The Key Test of Spirituality – 1 John 2:9-11
By: Alistair Brown
Ask people if they can name one ski jumper – someone from that small group of brave (or are they mad?) people who can hurtle down a 100 meter take-off ramp, fly through the air, and then land far below (hopefully with their skis touching down before the rest of their body). Here is my guess: the only name many will come up with is Eddie the Eagle.
Eddie the Eagle is actually Michael Edwards who jumped for the UK in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. No-one could have been a more unlikely ski jumper. Eddie was a plasterer from England who wanted to ski at the highest level. He was actually very good at downhill racing but ran out of money and decided it would be cheaper to do ski jumping. And ski jumping would mean he could qualify for the Olympics because no-one else in the UK wanted to compete.
Eddie still faced lots of challenges. In an interview later with Sports Illustrated Eddie said he was “from a country with no snow, no training facility, no equipment, no history with the sport.” He had at least one other difficulty: Eddie was seriously farsighted and had to wear glasses with ultra-thick lenses, so when he was ski jumping he sometimes couldn’t see anything. His words: “I couldn’t stop them from fogging up when I competed; for three jumps out of the 10 (in Calgary), I was completely blind because my glasses were so fogged up. I tried everything but nothing worked.”
Eddie was a fabulously brave competitor in the Olympics. Unfortunately his courage was not matched by ability and Eddie the Eagle finished dead last in both the 70- and 90-meter jumps. Not long afterwards the Olympics committee enacted new rules which meant no-one in the future could compete without a proven high level of ability. Eddie became much loved, though. One writer said Eddie “soared like a brick into the hearts of Olympic fans across the world,” and for decades afterwards Eddie has continued to be a celebrity.
Evidence of being a man with great ambition and a great heart? Yes.
Evidence of being a top ski jumper? No.
John – writing in his first letter – makes it very clear that big boasts, big desires and even big courage are not enough to prove spirituality. There has to be evidence that this Christian faith has taken deep root and is showing in day by day choices to love others.
1 John 2:9-11
9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 10 Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.
John makes two things clear in these verses.
- What you do defines your spiritual status.
Status is someone’s position or rank. It’s where they stand, or where they belong. In my earliest school years, the teacher seated us according to how well we did in tests. The very best children were allowed to be right at the back; those who did worst in her tests were at the front where she could watch them. Where you were put – back row, front row, or a middle row – was your place, your status, in that class.
John is talking about status in that sense, about where you belong, but he’s thinking (almost literally) in black and white terms about people’s spiritual status. Are they living in darkness or are they living in the light?
The answer – the evidence – lies in what they do. Their actions show whether they are in darkness or in light.
The movie Gosford Park is a murder mystery set in an English country house, where the aristocratic family gather for a weekend of hunting with special guests. One of those guests is an American movie producer who arrives with his valet named Henry Denton. Denton speaks with an odd Scottish accent, and his actions seem strange to the staff “below stairs.” He seems awkward. Sometimes he is in the wrong place; sometimes he says the wrong things; sometimes what he does is not quite right for a valet. The staff soon reach the conclusion he’s not really a valet.
And they’re right. Denton is, in fact, an actor, brought along by the movie producer to learn firsthand what a valet does and what goes on in the staff halls below stairs so that later Denton can play the part of a valet in a film the producer is working on.
The below stairs staff knew very quickly that Denton wasn’t for real. He looked like a valet and said he was a valet but he wasn’t able to do the work of a valet. What he did revealed who he really was – just an actor.
That’s what the apostle John is saying. People can claim anything about themselves, but what they do shows who they really are and where they stand spiritually. Are they living in darkness or in the light? Their actions reveal their status.
Therefore, John says, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light” (1 John 1: 9-10).
Around the Christians of John’s day were people who claimed their knowledge or spiritual experiences gave them spiritual status. What they had learned, their enlightenment, gave them access to deep spirituality and the salvation of their souls. John rejected those claims completely.
