John’s first letter tells us that we are God’s children and that the world is controlled by the evil one. But even more, it tells us how to know Jesus in the midst of this evil so that we might have resurrection life.
We are living in a world that is falling apart. With every measure of progress we make, we take as many steps in reverse. It’s like we are building sandcastles on a beach that the tide will soon consume. Some days we have triumphs, but they are only ever temporary. Always, the tide of bad washes over the good.
We see this in the focus scripture quoted above. John tells us that two things are true. First, we are children of God. Wherever we start from, whatever we’re up against, whatever life throws at us, good or bad – the core, fundamental thing we must come back to again and again is “I am God’s child.” We belong to God, and this is the source of our life.
Secondly, the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We’re at war. While we go about our lives, we have an enemy who plots to steal, kill and destroy. He moves around like a roaring lion, filling the world with lies, despair, pain, grief and evil. The full installation of Jesus Kingdom is still yet to come. As vital as it is to remember we belong to God, we cannot lose sight of this second part. In fact, knowing that the world is at war can bring us comfort because it frees us from the myth that things are supposed to be getting better.
J.R.R. Tolkien writes about the idea of a “Long Defeat” in his series The Lord of the Rings, which is set in a world called Middle-earth. There’s a part where the character Frodo is talking to the elf Galadriel. The elves are immortal. They’ve been around since the dawn of time. And Galadriel explains to Frodo how in that time they have seen the cycle of evil and how it is defeated and then returns again in another form. She says to him about the elves, “Together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” Tolkien also drew this belief from his own life. He said, “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains … some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
We fight the good fight all our lives and still, in the end, death comes for us all. Our planet is on a train headed to destruction and for all our technology and advancement and medicine and progress, we haven’t managed to derail it. We’ve stayed some of it off, but it’s inevitable: we’re still hurtling along to death. It’s one long defeat.
This raises the question: How do we persevere in the long defeat? John answers this in the next verse of the focus scripture: God’s Son has come to us so that we can know the true God. By being in the Son, we are in God, who is eternal life. Being in Jesus while Jesus is in us means that the way to walk the long defeat is to walk it in God. The key to walking the long defeat in a world where the evil one holds power is knowing Jesus.
Three things can help us in this quest of knowing Jesus. First, be a God-watcher. This is like birdwatching, but with spiritual binoculars that help us see what God is up to in the world. Second, find fresh depictions of Jesus. Pick up a new Bible translation to shake you out of your rut or research artwork of Jesus, especially of a not-white-Jesus! And third, Practice Imaginative Prayer, as suggested in Greg’s book Seeing is Believing.
This will help us follow the instruction in 1 John 5:21: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” If something else is taking Jesus’ place in our hearts, it means we’re being lulled to sleep, unaware of the great romance of the covenant love of God. Instead, the goal is to keep Jesus square in our hearts as we look squarely at the evil of the world.
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