I've heard the phrase, "best life now," at least a few times this week, although I just now made the connection that this is the title of a Joel Osteen book. It's also the final phrase to explore from the list we've been working off of (see https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/smile-first) regarding hallmarks of the Prosperity Gospel.
Are there good aspects to trying to live our best lives now? Psychologically, it's very motivational and inspiring, drawing from Humanistic Psychology and the concept of self-actualization, which involves realizing one's full potential. It emphasizes wholeness, wellness, completeness, rightness---a good fit between who you are and what you are doing. It means you're trying to not waste your life or live beneath your full potential. Unlike the psychoanalytic theories that came about from primarily studying neurotic European women, Abraham Maslow coined the term after studying healthy individuals. His basic premise, that humans need to meet basic needs such as food and shelter before progressing to higher level ones such as self-actualization, is a useful--if not necessarily empirically validated--one. I'd add that this approach could be a helpful antidote to perpetual victimhood, allowing oneself to become engulfed in one's fears, and passively enduring unfulfilling situations mainly due to a fear of change, and other ways of being that are arguably just as rampant today as the pursuit of one's "best life."
However, a big part of the problem of the Prosperity Gospel co-opting these concepts is that it misses an essential tenet of Maslow, who defined Self-Actualization as,
The desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.
How beautifully phrased! I agree with Maslow that many humans have a deep need to attain to this--many are not satisfied with the status quo in themselves, others, or the world and are continuously motivated to pursue change in these areas. I'm one of these people! However, Maslow was careful to point out that this need was not motivational for everyone. What happens if we apply self-actualization broadly and then put universal pressure on people to achieve their best life now?
I think our world is in the process of finding out the answer to this.
Preliminary results are not good, based on the increased rates of depression and anxiety, particularly among younger individuals. Current estimations in the United States for clinical depression are 8.4% of adults and 17% of adolescents (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression). These represent notable increases across the past 20 years. Of course these increases are tied to more factors than self- and societal pressures toward achievement, but research on the underlying causes and contributors to these conditions would indicate that these pressures certainly don't help.
For Christians, it's particularly tragic because adopting a "best life now" strategy implies that a "your" is tied to the "best life." Surrendering to Christ and allowing the Lord to shepherd the life you are to lead is not compatible with an individualistic approach to power through and navigate a path as you see fit.
Costi Hinn, prosperity preacher Benny Hinn's nephew, writes extensively about coming out of the Prosperity Gospel movement. For example, on Reformada (https://www.reformandamin.org/articles1/2019/1/8/the-prosperity-gospel-a-global-epidemic), he calls the movement a "global epidemic" and outlines specific reasons why the Prosperity Gospel is unscriptural. He particularly focuses on this "best life now" piece. Here are some snippets:
A very basic definition of the prosperity gospel can be described as this: God’s plan is for you to live your best life now. Health, wealth, and happiness are guaranteed on Earth for all who follow Jesus. Heaven is simply the eternal extension of your temporal blessings....
Prosperity preachers teach that health and wealth were “paid for” in the atonement—just like sin. Therefore, this twisted interpretation allows them to teach people to expect complete healing, monetary riches, and total victory in every area of their earthly life. Instead of telling people to put faith in Jesus Christ and excitedly await their best life in heaven, they offer an empty gospel that promises people their best life now...
Prosperity gospel preachers depart from this orthodox teaching on faith when they often add in “Word of Faith” teachings into their sales pitch. They teach that faith is a force you can use to get what you want from God. In other words, you were able to obtain salvation and justification by faith, so why can’t you obtain a Ferrari the same way?
Costi Hinn points out that this movement has expanded globally and is responsible for much church growth throughout the world. It's a very enticing message, after all. Like so many products, this uniquely American creation is now being exported globally.
Why do I care so much about this? Well, there's the wrong theology part that is quite concerning. But, I can agree with Costi on just how big the Prosperity Gospel's reach is because I experienced tendrils of it myself this year. Why am I disappointed if the version of my life that I am experiencing doesn't always match the aspirational image in my mind? What is a Biblical response if one is experiencing a disconnect between the actual and aspiration due to circumstances beyond one's control? I thought I had already solved this one, having dramatically changed my life--uprooting career, home, and social circles,--partly out of a response to not always be seeking "onward and upward" when it comes to career.
How can we tell if we're following a Gospel of Achievement and Competence rather than the actual Gospel?
