In an era of constricting options and diminishing expectations, many wonder how to achieve a truly satisfying life, or indeed, if such a hope is still possible. Perusing the tabloids at the grocery checkout suggest that celebrity or wealth are not sure-fire answers, if they ever were. Competing self-help authors peddle a spectrum of entry-points, but you could spend many lifetimes pursuing them and still not be satisfied.
In the face of so many confusing choices, many are left wondering, “What should I do?” What if the answer was, “Nothing!”
- “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (New Revised Standard Version)
- “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (New International Version)
- “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” (New Living Translation)
- “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” (The Message)
Jesus’ promise to you and me (John 10:10) expressed in all these ways is quite simple: he offers us an abundant life. Yet much is hidden within it, beneath it, and around this promise.
A genuinely abundant life is never something we achieve; rather, it’s something we receive. We receive it as an OVERFLOW from God to us. Consider these quick initial descriptions of this overflow:
- God is the source of all good, from the beauty of a sunset to the stimulation of our senses by a cool breeze or a good meal. “Every good and perfect gift comes from God.”
- God is the source of all power, from the initial Big Bang to the power hidden within the atom. “All things hold together in him.”
- God is the source that sustains our lives, from our next breath to the intellectual and emotional power to learn and grow, create and work. In God we “live and move and have our being.”
- God is the source of all love. “We love because God first loved us.”
- God is the source of all forgiveness, all second chances, all grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” (Eph. 2:8,9)
Let me point out that this overflow is not restricted to those who believe in God. God lavishes his ‘common grace’ on all people—believers and non-believers alike. “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Thus, all humans daily share (and take for granted) at least a portion of the overflow of God’s goodness which enriches all our lives.
Those who do believe and wish to follow Jesus are promised something more: “rivers of living water” (John 7:38), the overflow of God’s own Spirit residing deep within them. For those who follow Jesus, much of the quality living the Bible describes is “riding the wave” of this overflow. So, when and how does this overflow begin? Today’s post will explore this question.
The Bible’s Trajectory
When I was in 7th grade, I became fascinated with rocketry. A few friends and I created our own rocket society called SOAR, which stood for Society Organized for Advancement of Rocketry. Sounds very junior high, doesn’t it? From catalogs marketed to kids like us, we ordered rockets made of cardboard tubes and glued on balsa wood tail fins. Most of our time went into painting and decorating them, then applying the decal letters S.O.A.R to the side of the tubes (just like NASA). Solid propellant engines ignited by an electrical launching pad would blast them quite high for a few seconds, then a little parachute popped out of the nose cone. We’d run for blocks tracking the parachute as it fluttered back to earth.
During my days with SOAR, I learned one basic truth about rockets—trajectory is everything. Only a few degrees difference angled this way or that during launch means running many extra blocks down range. (I’m sure NASA engineers can state this more eloquently.)
Not only rockets have trajectories. So do stories. In literature, the trajectory is called the narrative arc: the story takes off in the first chapter, travels along a hemispherical arc and lands in the final chapter.
Scripture has such a narrative arc. It has a beginning—the story of creation in Genesis. It has a middle—the stories of Israel in the Old Testament and Jesus Christ and his church in the New Testament. And it has an ending—a new heaven and new earth in the book of Revelation.
One way we might understand narrative arc is the idea of overflow. Creation itself begins as the overflow of the being of God. The Old Testament narrates God’s creative love as it flows through the history of Israel. The overflow reaches its headwaters in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It continues to spread across time and space as the coming Kingdom of God, finally reaching fulfillment in a new creation.
Creation as Overflow?
The early chapters of Genesis were never intended to be a scientific description of the universe. No, Genesis is a narrative, a story, that, like all ancient near-eastern creation stories, answers a most basic question: “Who is God?”
During the time Genesis was being written, most near-eastern creation stories explained creation as the result of an epic battle between different gods of good and evil, like the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic. Genesis radically departs from this model. It asserts that there is only one good God who makes everything according to his perfect will. And Genesis never tires of telling us about different aspects of creation: “…and it was good.”
More relevant to our thinking are ancient Greek views of creation. Because nothing could come from nothing, Greek philosophers believed the universe had always existed, whether as chaotic material shaped into order by a demigod (Plato) or an always existing orderly cosmos (Aristotle).
A particularly important idea was the Neo-Platonic view (a few centuries after Plato) first advocated by Plotinus (205-270 AD). Creation flows out of the divine being, the way light emanates from a candle or a stream flows out of its spring. Thus, creation is the overflow of God’s being into what we find around us.
