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The Light of the World
A Meditation on the Trinity for Spiritual Abuse Survivors
Why does John’s Gospel begin the way it does? And how is that relevant for spiritual abuse survivors? This week’s Theology & Therapy post is a meditation on the Trinity for those healing from spiritual abuse. It’s heavy on the theology, but with an aim for therapy. I encourage readers to go slow and take time to let the quotes from the Gospel of John sink in.
If I could only recommend one book on the doctrine of the Trinity it would be Fred Sanders’ The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything. The title is of course a claim, which the book persuasively articulates and defends. But in this week leading up to Trinity Sunday I find myself wondering, is that really true? Everything?
This question is situated in my ongoing study of spiritual abuse healing through the Trinity in the Gospel of John. Many of my previous reflections center on the experience and perception of the healed blind man as one who was spiritual abused. But obviously John’s Gospel doesn’t start there. When Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), one implication is that in order to really understand the Good Shepherd discourse of John 10, we need to go back to John 1. Jesus reminds us of the glorious, mysterious reality with which John started his gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
The question I have is, how is that revelation of the identity of the incarnate Son Jesus Christ relevant to spiritual abuse survivors? Before answering that, though, hear this wise caution from Sanders:
“It may seem counterintuitive to start so far back in the divine mystery of God's own being, if the goal is to change lives. The cry in our day always seems to be for a practical doctrine of the Trinity, for relevance, application, and experiential payoff. Indeed, it is true that the doctrine of the Trinity changes everything about Christian life. But the wisest Christian teachers have always known that shortcuts to relevance are self-defeating. In bypassing the deep sources of reality, they not only miss the truth but ultimately deliver less practical benefit.”1
In light of that caution, let’s phrase the question differently: why does John begin his gospel in the way he does? John, more than any other evangelist, moves from the earthly life of Jesus to peer back into the hidden life of God.2
One simple answer is that the Spirit wanted him to because the sons and daughters of God (along with those yet to be born again) would only be encouraged, supported, comforted and transformed by knowing this Jesus. Not merely knowing the fact of Jesus’ divinity, but knowing him as the divine-human Son.
In theological language, knowledge of Jesus’ life in the immanent Trinity, God in himself, is not abstract doctrine. Apart from such knowledge, our acquaintance with Jesus the Good Shepherd will sound like a fantasy. How, really, can a man from 2,000 years ago have anything to do with healing from the trauma of church abuse? Can spiritual abuse survivors find hope in a mere human being who said,
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10)?
When we read that “the Word was with God” and that “in him was life”, we are invited to contemplate the inner life of God. Life is in the Son with the fullest possible metaphysical weight such a word can carry. It is abundant life, joy, light, delight. Or in language from Romans 9:5, the triune life of God in himself is blessed life forever.
Here is Sanders again:
“But we have also said that the eternal life of God in himself is something "even better than the good news," if it is possible to say so reverently. What we mean by this is that God's eternal life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a thing of infinite blessedness and perfection. There is a blessed God at the core of the glorious gospel. God in himself is perfect, and perfectly happy. Being perfect, he cannot essentially improve. Susanna Wesley told us that God is "perfect essential blessedness," a being "that cannot possibly receive any accession of perfection or happiness from his creatures." He can make happiness and blessedness available to those creatures because he always already has it. This vision of a God with no unmet needs is a glimpse of the depths of the living God and the fund out of which he spends himself so freely in the economy of salvation.”3
This is the life that is the light of mankind, the light from “the infinite depth within the being of God, that ocean whose tide is the missions of the Son and Spirit by which lost creatures are redeemed and perfected.”4 It is this infinite unbounded light which shines in the darkness, even the darkness of spiritual abuse and church trauma. For Jesus, speaking into the blindness of a corrupted, abusive religious community, proclaims,
“I am the Light of the world” (John 9:5).
The light offered spiritual abuse survivors by words of an ancient text can appear dim, minuscule, mere pinpricks of light from a galaxy far, far away. What I believe the Spirit wants hurting sheep to remember is that, though it looks so far away, the source of that Light is in reality the brilliantly bright and burning Sun of righteousness. Starlight is in actuality the effulgence of gases burning at tens of thousands of degrees Fahrenheit (the surface temperature of our sun is roughly 9,900 degrees F).5
Just so, the light of the Son revealed in Scripture is actually the infinite brightness of the consuming fire of the Triune God.
