Living life to the full
Jesus said, ‘I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.’
It would be natural to think that leading a ‘full’ life was a bit different from leading a simple one. The way we normally talk about a full life tends to focus on wealth of experiences and wealth of resources, and the appeal to life simply can sound like an appeal to cut yourself off from the challenging but enriching complexity of human experience.
But there are two things that ought to make us think again, two things that are tied up with theology, though it’s the kind of theology that opens up perspectives rather than closing them down. Here’s the first. When theologians in the past talked, as they regularly did, about the ‘simplicity’ of God’s nature, what they meant was not that God had only a limited range of life or activity. They meant that all sorts of things that we think of separately – justice and mercy, knowledge and love, and so on – are the same in God. When God does what God does, we may see it from different angles (and sometimes get muddled by thinking that these different aspects are in contradiction with each other), but for him it’s the same thing: he’s just being God.
So what if living simply meant, for us as well, living in a way that expressed with complete integrity who and what we really were? Living in a way that wove together knowing and loving and judging and forgiving in one act of self-sharing that was somehow beyond the fragmented and reactive ways we so often live? If Jesus’ life and death are supposed to give us a share in God’s own life, as St John’s Gospel and many other passages in the New Testament insist, we might expect that one of the effects of faith would be to draw us together, to merge the different aspects of our life into a steady and coherent unity expressed in active, challenging love, the kind of unity we see in Jesus’ own life. From this point of view, living simply would be a state in which we lived with integrity – lived, that is, in way that was self-consistent, a way that arose from a single and central commitment of loving faith.
And then the second point. In the Fourth Gospel living life to the full is living the life of Jesus; and living the life of Jesus is living in perfect communion – in the unity between the Father and the Son and the Spirit, into which the community of Jesus’ friends is invited. It is to be able to receive from God the richness of intimacy, liberty and love we were made for, and to be free to give this love back to God and outwards to anxiety and the passion to possess, when we fail to live simply in the ordinary sense of the word, we make ourselves incapable of communion. We are not in a position to receive because we are paralysed by anxiety about giving or sharing. Our lives are shrinking because we cannot see how they are bound up for their health and fullness with the lives of others. The failure to live simply and sustainably is a failure not only in the material but in the spiritual ‘ecology’, in the balance and mutuality of life in a complex world full of difference.
Jesus offers life in all its fullness: true simplicity (which is integrity, wholeness of perception and action), and true communion (which is frustrated and distorted when we try to live only out of our self-protective instincts). To pray that Jesus may give us life in its fullness is to be ready to be moved into that integrity and that mutuality which belong to Christ’s people as the supreme and distinctive gifts they have to share with the world
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
livesimply Anthology, a CAFOD resource, edited by Annabel Shilson-Thomas.
Photo: A Progressio workshop with indigenous women. [Photo credit: Progressio]