What are you looking for in life? What is your deepest hunger, your most pressing need, your most urgent question? What is it that, if it were offered to you, would make you willing to walk away from everything else you have in order to attain it? Is it security? A sanctuary from the assaults of life in the world? Green pastures and still waters and all that? The salvation of your soul?
Several years ago, every time a new Day-Timer catalog arrived it greeted me with the message, “It’s all about you.” According to their advertising, the purpose of their entire product line, and of the life style it was meant to support, was the satisfaction of my needs and desires. It’s what a lot of people in the church think Christianity is about. It’s called the “prosperity gospel,” and it’s all about you.
While the Day-Timer people were telling me “It’s all about you,” a little book about the prosperity gospel was gaining popularity with the same message. In The Prayer of Jabez, Bruce Wilkinson pulled from the Hebrew scriptures one short prayer of four requests in which Jabez uses the word “me” or “my” four times. “Bless me,” he prays, “extend my lands, be with me, keep me from trouble” (1 Chron. 4:10). If you use that prayer faithfully, Wilkinson promised, God will bless you extravagantly with prosperity, good fortune, wealth, health, and happiness. It’s almost as if God had said, “It’s all about you, Jabez.”
We hear the same message today from people like Paula White, identified by many as Donald Trump’s spiritual advisor. The prosperity gospel promises that God dispenses good health and material wealth based on how faithful we are and how we use our minds in the right ways. Beneath all its dressing, it teaches that Jesus went to the cross not to bring forgiveness of our sins but to get us out of financial debt, not to reconcile us to God but to give us power to claim our prosperity. If you’re still a wreck, the prosperity gospel says, it’s your fault. Whether you’re blessed or not, it’s all about you.
The Day-Timer people, and Paula White, and the prosperity gospel folks are wrong. It’s not all about you, Jabez, and it’s not all about me. It’s not all about us, whoever we are. Our needs, our desires, what we are looking for, are a very good place to start, but they are only a start. That may even have been where Jesus began when he called people to him, concentrating attention perhaps on what they needed materially in life.
Maybe that’s where those first two disciples were, Simon and Andrew, who were ready to leave everything they had, everything they knew about life, for something that must have seemed a whole lot better. Maybe they were like the people described by the prophet Haggai, who make little or no return on their investment of effort and resources, who consume much but never have enough, who clothe themselves and are never warm, and who never seem to have enough money (Hag. 1:6). Does that describe you, your family, your neighbors, your community? It probably does in a nation where the 400 wealthiest individuals own more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.
It’s easy to understand how the prosperity gospel would have its appeal. But the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of what God is doing in the world, is not all about us. Jesus did not say, “Follow me, and I will make sure nothing bad happens to you.” He did not say, “Follow me, and I will make sure the wealth of the world is yours.” Jesus said, “If you want to save your life, if you want to make it secure and enhance it, you will surely lose it (Mark 8:35). He did not say, “Count what you’ll gain by following me”; he said, “Count what it will cost you to follow me, and don’t follow if you’re not ready to pay the price” (Luke 14:25-35).
He also said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matt. 4:19). He said, “Following me is not about securing your place in the kingdom of God, it’s about making sure your neighbors have a place in the kingdom of God. Jesus promised more and better life than we ever dreamed of (John 10:10), and he promised that such abundant life is contingent upon sharing that life with others. To the extent that anyone is deprived of that abundant life, we are all deprived of it. One of my pastor colleagues, Katherine Pershey, put it this way:
People are falling. People are lonely, depressed, hungry, and desperate. People are nursing injuries incurred by bad experiences of organized religion. People need forgiveness and repentance. People are falling, and Jesus promises to equip us to catch them. The net he provides is woven of the good news of God. A strong rope made of love, forgiveness, hope, and justice.
The net is not a trap. The net is not a trick. The net is the complex gift of God’s grace and healing given to a creation that is [prone] to spills, a creation that has broken a million bones against the hard cement of sin. When men and women are caught by that net, they are given something beyond security. [They’re given something greater than the prosperity gospel can promise.] They are given a new life.
Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.
If you are a member of the church, you are not here for the salvation of your soul. God has already taken care of that for you and everyone else. You are here for training in the art of living the abundant life God offers, and you are here to train others in the art of living that abundant life (Mark 1:14-15; John 10:10; 2 Cor. 5:16-20).
We are here to be a light to the world. We are here to live our lives as a model for others. We are here to demonstrate that there is a life-giving alternative to the unsatisfying way of life the world offers. We are here to bring hope and vitality and wholeness of life to every place where our living in the world takes us. And the grace of it is that, as we surrender our concern for our own welfare and give ourselves for the welfare of others, we grow into the maturity that is the aim of life and the glory of God. And we discover that we have found what we are looking for.
God does not bless us so that we will be blessed; God blesses us so that we will be a blessing to others (Isa. 49:6). God heals us so that we can heal the world in which we live. God enriches our lives so that we can enrich the world around us. That’s why we are here.