It is a Light which can expose the deeds of darkness:
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” (John 3:19-20, cf John 1:5)
It is a burning brightness which calls wicked shepherds to account:
Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” (John 9:39-41)
It is a Light which outshines even the brightest star:
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:23)
It is only from the infinite, blessed life of the Triune God that such glorious light can shine. The Light who is the Good Shepherd is “God overall, blessed forever” (Romans 9:5).
In calling survivors to this hope in the deep ground of the gospel I’m still aware that such words can sound as important as nighttime stars in the age of GPS: pretty, but of little to no practical use. Perhaps that gap between truth and comfort is, in part at least, due to the gap between present and future reality. If Jesus is the Light of the world, why does our world still look so dark? Why are spiritual abuse survivors repeatedly left in the darkness of lies, deceit, cover-up, shunning, institutional loyalty at the expense of safety and justice, and sometimes even the darkness of suicide? How does one offer hope from the light of the Trinity into situations which feel trapped in the “hour and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53, NASB)?
John offers an answer to that dilemma in his first letter:
At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. (1 John 2:8)
In the already-not-yet of Christ’s ascended rule, we experience “already light” in the midst of “passing darkness.” This “already shining” light comes from God in eternity, but from our perspective in time it is a light from the future—a light from the not-yet fully realized reign of God on earth. And that is why we must look not only to the mission of the Son but also to the mission of the Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not an academic exercise. It is truth for contemplation, meditation and prayer, which means it is for every Christian. Those spiritual disciplines are no less work because they are not academic. Nevertheless, the hope comes not from the discipline but from the Spirit:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)
It is the Spirit who brings the seemingly distant light of the Son in Scripture to warm our hearts with the love of God (Romans 5:5). The Father and the Son sent the Spirit to bring the light of the Trinity closer and to shine brighter than even Jesus himself shone when he was on earth. For, as Jesus teaches us, the Spirit “dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:17).
The Light of the Trinity, the glory of the divine-human Son, is not distant but near, as near as the heart within your chest; or as Augustine attested, “more intimately present to [us] than [our] inmost being.”6 His Light is a free and blessed light, unconquered by the darkness of abuse, trauma, sin and shame. You can pray to this Spirit, and ask him to shine in the darkness, to “be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”7
Sometimes it is a spiritual light, warming your soul with a measure of peace while all around you remains dark and unchanged. Sometimes it is light from other brothers and sisters who hold their candles of hope high when your arms are heavy and falling. Sometimes it is a physical light, reminding you of the Son’s brightness. Each day the sun rises anew is a reminder that Jesus is still on the throne. When you feel the sun’s warmth on your face and skin, pause to soak in that sensation. Let it fill your imagination with hope for the lasting warmth of God’s nearness to you in Christ by his indwelling Spirit.
Quote from Diane Langberg
Light exposes the truth.
It exposes beauty and horror. Clean and filthy. And truth always calls what is exposed by its right name.
To cover-up or even slightly shade, deceive or rename anything the light exposes is ungodly.8
The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, by Fred Sanders.
Where is Jesus shining in your life right now? In what ways do you see rays, however small, of the infinite brightness of God’s Son?
The Deep Things of God, p. 100.
“[W]hat is said about the Logos in vss. 1-4 is directly applied to what one can call the great content of this Gospel, that is, to Christ’s appearance as the light of the world in its confrontation with the darkness (cf. 8:12; 3:19f.; 9:5; 12:35, all passages in which the core concepts of 1:4, 5 return)...[I]n vss. 1-4 that describe the preexistence and essence of the Word that was antecedent to all existence and experience have their point and meaning in that they reveal the grand background of the actual situation of proclamation in which the Evangelist and the Christian community know themselves to be: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it.” For no other purpose did the Evangelist begin his Gospel with the Logos…His purpose was…to trace the gospel story to its final and deepest origins.” Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel according to John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), p. 40.
The Deep Things of God, p. 99.
John Webster, God without Measure Vol. 1: God and the Works of God, p. 41.
Confessions, 3.6.11, translated by Maria Boulding.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers.