After the story of the woman caught in adultery, the gospel of John narrative continues in chapter 8 with more arguments between Jesus and the Jews. The Pharisees and Jews in these sorts of passages in John almost serve as a sort of literary device. Their words offer nothing new, but they break up Jesus' words and prompt what he says next. Their interjections perhaps help with the flow of the passage, but the actual meat here is what the authors attribute to Jesus.
Recall that our basic framework for John is that the Jesus character is an example of the kind of people we can be. So, the words attributed to Jesus in John 8 are intriguing. He claims to be light for the world, to have valid testimony because he knows who he is, to be non-judgmental, and to live by a different standard that the world's standards. He also makes claims about the Father. Let's take that concept first, because the others will flow more easily from clarifying what that may mean.
Sure, when the gospel of John was written, it was in a Jewish context, which assumes the existence of an almighty supernatural. Lots of people still believe in such a god, but there are certainly other valid lenses through which one might look at the world and oneself. I would suggest that when people refer to "God," they are referring to a deep part of themselves. This may be one reason God always seems to agree with the perspective of whoever is speaking. Many people have written convincing enough arguments against the existence of God, but the idea may still be a useful metaphor for some individuals, especially those who haven't done much work to connect with a deeper part of themselves. From a Humanist perspective, we don't need to toss out the concept completely. We can interpret "Father" here as shorthand for a deepest, most noble self -- a part of ourselves that is a source for our values and guiding principles, a source for our vision of a best possible version of ourselves.
I say a "deeper" part of ourselves not in terms of a physical location, but in terms of psyche I suppose. Most of the time, we operate out of very surface level reactions to the world around us. We don't always give a lot of thought to how our moment to moment decisions align with our guiding principles. Many of our moment to moment decisions may not even seem to have anything to do with our values or with being a best possible version of ourselves. It takes effort to think through our guiding principles and consider how best to apply them in a particular situation. Most of our thinking is pretty lazy. So, I use "deeper" part of ourselves to indicate a more intentionally thought through identity than our lazy, automatic kinds of decisions.
The Jesus character in John 8 says that he is in agreement with the Father, which we can interpret to mean that his identity is well aligned with his deepest, most noble self. He is claiming that he lives into a best possible version of himself -- that his actions and decisions are impeccably congruent with his guiding principles. This is why we might look to the narrative as a framework for how we can be as human beings. The idealized character of Jesus reflects our potential to live with the same level of integrity, the same degree of alignment to our guiding principles.
Should we take on that potential and live more intentionally, the claims attributed to Jesus here are a part of the outcome of having greater alignment to our own values. We become light for the world, shining an example of a different way of living than people who are stuck on autopilot and never even consider a best possible version of themselves. Our testimony is consistently valid, because we learn to express what is so for us without demanding that other people agree with us. We know better where we come from and where we are going. In other words, we have an awareness of our own habits and tendencies, and we have a clear vision of who we want to be in the world.
Perhaps most importantly, we don't need to judge anyone, because our identities are valid in and of themselves. Most of the time, judgment of other people is a reflection that we don't agree with them. They are doing things we don't approve of, and our judgment is a way of lifting up the merits of our own perspective by tearing down someone else's perspective. This is irrelevant when we live with integrity to our own guiding principles. Other people doing things differently than we would is not a threat to the value of our own vision of a best possible version of ourselves.
Should we choose to judge someone, though, that judgment would look different. The foundation is that we live with congruence to our deepest values and we refuse to be threatened by other people's ideas and behaviors just because they're different from our own. From that space, we might still look at other people's life and recognize that they are acting on autopilot, that they are caught up in the throes of anxiety, or that they don't have a clear sense of their own guiding principles. In a way, this is a judgment against them. Some might call it awareness or even discernment. Maybe it's really just observation.
When we use this judgment to be of service to others, it looks different from using judgment to bolster our own identities at the expense of someone else's. We might actually help people clarify their values. We could gently knock people out of autopilot mode. We can even help other people to develop a vision of a best possible version of themselves. From one perspective, we'd be using the same processes that we use to judge other people, but now we would approach that process with a clear sense of our own identity, and perhaps with a heavier dose of love and empathy thrown into the mix.
Here we go, then, with a possible interpretation of John 8:12-30.
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “The way I live shines as an obvious example to everybody. Whoever follows my example will never have to worry about fear or confusion, but will have the ability to live with clarity and integrity.” Then the Pharisees said to him, “You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.” Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I am telling you what is so for me. I know my habits and tendencies, and I have a compelling vision for my life, but you do not know my history or my future. You barely have a sense of your own habits or a vision for yourself. You judge other people in order to validate yourself; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for I don't need to judge others to build myself up. I operate from a guiding principle of love that stems from my deepest, most noble self.
Then they said to him, “Where is this deepest self?” Jesus answered, “You haven't really seen my actions or heard my words clearly because you look through a lens of fear. If you let down your guard and take an honest look at my life, you would know my deepest, most noble self.” He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.
Again he said to them, “I'm not always going to be here, and you will search for me, but your fear will persist for the rest of your lives. You can't take the journey I'm taking.” Then the Jews said, “Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means by saying, ‘You can't take the journey I'm taking’?” He said to them, “You are operating out of habit and anxiety, I am operating out of my guiding principles and a vision of a best possible version of myself. I told you that your fear will persist for the rest of your lives, for you will live the rest of your days with the same fearfulness unless you take responsibility for doing something differently in your life.”
They said to him, “Who are you to tell us what to do with our lives?” Jesus said to them, “Just talking to you is frustrating! I see your anxiety and your ingrained patterns clearly, and I hate that you keep choosing to live by those things; but my deepest, most noble self is not a source of hatred. I can only tell you what I know for myself, that living from a space of love and integrity is possible. I can't live your life for you, I can only tell you that you have the potential to do something different in your own life." They did not understand that he was speaking to them about clarifying their own guiding principles. So Jesus said, “When you take a step back from your anxiety and imagine an ideal way of being, then you'll realize that I'm living out that ideal, and that I'm not trying to build myself up, but I'm communicating what makes sense to me about living intentionally with integrity to my own values. And my values and guiding principles don't leave me doubting what I've done or said. I have confidence in who I am, and you could too.” As he was saying these things, many began to follow his example.
A Little Experiment: Be nonjudgmental. You don't need to judge anybody in order to validate or bolster your own identity or perspective. Catch yourself in the act of judgment this week and stop yourself. Maybe you want to prepare a phrase like, "We see things differently, and that's alright."
Another Little Experiment: Judge. When you catch yourself being judgmental, consider what the other person may be experiencing. Are they afraid of something? Do they perhaps feel unheard or un-valued? Is there a way you can be compassionate or loving to someone who sees the world through different lenses than you?