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God Is Light and in Him Is No Darkness at All: On Discerning Divinity


The first Epistle of John begins this way. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”

The vocation of every Christian is to enable others to discern the presence of God, to enable them to live their lives in God’s light. There is no greater challenge than the challenge to answer at any time and at all times the question, “What’s God got to do with it?” And there is no better rule to use in discerning God’s presence than the message of John in his beautiful declaration, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” To apply this rule is to adopt essential wisdom in meeting the two great questions of faith. What does God have to do with the ordinary course of events?  And what does God have to do with evil?

Of course, to apply the rule we must know what is light and John has already told us how to discover that. Turn our eyes upon Jesus. When we look at him we see the anonymous carpenter of Nazareth and Capernaum, the wedding guest in Cana, the protector of fallen women, the benefactor of hungry thousands, the friend of fishermen, the disrupter of funerals, the risen crucified one, the one who is the word of life. Indeed the resurrection of the crucified one tells us that he is the logos from whom all things come. At his word light becomes light.

And what of darkness? An influential answer, the most influential answer in Christian history is that darkness is nothing, the privation of being. But this will not do because darkness at its very worst is eros whose object is violence, violence that aims at nothing, that reduces the other to nothing, that extinguishes the light. We know this because of Jesus’ life and teachings. The darkness literally tried to extinguish the light. There is in addition a less insidious form that darkness takes and that is mindless degeneration – finitude in the form of death. The resurrection is the divine light that exposes the darkness for what it is, the antithesis of him in whom and from whom we live and have our being.

Our lives, lived though they are in God’s light, are nevertheless beset by darkness. And so the first implication of John’s rule for discernment of the divine is that we cannot identify the course of history with the divine will. A particularly important instance of this differentiation of history and the divine will is the impossibility of coming to terms with the facts of natural history by treating that story of violence and death as God’s means to achieve his ends in creation. It is impossible to comprehend natural history this way because God is light and in him is no darkness at all including no darkness in the means he makes his own to achieve his ends. God is at work in all things to achieve his ends, but not all things are his works.

We must continue to pray, as our Lord taught us to do, that God’s will be done on earth because it is not and has not been done here as it is in heaven. And not only must we distinguish the presence of the divine in history from the ordinary course of events; we must also differentiate the divine will from our wills. We cannot identify our agendas and actions with the divine will. Because God is light and in him is not darkness at all.

Nevertheless our lives are only touched by darkness. They are not swallowed up in it. Just as surely as we cannot identify the ordinary course of events or our individual agendas with the divine will, so we cannot conclude that those events and those aims annul the divine will either. Here again our efforts to understand all of history including natural history with and without human life must be informed by John’s declaration regarding the divine. The following false syllogism illustrates failure to obey John’s rule. “If the world is very, very old and human beings share a common ancestor with living primates, then Jesus is dead.” Mere logic should expose the foolishness of such an inference, but John’s dictum supplies yet more certainty that whatever the course of history is and has been, the divine light shines through it all. Since Jesus is alive, whatever else may be historical fact, we can be certain that our labor, as Paul says, is not in vain.

We are able to discern the presence of God in history, in our own history because in Jesus the divine light shines. And because that light is the antithesis of darkness we must not rationalize evil. If we ask, as life and faith compels us to, what does God have to do with evil, with the erotic will to violence, with the mindless degeneration of death, then we can offer only one answer. God is the immutable opponent of evil. How is God related to sin, suffering and death? He is against it. No one has, because no one could explain how what is antithetical to light could be compatible with light. God is light and in him is no darkness at all. That light shines in our lives and the darkness has not overcome it. This is cause for joy.

Daryll Ward attended Andrews University, Tübingen University, and the University of Chicago (where he earned his PhD) and spent many years working in the field of addiction treatment, business ethics, and pastoring. For the last 12 years he has taught theology and ethics at Kettering College. This article is adapted from a speech given to the executive teams of North American Adventist institutions of higher learning who gathered at Kettering College in March 2015.

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