By Steven Norris
How does one begin to describe an infinite God with finite words and ideas? Over the centuries, some theologians have opted for a method known as “via negativa,” a Latin phrase that could literally be translated as “the way of the negative.” Instead of focusing on describing who or what God is, many have found it useful to clarify what God is not.
Jesus himself appears to use “via negative” (otherwise known as apophatic theology) in the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel. In the midst of his seven “I am” statements, he includes three “I am not” statements to take some options off the table.
In John 8:23, Jesus says unambiguously, “I am not of this world.” In its original context, Jesus is talking about his identity as opposed to that of an opponent challenging him. However, he touches on a larger truth about his identity (and the identity of his followers as well): the world as we know it is not our ultimate home.
In the opening chapter of John, we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1, 14).
Later, Jesus tells his followers, “…you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world” (John 15:19). The Apostle Paul goes a step further when he tells the Christians in Phillipi, “our citizenship is in heaven,” not here on earth. The Epistle that bears the name of the Apostle Peter makes it even more stark, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.”
The old proverb suggested, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” This was exactly the kind of behavior Jesus was warning against. In essence, Jesus was saying, “You are not from Rome (no matter you currently reside). You are a citizen of heaven, act like it.”
It can be so hard, when we are surrounded by a culture that promotes common ideas about morality, citizenship, values, mores, and the like, not to fall into those same tired ways of thinking. The Christian is one who does not find herself at home when it comes to the values, politics, or ethics of the surrounding culture. Instead, the Christian often finds himself as one who doesn’t fit it and is constantly wading “against the flow” of those around him.
Jesus’ “I am not” statement is a warning signal for all who claim the name of Christ. Do our lives look any different from the world around us? Do we stand out or seem odd at times? Do our lives reflect the radical love, forgiveness, holiness, community, and hope exemplified in Jesus?
If not, we might rightly ask ourselves: am I ultimately living my life as a citizen of heaven or as a citizen of this world?