Saturday, June 2, 2012

Abundantly clear about the abundant life

“I’ve come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). It’s a favorite verse for anyone who preaches that if you do right by God, God will do right by you, and you’ll be rewarded with health, wealth and happiness. We call it the prosperity gospel.

Variations on this theme are preached every Sunday by the most popular preacher in America today. He pastors a church with 30,000 members, where an additional 7 million people tune in weekly to hear him on TV. His books have landed him at the top of the best-seller list and earned him millions of dollars. Lots and lots of people are literally buying into his message. He reinforces an over-riding belief in the culture around us that God wants us to have an abundant life, which consists of having everything we’ve ever dreamed of. I admit that it’s an appealing message. But is it true? Is that what it means to live the abundant life that Jesus talks about?

In the original Greek, the word abundant that’s used in this verse means overflowing. It reminds me of how the author Annie Dillard says that receiving God’s grace is like “filling a coffee cup underneath a waterfall.” You can’t contain it all. It overflows, and it keeps coming and coming. That’s the kind of abundance that God showers upon us.

What about that word life? There are several different words in the Greek language for life. For example, there is a word for physical life that is the root of our word biology. But that’s not the word for life that’s used in John 10:10. The word for life referred to here is a non-physical life; it’s the word for spiritual life.

And here’s the really big thing to understand about this verse. It’s not talking about the abundant life for us as individuals. "I came that they may have life..." The abundant life isn’t for individuals, it’s for the community – it’s for all of God’s people. The early church in Acts tried to practice this as a community, living together, sharing their resources with one another so everyone had enough and no one was in want. (Of course, these days, that would be dismissed as socialism, which has become synonymous with evil.)

Our current American worldview is a legacy that comes to us from the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and 18th century economic theory. It tells us that we are individuals who have the right to happiness, especially the happiness of the consumer-style abundant life. Market ideology has become like a religion for us. It tells us who we are – consumers. And it tells us what the goal of life is – making money.

In report after report from the United Nations and other global organizations, the grim results of this self-centered version of the abundant life are becoming apparent in the widening gap between rich and poor, as well as the demise of the irreplaceable life systems of our planet. Is this what it means to live the abundant life?

In our country, we’re a part of the 20% of the world’s population that uses more than 80% of the world’s energy. Even though most people in this world would like to live as we do, there’s not enough energy on the planet to support it. As the theologian Sallie McFague has said, “We middle-class North Americans are addicted to the consumer life-style, even if it means depriving others and putting the planet in jeopardy.”

God’s abundant life for us never comes at the expense of others. If we want to become rich and have lots of stuff, let’s at least be honest about it and call it what it is: greed. Let’s not be deceived into believing that this is God’s desire for us.

Now, I realize that millions of people aren’t going to tune in every week to hear someone preach a message like that. The irony is that as long as we think the abundant life God wants for us is about living the high life at the expense of other people, we’re missing out on the abundant life Jesus says he came that we might have.

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