, I don’t know what I am doing, but I know you are what I want.” This marked the beginning of her spiritual journey.
A spiritual life begins with desire. One must want to know God in order to know God. I suggest spending time in the Gospels—reading, meditating, reflecting, questioning, probing, pondering—until one falls in love with the character of Jesus. If you invest time with Christ, you just may be irresistibly drawn to him.
To know God intimately is to experience real, meaningful, abundant life—eternal life. It’s all about intimacy of relationship—a deep, inner, intuitive knowing, connecting, communing, and cooperating with the living Christ who loves us more than we love ourselves.