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Your Best Life Martyred

October 24, 2011
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I’m no fan of Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel and so when my pastor, describing the death of James the Just, asked what part of James being thrown off the Temple and beaten to death was James’ “best life now” I found that pretty amusing. What’s more, I quite agree with the sentiment. The idea that Christianity involves God going down your cosmic honey-do list and fixing everything for you is flatly unbiblical. However, I’d like to invert the statement and look at this from a slightly different perspective. What part of James being martyred is his best life now? For the early church all of it – to be a martyr (literally a witness) for Christ in such a manner was the highest honor.

The issue for the prosperity gospel is that it’s got a pretty good idea of what the problem is: you’re not filthy rich, sometimes you get sick, things don’t always work out the way you want. A better life would fix those problems. You could gold-plate your toilet (but don’t, metal can get rather cold), buy a new car every year, and, I don’t know, marry a supermodel. Or, better yet, move to a Middle Eastern country where polygamy is legal and marry three supermodels. Why not? Probably because we’ve crossed a clear line there: marrying three supermodels is immoral. God does have limits on this awesome life you’re supposed to get – it’s not supposed to be an immoral life. If a better life for you involved a harem or lots of drugs or getting to be mean to people you didn’t like or having an annoying relative hit by a car God is not supposed to be on board. I submit that this is a fatal flaw in the plan.

Let’s go back to marrying supermodels (sorry, women). Is it even okay to marry one supermodel? Sure, provided that you love her. Being a supermodel shouldn’t require one to remain permanently single. However, if your goal is to “marry a supermodel” then I know exactly what you love and it isn’t her, per se. In fact, that goal would be born out of wrong desires where lust for someone’s body is placed before more important things like a love for the person. God shouldn’t be on board with that plan.

God also shouldn’t be on board with this plan to gold-plate a toilet seat. Where did that desire come from? Which Biblical value is “gross display of excess wealth”? Once we allow for the idea that our desires could be wrong, we start unraveling the whole idea of the prosperity gospel. What part of James being thrown to his death is his best life then? The part where James is entirely re-oriented on the work of God and not on himself. The part where James walks into martyrdom knowing that he does so. The part where James has right desires.

This is not to say that we don’t have real problems external to us. Several years ago I had cancer. That’s a real problem external to me. However, most of the time our problems are really ones inside us. We aren’t content living in the first world with things people in other parts of the world could never dream of having because we’re wrong inside. Even when we confront real external problems they can often be mitigated to some extent by internal fixes. When I faced cancer, facing it with full confidence in my resurrected Lord Who had triumphed over death helped. Ultimately, “this is a problem” is something you feel inside you and so it matters what else is inside you.

I fully believe that God intends for you to have a better life, even your best life. What I don’t think is that you (or I) can sit down and identify what’s wrong with us that prevents us having that life. We’ll have our best lives when we are our best selves and that’s not yet. A new car, a big house, fame, or a private jet won’t make us into that best self. Unfortunately for our happiness we may become our best selves through hard things. God may need to do battlefield surgery without anesthetic.

The reordering of our desires is so important because we see the world backwards. When we want power, fame, riches, and adoring servants (including, perhaps, that trophy wife or husband) we’re buying into a system of values that exists apart from Christ, Who gave up power and glory to become an itinerant, misunderstood rabbi in a brutally oppressed region of the Middle East and then said what was true until he was killed for it (not that this stopped him any too effectively). If we want to be like Christ our desires, not just our external affairs, need to be put in order. We need to become creatures of heaven, living out Christ’s way of being, not creatures of the world.

What part of James being martyred was his best life now? What part of Paul’s imprisonment was the fulfillment of God’s promises to him? When Elijah ran from Jezebel how was God with him? These questions should be weird because these are heroes of our faith. God’s work on them, in them, and with them did not result in wonderful things happening to them all the time. Instead, it resulted in them becoming, slowly, wonderful people.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dcn. David Keim permalink
    October 26, 2011 4:20 pm

    Apropos of nothing in this post: Hey, saw this

    http://araborthodoxy.blogspot.com/2011/10/orthodox-liturgy-in-syriac-sinai.html

    and thought of you. Hope you are well!

    Dcn. David

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