The zoe life is an intimate friendship with that boundless Mystery we call God.
How does this zoe life take shape amid our everyday tasks of washing dishes, playing with the kids, going to work, dealing with family conflicts, paying our bills, staying healthy, building friendships, coping with illness, and grieving the loss of loved ones, as well as responding to the immense social struggles taking place on our streets for a more just and compassionate world? This critical question invites us to reimagine what God’s good news looks like in the nitty-gritty of our ordinary, daily lives.
The best place to begin this work of reimagination is the earthly life of Jesus himself. After all, Jesus himself is the Kingdom of God on two legs. If we dig into Jesus’ own words and deeds, we get a clear vision of what God’s good news looks like in a human life. He is the fully alive one, who shows us what it means to embody God’s life in a full, flesh- and-blood way.
Here are five inseparable threads from Jesus’ life that give us a fuller glimpse of the abundant life he makes possible.
1. Intimacy with God
We cannot make sense of Jesus’ life without reference to his intimate union with a personal God who is always close, available, and accessible. Scholars today often refer to this intimacy that Jesus had with God as his “Abba experience”—a beautiful, inviting phrase that captures the profound closeness of his relationship with God.
The staggering good news is that today, Jesus wants us to share in this same oneness that he had with Abba. This is how Jesus himself expressed it: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mathew 11:27). The biblical word translated as “know” refers to the “heart knowledge” that comes when we interact intimately with another person. Here Jesus is saying he wants to make it possible for us to experience the same kind of intimate interaction— the same kind of knowing, loving, and trusting—t hat he had with his own Abba Father when he was on earth.
Imagine enjoying this “Abba experience” with God every day. We wake up in the morning knowing deep in our heart that we are the apple of God’s eye. We are aware that God knows us by name, loves us as we are, and is closer than we can ever imagine. Throughout the day we are conscious of being enfolded in a Divine Mystery, actively and lovingly present in all things. We know that nothing can separate us from the glorious reality of God’s everlasting love. We share honestly with God all our feelings and thoughts, whether they be angry or joyful, sad or happy, fearful or loving. We move from being polite with the Lord to sharing ourselves openly, truthfully, and vulnerably with God. We listen for any divine whisper there may be in our hearts. This is the intimate friendship with God into which Jesus gradually leads us within our daily lives.
2. A Shared Life
Second, the zoe life is a shared life in which we come to discover our individual calling in God’s family.
We cannot journey far into the life that God offers without others. Our relationship with God is personal but never private. There is no solo spirituality in the New Testament. We need sisters and brothers who will encourage us, challenge us, and love us. Hence, when Jesus comes into our lives, he always comes with his arms around his family.
It is within this life together that we can explore the nature of our God-given, personal vocation. Writing to the communities of Christ followers in Ephesus, Paul encouraged them “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1). On the one hand, this calling involves becoming the unique person God wants us to be, and on the other, it is about discerning how God wants us to serve others. Each of us is called to work out our calling in our own time, place, and season of life. In this way we play our part in making God’s dream for our world more real. And as we do this, our own lives take on eternal significance and immeasurable meaning.
Imagine experiencing this shared life on a regular basis with kindred spirits along the way— gathering with young and old, women and men, single and married, black and white. We come from different economic backgrounds, hold contrasting political views, and have different numbers on the Enneagram. Every person gets an opportunity to speak about how their lives are going. No one tries to “fix” the other person, or to change them, or to correct them. Now and then, an open, honest, and respectful question gets asked. There are times of shared prayer, Scripture reading, and gathered silence. The focus is always on helping each other live into the personal calling that God has for us.
This kind of shared life really can happen!
3. A Transformed Life
Third, the zoe life is a transformed life in which you and I are gradually changed into the compassionate likeness of God’s unique image bearers.
Whenever Jesus met people, he accepted them unconditionally, but he did not leave them where they were. He challenged them to face the truth of their own lives, look at the logs in their own eyes, without judging or blaming others for what they were. He constantly affirmed those who lived gratefully, rather than taking things for granted. He wanted his followers to reflect the humility, trust, and sense of wonder of little children. Above all, he wanted them to love like he loved, to serve as he did, to have the joy he had, and to reflect the all-inclusive compassion of his own Abba Father.
