In the 16th chapter of John, the apostle quotes our Lord as follows: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me you might have peace. In the world you shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” There is a special blessing in this Dominican saying for every one of the Master’s disciples. It is an offer of peace in him and good cheer. His offer is as surely available today as it was when he first spoke it to those original disciples. The peace and good cheer that he offers is grounded in his victory – over the world.
Jesus’ promise is in the context of what he had said to his disciples. “These things I have spoken to you,” he said. Intriguingly the thing he told them was that he was going away and where he was going they could not follow. John places this announcement, that Jesus is departing, at the close of chapter 13 of his Gospel where it forms the conclusion to his narration of the last supper. Immediately having announced his departure and the impossibility of his disciples accompanying him, Jesus speaks this indispensable assurance. “Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come again and receive you unto myself that where I am there you may be also.”
The assurance opening John 14 is indispensable because if the peace Jesus offers is complete now, then it is peace that is indifferent to the tribulation of the world. But that is precisely what his peace is not. The peace Jesus offers is the peace of expectation, not the peace of resignation. In the world, we have tribulation – as we are all very well aware. And yet Jesus offers peace even as he is leaving his disciples in the world. He offers us peace even as we live in the world. I have overcome the world he says.
His victory over the world is both a gift and a demand. It is a gift in that we know that whatever the losses we suffer from the world they are but temporary defeats in a struggle that has already been decided in Christ’s favor. It is a demand in that we must not exhibit the ways of the world. Paul put this well. Do not be conformed to this world. Do not let the world squeeze you into its mold. Do not take the side that has been vanquished by Jesus.
The forces that would squeeze us into the world’s mold are formidable. Their weight presses down on us daily.
And what is this mold? An appetite for power, especially the power to dominate. It was the world in the mother of James and John that sent her to Jesus asking for privilege for her sons. Jesus responded, “You know that the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you.” Unfortunately, far too often, it is so among us. You regularly find people who want to control your activities, who want to dictate your choices, in the worst case simply for the sake of control and for no other purpose. We have a lord who has conquered the world and therefore we are free not to lord it over others.
Besides its appetite for power, the world is contemptuous of the truth. The world actually loves a lie. It loves a lie because lies are powerful. An appetite for power readily joins with contempt for the truth. Neil Sheehan’s history of the Vietnam War carries the title, A Bright Shining Lie. Sheehan tells the story of the war through the experiences of John Paul Vann. By all accounts Vann was a superb military tactician and eluded apparently certain death an astonishing number of times giving him an aura of invincibility to his troops. He was also a consummate liar. Sheehan’s title comes from a phrase Vann’s wildly promiscuous mother bequeathed to him. She thought few things as precious as a bright shining lie.
Our Adventist commitment to education is especially daunting at this moment in our culture because the very institutions we expect to serve as guardians of the truth are profoundly despairing of our ability to discover and preserve it. Richard Rorty, author of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, has famously said that science is anything your colleagues will let you get away with and he is not talking about the humanities. He is talking about physics and every other intellectual pursuit. His pragmatist relativism can count few believers in the “hard sciences” but his number is legion when considering psychology or history or law or art or worst of all ethics. To lose the truth is to lose the ability to lie. To lose the truth is to lose the one power the weak have that is capable of resisting worldly (i.e. unrighteous) power. Surely it is the appetite for power that must ultimately be charged with the enmity to the truth that permeates so much of the world of learning.
Whenever I hear the mantras of “post-modernism” parroted by way of demanding obeisance to the contemporary western mind, I want to point out that Socrates already firmly grasped the fallibility of our moral intuitions and Thrasymachus had propounded the notion that might makes right more than two millennia before the patron saint of post-modernism, Nietzsche, drew his first breath. Struggle as we must against this culture of despair and deceit we may nevertheless be at peace because our Lord has overcome the world. In him we know the truth and it does indeed set us free.
Finally the world is the system of self-preservation. When self-preservation is the end we pursue, we have been squeezed into the world’s mold. Self-defense exculpates killing our fellow human beings – we believe. The selfie is the icon of our day. In an article titled “Christ and Nothing,” David Hart writes of the Church’s war with the world, “It seems to me much easier to convince a man that he is in thrall to demons and offer him manumission than to convince him that he is a slave to himself and prisoner to his own will. Here is a god more elusive, protean and indomitable than either Apollo or Dionysus;…And it is this god, I think, against whom the First Commandment calls us now to struggle.” We must recognize that “the world” in this sense is inescapable because we as selves are the world, the world that seeks to preserve itself at all costs. Fully grasped, it is a horrifying thought. Our Lord taught us to lose our lives in order to find them and then he practiced what he taught. This is his ultimate triumph over the world.
Let us remember Jesus’ promise then, most especially when the church apes the world as, sadly, it all too often does. We do not need power, because he is omnipotent. We do not need to cling to error, because he is the truth. We do not need to defend ourselves because in losing ourselves we are set free.
My prayer is that the Lord will envelop us in his peace that we may cheerfully advance his victory over the world, renouncing power, error and self, in service to his love and beauty.
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.