Long ago, and not so long ago, the sun and moon and seasons governed us. The sun’s descent plunged all into darkness. Candles and lamps lent a little glow, but eventually dwindled out. In general, people wanted to preserve their oil and candles so their use was curtailed to meet practical needs.
In ancient Israel, the lamplighter had to time the nightly lighting of the lamp perfectly so that they’d last all night and no thief would enter. In that environment, they naturally limited themselves to sleep when it was dark and get up with the light.
But today, we blast through all those limits with our abundance of electrical light blazing from streetlights and glowing from screens. Our false suns send us into constant orbit, forever available. Our abundant limitlessness has plundered our souls.
God, in his good pleasure, made our souls to live within our finite bodies. He desires our entire being, body and soul, to live abundantly, now and forever. But to do so now requires humility while we live under our finiteness. Only God is immeasurable, boundless, and infinite.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecc. 3:11 NIV)
America specifically has been built on this notion of limitlessness. Pioneers explored and pushed across many a boundary, laying claim to a land not their own, thinking “emptiness” meant we must have it and fill it.
How often do we do the same with our schedules? We squeeze in one more phone call where there’s a little break, get up a little earlier to finish a job, multitask a little more to compensate for our erupting calendars.
Our schedule, our time, are not ours: they are God’s. He gifts us “our” time.
Unconsciously, we buy into the belief that thriving means boundless expansion and production. We understand abundance as an economic word, and America’s economic word is capitalism, with a capital C. Capitalism cannot exist without belief that boundless expansion is good and necessary.
Our days no longer structure our activities: our activities structure our days.
So, taking the differences between ancient Israel and modern-day America into account, how do we hear Jesus’ words in John 10:10?
“The thief comes in only to steal, kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Jesus is using a parable to demonstrate how he is the good shepherd whose sheep follow him. He brings them to pasture, encloses them in their corral, calls and guides them, and, highlighted in the parable, he protects them. He will not run away when a wolf threatens, but will fight, even to the point of giving up his life. His purpose is to make sure that his sheep are safe, fed, and healthy.
To the first-century Israelite, living in an arid, precarious environment where animals had to be grazed at certain places at certain times in order to survive, it would be ridiculous to overgraze an area, to graze at night by candlelight, or not go to pasture for a day. There were natural rhythms within which plenty flourished—first established by the sun and season, next by the society.
The villages had negotiated in community, often over centuries, who could be on what land at what time, so that everyone could live. Of course, there were always those who wanted more, which gave rise to thievery and competition. It was to these that Jesus was comparing himself. He was telling the village, I am not here to steal from you. I am here to guide you into a way of life in which all of you can live abundantly.
They would have intuitively understood that the abundance Jesus was promising was not that there were no more gates, no more fences, no more need for shepherding, but that he was the best shepherd, with access and knowledge and will to bring his sheep to the best land at the best time. This is the abundant life. And he will fight anyone or anything that attempts to steal this abundance from the sheep following him.
To our twenty-first-century urban American ears, it all sounds quaint and antiquated. We have to learn what Jesus meant. It is too easy for us to assume that abundance means the same thing as ever-expanding capitalism, that Jesus is promising us limitlessness. We need his guidance even more, because we no longer understand or abide by these natural rhythms.
We don’t recognize the siphon that our drive for abundance actually is; that limitless abundance is the thief that steals our joy, kills our love, and destroys our hope.
We chafe at the restrictions of bedtime rather than one more show, or of giving up dessert, or of saying no to one more shift at work, thinking we are leaning into the abundance God is offering us. These examples are mundane, but they are where the fight is.
Amazingly, the abundant spiritual life comes through this guided, limited corporeal life. Jesus was speaking of an abundant spiritual life lived within the bounds of his guidance in the physical life.
Will we let Jesus lead us into a life of limits? Will we listen to him personally to discern what those limits are for each of us? Will we trust that he knows best, that he is not stealing the good stuff from us?
Will I? Will you?
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep.” John 10:14-15 (NRSV)
Having been a burnt-out leader in the church, Kimberley Mulder discovered her pace with grace, and now writes to sustain your soul as you serve at www.KimberleyMulder.com. She loves to tend souls with a listening ear and a reflective heart, and is currently pursuing her Master’s in Ministry at Portland Seminary with the goal of becoming a Spiritual Director. The outdoors is always calling her name, so when not tethered to a computer, you can find her exploring, gardening, and taking pictures anywhere outside of four walls (some of which make their way on to Instagram @writerkimberleymulder). Her husband and three kids journey with her, adding purpose, delight, and depth to her one and precious life.