Tim Keller and John Inazu's fabulous book, Uncommon Ground, features twelve authors sharing their stories of Christians engaging with the world and what this looks like in specific narrative contexts. Warren Kinghorn, a Duke University professor, is a featured author who writes about the gospel of achievement and competence and his own journey away from it. It is so very easy to obtain our worth from achievement or at least an acceptable competency in life--this involves a not-so-subtle shift from seeing our identity in Christ, and it magnifies over time. Kinghorn writes,
Every day I still feel the power and pull of the gospel of achievement and competence. It continues to permeate the world of health care and, especially, the world of research universities. But it is a false gospel, one rooted in control rather than wonder, and one that paints a theologically, psychologically, and historically false picture of who human beings are. The gospel of achievement and competence, with its promise of individual sanctification through hard work and success, is not the good news Jesus proclaimed. It is, rather, the false gospel of a culture that values productivity and efficiency above all else...
In contrast is the actual gospel. In his essay, King Lear, Frederick Buechner writes about how Shakespeare uses this play to contrast victims and fools with the worldly wise--the ones the world views as strong and capable. Buechner says that the play brings to mind I Corinthians 1:27-28:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
Jesus instead becomes our wisdom from God. He becomes our "righteousness, holiness, and redemption." We say we don't earn these things, but sometimes we sure act and think like we do...and our troubled minds believe the lie!
Shakespeare points to the apparent emptiness of the world where God belongs and to how the emptiness starts to echo like an empty shell after a while until you can hear in it the still, small voice of the sea, hear strength in weakness, victory in defeat, presence in absence.
These are good reminders for me. While I have actively turned away from power and prestige at multiple points in my life, I still find the temptation to live out "my best life" by avoiding the things that bother me and wishing for some greater work to live out, something more obviously impressive for the kingdom. But if I were truly allowing Christ to work in me so that I "hear strength in weakness," I would be fully content in knowing that the mission before me is the one I am to do, unless He tells me otherwise. It's why signing up for a single day at a soup kitchen feels holier than giving a call to a friend in need. It's why devoting a life to full-time ministry feels more righteous than faithful living day-by-day. So many of us are tempted to not live the lives that God has called us to do, but to try to live somebody else's life and calling!
C.S. Lewis famously wrote about this in the classic Mere Christianity. I'll excerpt it here:
The more we get what we now call “ourselves” out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become...In that sense our real selves are all waiting for us in Him. It is no good trying to “be myself” without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. In fact what I so proudly call “Myself” becomes merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and which I cannot stop. What I call “My wishes” become merely the desires thrown up by my physical organism or pumped into me by other men’s thoughts or even suggested to me by devils...Propaganda will be the real origin of what I regard as my own personal political ideas. I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call “me” can be very easily explained. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.
As always, Lewis' messages are so timeless--he could be writing this right now in 2022. What we think we want, what we think will self-actualize ourselves, what we think we need to storm the gates of heaven to ask....these are perhaps none of the things that God, in His wisdom, knows that we actually need. The less we fight God's plan and the more we stop resisting God's work in our lives, the more efficiently we'll actually get there. It's a terribly tragic irony that our attempts to force this turn out to be far less efficient than the process of letting go. We know how to do this in our own hearts, if we stopped a moment to think about it.
Instead of jumping straight to a request, open a prayer in a dangerous state of self-reflection, allowing Christ to illuminate what is dark in our hearts. He knows what's in there anyway (see Psalm 139)--we may as well acknowledge it, since we're the ones living in ignorance about ourselves, not God. Open acknowledgement is needed before growth. This is repentance, but sometimes we need to repent of an overall orientation to My-ness: MY life, MY will, MY wishes.
Sadly, Abraham Maslow left his Jewish faith for the psychological version of all of this. Yet he was onto something. There is much truth about a human search for transformation, for becoming better than what you are, for someday actually being the best that you can be. Eternity is in our hearts, after all (Ecc. 3:11).
How to get there? Victoria Emily-Jones, writing in the Art & Theology Lenten series (https://artandtheology.org/2022/03/08/lent-6/) sums this up beautifully:
Even though complete wholeness is not possible in this life, God still invites us to reach out to him with the shards of our life, to seek his healing in specific areas—with faith that he can heal whatever it is that’s broken! He will tend to the shards with loving tenderness. And maybe put them back together in a way we didn’t expect.