“Don’t just accept whatever comes your way in life. You were born to win; you were born for greatness; you were created to be a champion in life.”
“God wants you to have a good life, a life filled with love, joy, peace, and fulfillment.”
“When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed in abundance.”
“Don’t simply settle for what your parents had. You can go further than that. You can do more, have more, be more.”
“Be the one to stand out in the crowd.”
—Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now
Focusing on how we can better ourselves is a popular industry these days. Best selling books often focus on self-improvement, on self-image, on increasing wealth. There is even a niche within Christianity called the “prosperity Gospel” or the “health and wealth movement.”
If you do X, God will bless you with Y.
A simple formula. Enticing, even.
I wonder, then, if Joel Osteen is almost on to something. No really. Hear me out.
A question by a friend came up recently. He asked, “What is the gospel?”
An obvious answer seems to be: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” As in, you will go to heaven and live forever in peace. For many folks, it seems obvious that Jesus came to die so that you could live. I recall one of the first pub theology sessions I ever attended, where someone was adamant that the only purpose of Jesus’ life was to die on the cross.
As I’ve reflected on my own view on these things, I’ve realized that such a cosmic-formula approach to the gospel is not only not very compelling to me, but that it is hard to find in the pages of the Gospels themselves.
In fact, Jesus is asked directly on several occasions: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
His responses range from: “Obey the commandments” to “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself” to “Sell all that you have and give to the poor. Then come, follow me.” And in these encounters, Jesus often adds: “Do these things and you will live.”
In other words, Jesus doesn’t seem all that concerned with what happens after we die. He’s concerned with what is happening while we are alive. This was a common focus in Jewish thinking at the time—not to mention today—so it’s not all that surprising.
Yet it is surprising to many of us, because we’ve been so indoctrinated with the view that the gospel is primarily about going to heaven when we die.
Even when Jesus does tell stories or parables about heaven, they nearly always are rooted in how one is living a justice or other-centered life in this present existence. Think of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) or the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25).
When Jesus begins his ministry, he began to say, “The kingdom of heaven is near.” Or the “kingdom of God is at hand.” In other words, God’s presence is unfolding right now all around you. Time to open yourself up to that reality. Time to live in that presence.
And what does living in that presence mean? It means things like, “loving your neighbor as yourself” and “giving to those who ask” and “loving your enemies” and throwing parties where the very least in society are given a seat at the table. It means good news to the poor.
Joel Osteen is right.
So Joel Osteen is right. Or at least, almost right. I just hadn’t seen it before.
He famously tells folks how to have “your best life now.”
Jesus, it seems, was about our best life now. And by ‘best life’, I mean, a life where we together, as community, live generously and peacefully with one another in light of God’s gracious presence. Where we seek to care for and make space for the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. Where we creatively re-imagine the world as one where there’s enough for all, where we respond to enemies with love and forgiveness rather than violence, and where seating at the table isn’t determined by wealth, or societal position, or if it is – it’s the poorest first, and the lowest on the ladder who get the best spot.
Jesus wasn’t about an easy life, which is what one might take from the prosperity preachers. He told us to take up our own cross—in other words—to oppose the unjust structures and powers that be and fight the injustices of our own day. It may well cost us something. But if we’re committed to it, it really could turn into our—all of humanity’s—best life. Now.
I’m in. Who’s with me?
Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, speaker, and author of the book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation and God. He’s also a big fan of his kids, baseball, and a good scotch.