In the series True Detective, two partners played by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey work a murder case in the backwoods of Louisiana. Haunted by evil, the case twists and turns taking the detectives deeper and deeper into darkness — their own and the criminals they investigate. Wrestling with evil and injustice, McConaughey withers before the viewer’s eyes, physically reduced to a tattered shell of his former self. Darkness broke him.
With darkness encroaching, ostensibly more with each new headline, what difference does Jesus make?
The Gospel of John boldly proclaims, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). We need the light because we live in the shadow of our broken selves. This shadow seems to grow during the holidays. Unplugged from routine, our passions can get the best of us. Holidays can surface old hurts, even send us into the presence of people we’d rather avoid. “We’re only staying at your mother’s house for an hour, not a minute more!” “I don’t care; we are not getting uncle Billy a present, after how he’s treated us!” Many live in relational darkness.
Darkness Around and Within
We’re quick to identify the darkness out there, but often slow to find it in here. It’s tempting to treat darkness as a social phenomenon, one detectives and politicians must solve, or family brings to our homes. It’s easier to see the darkness around us instead of inside us.
But the darkness lurks in us all. It’s why a seemingly good family man like Matt Laurer can fall. Why pastors suffer depression and politicians play cover up. The darkness doesn’t respect position. And so, we need a light with a capital “L.” Light exposes and warms. The light of Christ exposes our darkness, revealing we all possess a sinful capacity to make the headlines. And if we think we don’t, we’re even more deluded than we know, drunk on our shadow. But there is a Light, the true Light, and he has broken into this world.
To move beyond exposure to warmth, we have to first admit our inner darkness. We have to emerge from the shadows. John writes: “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness” (1 John 2:9). You see, we can’t be the light and harbor hatred toward others, no matter what their political position, racial follies, or moral failures. We might think, “I’m not a hater,” but Jesus says those who insult others express hatred deserving of hellfire (Matthew 5:21–22).
Why does Jesus take such a hard-line on hate? Because it’s demeaning people made by the Light. It’s harboring self-righteousness as we peer down on others. It’s refusing to forgive fellow strugglers or hang out with that family member smugly thinking, “I’d never make the mistakes you’ve made or hold the political position you do.” It’s abstaining from the reconciliation he died to extend. The darkness inside you and me contributes to the trouble of the world. “The hypocrisy of the human heart is where a lot of the trouble of the world starts,” says Bono.
Bathing in the Light
How do we get into the warmth of the light? We have to be bathed in it; tiptoeing won’t do. As I grew up, my parents often prayed their three children would walk in the light. What did they mean? Surely, they wanted moral purity for us, but if that was their only prayer, it wasn’t answered. I’ve been a moral mess my whole life. We need a light stronger than our moral constitution. The burning Light warms as it purifies: “But if we walk in the light, as he 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).
Walking in the light isn’t just being good; it’s bringing our darkness to Jesus over and over, and to one another, to experience his cleansing, purifying light. Is there something you need to confess to him? Where are you harboring darkness? Where do you need to let the light in?
When my daughter was sick and confined to the house for a week, we decided to go outside together. When we did, she said, “Daddy the light hurts.” I told her, “That’s because you’ve been in the dark so long. Once you get used to it, you’ll see it’s a beautiful day.” Coming out of the darkness can be painful, but once we do it, the light can cleanse us.
The Word became flesh, a package of light inside of Mary, stepped out into the world, and suffered under a cloud of judgment at the cross, so we could experience the cleansing joy of the light. This should provoke wonder. Jesus, knowing everything he knows about you and me, says, Let me do it. Let me die in their place to triumph over their darkness and bathe them in the light.
Triumph of the Light
Thank God the eternal Word didn’t remain behind eternity, but sank down into the womb of Mary, and suffered the sorrows of humanity to shine his light into our darkness. And you know what, the darkness did not overcome it. We needed the Light to overthrow the darkness. And he did, by being snuffed out and raised in resurrection glory, securing a glorious future and purified present for us.
Those who walk in the light now will walk in Jesus’s final triumph over darkness, when there will be no need for a sun or moon because his glory illumines his city forever (Revelation 21:23). It’s coming. Keep bathing, keep confessing, keep hoping. Don’t just dip your toe; dive headfirst into the wonder of the incarnation.
In the closing episode of True Detective, Harrelson rolls McConaughey out of a hospital in a wheelchair, stopping out front, just beyond the pale of the artificial light. McConaughey describes his brush with death, “I felt the darkness and all I had to do was let go, and I said, yeah to the darkness.” Looking up at the stars Harrelson responds, “Seems like the darkness has got more territory.” McConaughey responds, “There’s just one story, the oldest: light versus darkness. You ask me, the light is winning.”
Be encouraged, the Light is not only winning. It has won, and it makes all the difference in the world.