Looper column: What it means to be alive
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
The phrase “full of life” occasionally appears in print or is spoken in conversation. This or that person or, sometimes, this or that city, is said to be “full of life.” The phrase is found in many languages. German communicates it in a single word: Lebensfülle.
What does it mean for someone to be full of life? The philosopher Dallas Willard defined life as “the power to act and respond in specific kinds of relations.” He gives the example of a cabbage, which is alive and acts and responds to soil, water and sun. A dead cabbage, though it exists, cannot act or respond.
A cat is capable of acting and responding in a greater number of relationships than a cabbage. For example, a cabbage cannot respond to a ball of string but a cat can. Neither cat nor cabbage, in my experience, responds to a word of advice. Cat lovers may disagree.
Is it possible for something or someone to be alive to one thing but not to another? Yes. The cabbage is alive to soil, sun and rain but quite dead to a ball of string. The cat is alive to a ball of string but quite dead to Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare, for his part, was alive to cats, though he clearly didn’t like them.
In biblical literature, only God is alive in all kinds of relationships: he is “the living God.” People are alive in some kinds of relationships but not in others. For example, St. Paul pictures people as dead to God in their pre-faith state. As the cabbage does not respond to the ball of string and the cat does not respond to “Much Ado About Nothing,” they do not respond to God.
When someone does respond to God, it is evidence that a “life-making” miracle has occurred. For a person to respond in relation to God requires at least as great a miracle as would be necessary for a cat to respond in relation to “Much Ado.” The Bible describes that miracle as a new birth.
This raises questions. If someone has come alive to God - a miracle attributed to the working of God’s Spirit - how would they know it? What evidence is there? When people are “made alive” in this way, is it in relationship to God only? Or are they alive in other relationships as well?
The Bible suggests three pieces of evidence that someone has come alive to God. First, they express faith: they begin to trust God and his love. Second, they begin, falteringly at first and imperfectly at all times, to obey God. And third, they start to love (falteringly and imperfectly once again) people they did not love before.
Does this happen all at once? Will a person who has become alive to God automatically be alive to people and their needs? Will they become alive to ethical and moral requirements that have hitherto gone unnoticed? Will their confidence in God and his ways become a reality across the expanse of their lives?
It does not seem to happen all at once, either in the biblical record or in personal experience. It happens incrementally as more and more of a person’s life is infiltrated by God. To the degree that God is present in the various regions of an individual’s life, he or she comes alive.
There is a fictional image of this in C.S. Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew.” Lewis pictures Aslan, the Christ-figure, bringing life to a new world. As he walks a barren planet, his singing voice causes grass to sprout and spread, like a ripple in a pool. Heather, and then trees, do the same. Wherever he goes, life appears.
It is like this with humans too. This new life must “spread” through a person’s vast interior. Because that does not happen steadily, an individual may seem inexplicably unalive in some relationships, even those with important moral or ethical dimensions, causing us to wonder about the reality of the spiritual life.
Of such a person, including ourselves, we must not despair. Once animated, the life that is alive to God will spread. Signs of it will appear, demonstrated (falteringly and imperfectly) by faith and love.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. His blog, “The Way Home,” is at shaynelooper.com.