In our day people still claim that inward or outward insights or experiences are all they need. They have had a wonderful spiritual blessing. They exercise remarkable spiritual gifts. They can describe a dramatic conversion experience. They’ve gained some deep spiritual knowledge.
John would ask: “But do they love or hate their brother or sister? Leave aside all other questions because only one matters: do they love or loathe their fellow Christians?” The answer defines their spiritual status. No matter the claims they make, or the experiences they’ve had, or the learning they’ve acquired, it’s how they live and especially whether they love others that establishes whether they’re living in darkness or in light.
- Your spiritual status determines whether you will live life rightly.
Some years ago I was out in open country, far away from any towns and any street lights. It was night and dark but all I had to do was walk 100 yards from a farmhouse to the small vacation home where I was staying. But there were no lights on at either the farmhouse or my vacation home, and I had no flashlight, and the moon and the stars were hidden by clouds. It was not just dark, it was very dark.
I managed a few yards, and knew from the hard surface under my feet that I was standing on the road but I could see nothing. I remembered there was a white line down the middle of that road, so I looked down for it. Nothing. Even if I’d got on my hands and knees I would not have seen that white line. I could feel my feet but I couldn’t see them.
When there is no light of any kind, darkness is very, very dark indeed. I almost crawled back to the vacation home, terrified I’d fall in a ditch or pothole. I could not see anything.
With the light, John says, people don’t stumble. But “anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them” (1 John 2:11).
John’s message: they can’t see where they are meant to go. They don’t know God, his will, or the values of his kingdom because they’re blind – blind to how to live rightly or choose rightly.
From the mid-18th century to mid-20th century, down in mines coal was dragged along lengthy underground shafts away from the coal face by ponies.
It was difficult to lower ponies down mines, so mine owners had stables underground where the ponies were kept permanently. The conditions were poor and the work was hard. Ponies had short lives of only about three and a half years. They lived in near darkness all the time. Before long most went blind. Maybe coal dust caused damage; maybe it was because they were in permanent darkness, but their eyesight failed. After that, even if they had been brought up to the surface they couldn’t have found their way around. The darkness had made them blind.
Those who live in darkness are blinded by it, says John. They don’t know where they are going. Their spiritual status – darkness – means they are doomed to stumble in this life. They cannot see and therefore cannot fulfil the life God intended.
John writes these two things to warn the Christians around him not to be lured away by those who claim great spiritual status but their lives contradict the claim. He could not be clearer: it’s what you do that defines your spiritual status, and it’s that status which will mean you can or can’t live as God intended.
Many years ago I worked for fifteen months in a local government office. I got on well with most of my colleagues, but two older men were unpleasant people. They were consistently mean. One worked near me and criticized and condemned everyone around him. The other was in management, and often made harsh decisions and showed little care for those in his department.
I was the young Baptist trying to be a good Christian witness in that place. Those two mean old men were the other two Baptists. No-one respected them and no-one liked them, and I could see why. Both were leaders in their churches. Both seemed to know their Bibles very well. But they didn’t seem to love each other nor care for anyone else who worked there. It was sad and damaging for the kingdom.
John would not be impressed. He would say that no matter how much knowledge or spiritual experience those men had, they did not love their brother or sister, so don’t listen to them; don’t follow their spiritual direction or their example.
Our age is not short of those who boast they have found the secret of successful Christian living. And we’re not short of new spiritual gurus who claim miracles or life-changing spiritual experiences. When I was the pastor of a local church, I dreaded the next Christian superhero to hit town, knowing the havoc that would follow as people rushed to the meetings, frightened they might miss out on secret insights or wonder experiences.
For John the key test is not what people know or blessings they can hand on, it’s about what they do. Do they love others? Do their lives show a loving, merciful, self-sacrificing Christlikeness? If not, forget everything else. Those people have yet to move out of darkness into the light.