The Scriptures promise great blessings if we "walk in the light:" As the apostle John wrote: "If we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7)." But what exactly is meant by "walking in the light?"
The phrase "walking in the light" in 1 John 1:7 is a figure of speech. More precisely, the term "light" is used figuratively here, with the thought that if Christians walk in this particular light they will reap the blessings of the faith.
How could "light" be used here? Light (Greek phos, φῶς) is a favorite term for John, used 23 times in the first 12 chapters of the gospel of John, 5 more times in 1 John, and 3 times in Revelation. Other New Testament authors also use the term: Matthew (7), Mark (1), Luke (gospel 7, Acts 10), Paul (14), James (1), Peter (1). In most of these instances, the term is not used to refer to physical light, but to something spiritual.
The most fundamental references to this figurative term are taken from the Old Testament. First, Matthew cites Isaiah 9:1-2 in Matthew 4:15-16. Paul cites a passage from Isaiah 49:6 in his sermon in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:39. And Luke shows Simeon references this known idea of "light to the Gentiles" in Luke 2:32. Unfortunately for us, the term "light" refers to different things in these and other passages. This is also true of John's copious uses of the term-- to John, "light" means different things depending upon the context. Thus, to get a feel for what is meant in 1 John, we need to consider the context more carefully.
The text in question uses parallel statements to compare and contrast various ideas in a cause-effect type structure. We may make a table of positive and negative elements to the comparisons in this text, and observe the use of synonymous terms and concepts:
|God is light||In God there is no darkness at all|
|If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin||If we claim fellowship with God yet walk in the darkness, we lie|
|If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness||If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us
If we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar and his word is not in us
Now let's identify the concepts from this previous chart more clearly:
|God is light||No darkness in God|
walk in the light
fellowship with one another
the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin
walk in the darkness
no fellowship with God
confess our sins
forgive us our sins
cleanse us from all unrighteousness
say we have no sin
truth is not in us
say we have not sinned
make God a liar
his word is not in us
Comparing the parallel and contrasting ideas mentioned in this paragraph, we see the connection between walking in the light and confessing our sins, just as we can see a connection between walking in the darkness and claiming we have not sinned. On one hand, fellowship and forgiveness results; on the other hand there is only self-deception and the attempt to make God a liar. Thus, confessing our sins is much of what John is talking about when he talks about "walking in the light."
If "walking in the light" is so important, and a critical part of that is the idea of confessing our sins and having fellowship with one another, then it is important to develop "walking in the light" relationships with other Christians. But how do we make these relationships practical and real in our lives?
One of the greatest paradoxes of the Christian faith is that on the one hand we are to strive for perfection, but on the other hand we will always remain imperfect sinners. Instead of accepting both the good and the bad in ourselves and others, we may gravitate to one extreme or the other-- either striving for perfection so much that we have no tolerance for failure, or passively resigning to the inevitability of sin and never overcoming its influence. Avoiding these extremes and having a mature, balanced attitude about the good and bad in ourselves and others is important if we want to participate in "walking in the light" type relationships.
If we fail to have mature and balanced attitudes about this paradox, we are likely to expend great effort appearing to be perfect (or "acceptable") so we can maintain our spiritual status. This is certainly one element of the phariseeism that Jesus condemned in the religious people of his day (Mt 23). There is little difference between playing to one's appearance to others and garden-variety deceit.
Certainly there is a place for confessing sin and being open about temptations in our relationships. This is an important part of walking in the light. But there is more to "walking in the light" than just confession and openness about temptations.
In his book "Changes that Heal," Dr. Henry Cloud makes the astute observation that we initially come to Christ because of our own neediness, but that once we become Christians (and the older we are in the Lord) we will probably get caught in the trap of trying to appear perfect or acceptable to our brothers and sisters in the Lord. A critical problem with this is that we may not bring all of ourselves into our relationships with others, instead bringing only those parts that we think others will accept. For example, we might confess sins or talk about struggles that are more common or "acceptable" but be reluctant to talk about things that we fear might not be accepted. These "unacceptable parts" never see the light of Christian fellowship and influence-- but they still live in the depths of our souls.
Getting real in our relationships means that we must first get real to ourselves, and honestly see and accept both the good and bad in ourselves. No amount of devotional effort or relational involvement can overcome self-deception or self-ignorance. As we see both the good and bad in ourselves, we can rejoice in the good that God has produced (Jn 3:21) and recognize the bad that needs grace, healing and transformation as well as acceptance.
In order to truly walk in the light, we must invest all of our selves-- both the good and the bad-- in our relationships. When we bring this approach into our relationships and fellowship, we are no longer afraid of being "found out." We will cease to spend effort to maintain an image inconsistent with who we really are on the inside. Our lives can be consistent with the needs we expressed when we first became Christians-- that we are sinners and need God's grace and work desperately in our lives. We can bring our real selves into relationship with our brothers and sisters and receive the acceptance and healing that God intended for these relationships to bring.
One of the biggest obstacles to openness and being "real" in relationships is fear. The spiritual community must be a place where sinners can be accepted-- and not just the new converts!
We are likely to consider it acceptable that someone being converted to the Lord will have all sorts of sinful actions and attitudes with which to deal. But after someone becomes a Christian, the grace often ends. Perhaps this comes from the mistaken notion that the repentance required at conversion will somehow make all of the sin simply go away. The reality is that conversion-time repentance serves to commit us to continually addressing these sinful things for the rest of our lives, instead of disregarding them as we did prior to conversion. Without a Scriptural approach to the reality of sin in our lives, we can end up creating an atmosphere that discourages openness and encourages people to act like everything is OK even when it isn't. This type of atmosphere cannot facilitate "walking in the light."
Creating an atmosphere of acceptance doesn't mean that sinful thoughts or actions are welcomed or excused. These things are still sinful, and we should strive to let the Holy Spirit change us and remove these from our lives. But the fact is that we all sin, and the very recognition of this fact is at the heart of confession. According to John, confession brings about the purification we need. But if confession brings condemnation or rejection instead of healing (James 5:16), we know that we don't yet have an atmosphere of openness and acceptance that is necessary to support us "walking in the light." With a spirit of love and acceptance, our relationships will facilitate the healing and acceptance that we all need.
From a Scriptural perspective, the benefits of walking in the light are incredible: we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin. From a spiritual and relational perspective, these type of relationships bring the healing and fullness to our lives that God intended. Let's get real with ourselves and create an atmosphere where we can be real with others, and others can be real with us. As we do so, God will bless us with close, fulfilling relationships and his work in our lives to forgive and help us grow.