“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
This is a beautifully insightful statement of St. Ireneaus, leader of the church just after the time of Paul the Apostle. It echoes Jesus’ teaching that he came so we may have life and have it fully and abundantly.
Here then is a good question for ourselves and especially for this particularly dispiriting time: Am I fully alive? If not, why not?
From my observation, the people who appear to be full of life and enjoy living have several common characteristics.
First, they have a healthy connection with God and a healthy view of who God is. They see God as creator of all, in love with it all and deeply involved in it all. They hear God telling us over and over, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” They understand God as “gracious and compassionate, full of mercy and steadfast love” as the Bible repeatedly indicates. They fully believe the central teaching of the Bible, that God is with us, for us and not against us.
What a healthy foundation upon which to build a full life. I did not grow up with a healthy picture of God. The preaching I most often heard presented God as legalistic, punitive and harsh. Sadly, many people have such a distorted view of God.
A woman said to me recently after visiting our church, “Are you serious about what you said in your sermon — that God could forgive and love me after what I’ve done? I’ve been in numerous churches and have never heard that before.”
A clear, positive view of God makes all the difference.
Second, fully alive people understand the importance of choosing love. So they act lovingly and respectfully toward life, including the nature of land and water, and toward our fellow human beings. They honor others and their opinions, even their differences. They seek understanding rather than confrontation. They look for win-win scenarios rather than win-lose. They understand life together means compromise, which is the only way any relationships can work, whether in a marriage, an organization or a nation. They learn forgiveness is essential and life-giving. They show a desire to protect the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalized, “the least of these” with whom Jesus strongly identified.
At the end of the war in Vietnam, our church sponsored a refugee family who had fled for their lives after the fall of Saigon. That was 40 years ago.
This past December, a member of that family, a now prosperous woman who has never forgotten the love she has received here in those days, paid me a visit in my office. She handed me a very generous check.
“Your church welcomed me and helped me in 1976,” she said. “God has blessed me greatly in this wonderful country. Please accept this offering and use it now to bring a refugee family from the Middle East. Rescue them from persecution or death just as you once rescued me.”
Given love, she chose love. “Love never fails.”
Third, fully alive people believe in hard work and find meaning in their work.
Recently, I couldn’t help but admire a young waitress in a local Mexican restaurant who seemed to find great pleasure in welcoming and serving the customers at every table. This is demanding work and probably not especially lucrative, but she was fully alive in her tasks. I’ll go back!
Brother Lawrence, a 17th century monk in a monastery in Paris, found joy in real prayer as he washed the pots and pans, sometimes more so than when he was in the chapel. (His book “The Practice of the Presence of God” is totally worth reading.)
Fourth, people fully alive find happiness and contentment within; they don’t depend on others or their applause for validation. Criticism may hurt, but it does not disable. For they are guided by a still, small voice within, not the loud voices and clamor without. An inner moral compass guides them and usually against the group thinking and angry majority that claim most of the attention. Happy and alive is the person who does not rely on the opinions and estimations of everyone around them. History has always been moved forward by such individuals.
Finally, those fully alive never tire of learning. They are blessed with enough humility to understand there is more to know and discover. They delight in the process of finding out as much of it as possible. They are seekers in science, philosophy, religion and art. Exploration, whether of places or ideas, is life-thrilling.
Yes, to be fully alive is the way to honor God most fully and the way to make the world around you a much better place for all.
Dr. Bill Coates is the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Gainesville.