But here we encounter a major problem. If creation is an overflow in the way the Neo-Platonists saw it, God is a part of the universe and the universe is part of God. This is pantheism, the belief that God actually exists within the world itself.
Consider the film Avatar (2009) set on the distant planet Pandora, where the alien society is “one” with the life force underpinning reality. In the movie’s climax, the aliens join hands to spiritually connect with this life-force around the sacred tree that is its source and symbol, thereby empowering the resurrection of the movie’s hero. This is classic pantheism, a staple of New Age spirituality.
In a world where religion is often seen as the problem, the alternative of a unifying God-force has great appeal. No doctrine, no demands, no need for moral choices. Simply a life-spirit with whom people the world over can get “in tune” and live in peace.
However, the God we meet in Genesis is NOT such a life-spirit interpenetrating the rocks and trees around us. God is not part of creation at all. God exists outside—or independent of—creation.
One way theologians describe this difference is that there is an ontological difference between God and the universe. Ontological comes from the Greek word “ontos,” which refers to being. Thus, there is a difference in being between God and the universe.
Think of two ducks—a real duck and duck decoy made out of wood. How are they different? One is living, the other is not. That’s an ontological difference. They exist in different orders of being—alive and not alive. In the same way, God exists as a completely different order of being outside of time and space.
In fact, there WAS no time or space until God created it. Theologians call this creation ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing. God had nothing to work with or shape into the universe; even time and space did not exist until God created them. Neither was the universe empty, for “empty” is already a spatial category.
Cornelius Plantinga Jr. in Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning and Living describes it well:
“What this means is that God used no pre-existing forms or materials distinct from his own mind. God is the absolute originator, bringing finite existence into reality from nothing but his sovereign imagination and grace. God and his world are really distinct. The world is not a piece of God or a part of God.”
The Big Bang theory universally accepted by modern science agrees exactly with this biblical view and disagrees with the Greek view. The universe has not always existed but began in a moment of unimaginable power, the Big Bang. Science can tell us much about what happened at that moment—even give us an idea of when it occurred—but cannot penetrate behind it. Science has no idea what caused the Big Band to happen.
Overflow and the Trinity
Thus, the biblical trajectory is far different from any ancient creation narratives. God existed before anything else came into being. God had no need to create. God was complete, whole and joyful, lacking nothing, in the relationship of mutual love shared among Father, Son and Spirit.
The Trinity is one of those biblical ideas we usually put on the back shelf because it will always remain a mystery to us. Ancient theologians used a composite word to describe the Trinity, combining “peri” meaning “around” (think: perimeter) and “choresis” meaning “dance” (think: choreography).
Perichoresis literally means “to dance around.” Imagine the divine interchange of three partners who together create a dance so intricate and fast-moving in its swirling beauty that each partner is lost in the dance itself. Plantinga again:
“God has the endless dance of perichoresis, the ceaseless exchange of vitality, the infinite expense of spirit upon spirit in superlative, triplicate consciousness. To speak plainly, from eternity God has had a communal life and didn’t need to create a world to get one. Nothing internal or external to God compelled him to create.”
What does this mean? In the relationship of three in one within the Trinity, God has such a rich, overflowing life of relationship within God’s self that this life and vitality just overflows in creation. Daniel Migliore in Faith Seeking Understanding writes:
“In the act of creation, God already manifests the self-communicating, other-affirming, communion-forming love that defines God’s eternal triune reality…God is eternally disposed to create, to give and share life with others. The welcome to others that is rooted in the triune life of God spills over, so to speak, in the act of creation.”
A friend’s recent blog post describing his experience of the recent total solar eclipse moved me. It sounded amazing! I’m making it a priority to experience it myself when it happens again in 2024.
For him, the power of the experience was the depth of God’s glory it unveiled. It’s so easy to take God for granted. Sometimes nature itself has to remind us with a tiny glimpse of God’s power and glory always around us.
An eclipse reminds us of the radical worldview Copernicus set in motion in the 15th century: the earth orbits the sun, the sun does not circle the earth. For those of us who live as though everything depends on us, the realization of this overflowing God who offers us abundance can be a personal Copernican revolution! It has been for me.
We do nothing to create or achieve an abundant life. It is the by-product of God’s sustaining power and creative love flowing into and through us to nourish our own creative, loving human living.
Here’s the point. God’s love, power and grace do not orbit around my earnest efforts to be a good disciple. Rather, I can live each day moving within the gravitational pull of the God who offers a genuine abundant life as a free gift.