We are also invited by Jesus into this journey of personal transformation. It is not a do-it-yourself job. Nor will it take place without effort on our part. As we open ourselves to the Spirit of Jesus, however, we gradually start to change inwardly. Over time we become more transparent, grateful, joyful, humble, trusting, loving, serving, compassionate human beings.
As this slow work of inner transformation takes place, through grace and through our own cooperation with the Holy Spirit, we begin to participate in the life that God makes available in Jesus Christ. We discover that we do not need to get stuck in destructive ways of thinking, living, and relating. Real inward change can happen.
Imagine our heart slowly changing like this over time. We sense it becoming more open toward others than ever before. No longer is it curved in on itself. We begin to become aware that the person next to us has an infinite, irreplaceable, and precious value in God’s eyes, just as we have. There is a new gentleness with others, especially in moments of failure and struggle. We can let the other person be who they are without any need to change them. Our own suffering has helped us to see, hear, and feel the suffering of others, whether it is expressed or not. We know intuitively that we are joined with our neighbor, and with the whole creation, in an unbroken connection with God’s heart.
4. A Powerful Life
Fourth, the zoe life is a powerful life in which God acts with us, both for the good of our lives and for the common good.
In his reflections on the life of Jesus, Luke writes about Jesus that “he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith,” who “went about doing good” (Acts 11:24, 10:38). Jesus, the fully human one, lived continually in the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of this, not only did he defeat the temptations of the evil one in his own life but he also freed those around him who were in bondage to evil. It is especially on the Cross that we witness the power of Jesus to overcome the power of evil. There evil unleashed its worst against the best person who walked this earth and was defeated by the power of the s elf-giving love of God in the crucified Jesus.
The same powerful resources of the Holy Spirit are freely offered to us. We, too, can overcome destructive temptations in the power of God’s Spirit. In the words of the second step of the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step program, there is a Higher Power who can restore our lives to sanity.1 Furthermore, when we do simple acts of goodness and kindness trusting in God, we will be amazed by what God’s Spirit brings about through those actions. The extra blessing brought about by the Holy Spirit to those around us always exceeds what we can achieve with our own resources. The evil around us weakens, and the common good increases exponentially. This reminds us that life in “the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power” (1 Corinthians 4:20).
Imagine being vitally connected with this inner-power resource as we face our daily temptations and trials. Knowing the availability of the Spirit’s loving power, we can freely admit our powerlessness in those areas where we are constantly defeated. It could be in our struggles with addiction, or with our self-centeredness, or with our overwhelming fears and paralyzing anxieties, or with our unhelpful ways of thinking. After all, it is where we struggle the most that the Spirit makes us strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). Think, too, of receiving God’s strength as we work for a more compassionate and just world, where we are. We will accomplish more than we ever could in our own strength.
I repeatedly witness God’s power at work in twelve-step groups. Recovering addicts strongly believe there is a Higher Power who can empower us to live fuller and freer lives. They know firsthand that as they acknowledge their powerlessness regarding their addiction, they give access to a greater power who can restore their lives to sanity. This should be hopeful news for all of us. After all, we are all addicted or attached in one destructive way or another.
5. An Indestructible Life
Last, the zoe life is an indestructible life that will never be snuffed out.
Jesus told his followers, “Whoever keeps my word will never see death” (John 8:51). Whatever else Jesus may have meant by this promise, he certainly was underlining the never-ending nature of our one life.
Unlike candles in the wind, the light of our lives will not be extinguished. Although we can be sure that the moment of physical death brings about many significant changes, our personal existence will continue. Our trusting obedience in Christ weaves all that we are, all that we do, and all that we have become into a glorious and eternal future. The resurrection life of Jesus gives us the assurance that God’s life in us cannot be destroyed. We will live with and in God forever.
In my time with Dallas Willard, he encouraged me to take time each day to look in the mirror and repeat aloud this sentence: “I am an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”2
I took his counsel seriously. Over the years I have memorized this sentence, shared it with my children, told my friends, whispered it to the dying, repeated it with my congregation. Now I am sharing it with you. I trust that its truth will help you, as it has helped me, to reimagine our eternal future with the living God.
To dig further, read the passages that surround these verses: Mathew 26:39, Mathew 11:27, Ephesians 4:1, Acts 11:24, 10:38, John 8:51