I had a powerful encounter with today’s Daily Office reading. The gospel reading was John 17, one of the most beautiful prayers in the Bible that Jesus prays immediately before being taken into custody. I’ve read this prayer dozens of times at least. But this time the third verse stopped me completely in my tracks: This is eternal life: that they may know you the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.
This is the only place that I know of where Jesus lays down a straightforward definition of eternal life. He gets asked about it a lot; he references it a fair amount, but here he defines it. Christians in the last fifty years have made “eternal life” into a phrase that simply means going to the good place when you die while “eternal torment” means going to the bad place when you die. We need to make it part of a punishment/reward system or a market exchange. We want to know exactly how much it costs and whether God takes plastic or not.
But it’s not something that can be bought. Not by a sinner’s prayer. Not by a perfectly recited catechism. Not by adopting a set of behavioral practices that retroactively prove you “got saved” some time in the past. Not by demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have “faith” and are “regenerate.” Eternal life cannot be bought because it’s not a market-based product as much as Christians want to make it into one. Eternal life is not a reward for knowing God, because the reward is the knowing.
When we know God, our life is eternal. The more that we know God, the more eternal our life is. We truly live when we encounter the world around us as the masterpiece of a Creator who love us instead of a randomly cobbled together system that nobody watches or cares about. When you know God, He speaks to you from everything. God can make the ugliest vacation spot in the world saturated with beauty. The absence of God can make the most pristine beach in the Caribbean a hot, restless world of anguish.
If John 17:3 is the definition of eternal life, it should shape how we think and talk about what salvation is and how to pursue it. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins makes it possible for us to approach God without shame. It takes away the need to wear masks and lie to ourselves. But simply saying, “Cool. Thank Jesus. I accept your sacrifice,” isn’t going to cause a cash register to open and an eternal life token to pop out. No way. It’s just the means of starting a journey of friendship with God. If we are pursuing something else as our god, whether it’s our career, our personal comfort, an addiction, or even a good cause, then we’re not going to get very far in knowing God.
What if we compare our relationships with God to a marriage? Just like a marriage, it can turn into a mostly platonic business partnership in which we try to figure out what our duties are and perform them to the best of our abilities and then apologize over and over and over again because we always fail and then get resentful about feeling guilty and pout about it. That’s how my relationship with God is a lot of the time. In a marriage, you can’t just willpower yourself instantaneously into feeling romantic again; the romance has to be reestablished over time paying attention to the love languages that you both speak. You have to search for a spark that jump-starts your romance so that you can feel an electricity in the air and get goosebumps over somebody you’ve heard fart several hundred times. Maybe it’s the same way with God.
What would it look like to think about the things we do to get close to God kind of like the things we do to get back the spark in our marriages? In other words, not having a frantic checklist and ambitious goals for how many paragraphs in devotional books you will be able to underline in the course of an hour. But somehow finding the equivalent of taking God to the Italian restaurant you went to on your first date and running around the car to open the door. Or going to the bed-and-breakfast in a small town. Or writing little sticky notes that say I love you and leaving them on God’s steering wheel. The thing that makes it easier with God than a marriage between two fallible, messy people is that God never loses His spark. In fact, He’s using all sorts of subtle tactics to win our hearts back all the time. But we need to pursue Him in order to regain our own spark.
Finding eternal life in your relationship with God is like the equivalent of that moment when you’re at a party with your wife and she’s walking over to you from across the room and she smiles and you think, “Wow! She’s so hot. How did I ever get her?” In fact, those moments of beauty themselves can radiate eternal life when we are able to see them as the personal gifts of a Creator who is madly in love with us.
So if you want eternal life in your relationship with God, then don’t settle for the marriage license. Pursue it. Don’t get caught up in stupid idols or shameful activities that cause you to be unable to spit out more than awkward, fake banter that doesn’t fool either of you when you pray. Be real. Be romantic. At least that’s what I’m going to try to do. And my hope is that if I’m extravagant and imaginative in my pursuit of knowing God, the eternal life I gain will spill over into all the other relationships of my life as well.