A few days ago, I read two books  that gave drastically different answers as to what it meant to live an abundant life. On the one hand we have the prosperity gospel, touted by people who wish to promote a spirituality that is linked to the state of one’s bank accounts and net worth. One can only imagine that those who are doing well wish to believe that they are doing good. This is not a new theology–Job’s friends promoted this particular view, to their immortal shame, and even the disciples of Jesus Christ were flabbergasted that it was harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than it was for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, a reference likely to the high level of integrity that is required to earn a great deal of money and stay powerful and wealthy in a world full of corruption. This is no knock on rich people–after all, it bears some repeating that just about anyone who is reading this, and certainly this is true of the person writing it, that compared to the rest of the world, we are all rich people. I know it may not feel that way, but we are all living the abundant life compared to the rest of the world, as some of us know all too well personally.
Hold that thought, as I will return to it if I do not fall asleep first. The other book presented a different view of the abundant life, and that was time spent serving and helping those who are nearing the end of life. It was quite heartbreaking but also quite inspiring to read a widow speak about her experience taking care of her dying husband. Far from the crowds of people seeking to compare righteousness with the external state of one’s life, here was someone coping with great loss, months and years eaten up the locust, struggling to find encouragement and support in the face of the death of a loved one. To be sure, we are all far from perfect, but there is often great suffering that comes to those who are no worse and often a great deal better than the norm. It is one thing to infer the type of life someone has by the fruits, but we cannot infer the moral character of a farmer by the size of his harvest. There are too many other factors at play that interfere with a harvest that are largely beyond the control of a farmer, and the same is true of many aspects of our lives.
I come from a farming family, something I feel necessary to bring up from time to time , even if I loathed farming intensely myself in my youth. No one who comes from a farming background and has let the lessons sink in would tend to view with any sort of credence the facile spiritual equations of the prosperity gospel advocates. People live abundant lives due to matters entirely out of their own control. It should be noted, in fairness, that the author of the first book did have a broader view of abundance in life than merely financial success, and abundance included the generosity of gifts and abilities in service of others. Yet that was not the area of abundance he focused on the most, or the sort of abundance that readers will remember from the book because those types of abundance are mentioned briefly and in passing while the author talks about titles and visibility and offices and wealth in a way that is easy to misconstrue and use to blame and attack those who are clearly not doing well. There is nothing more satisfying to someone who is living well than to assuage any lingering guilt about this by attacking those who are doing poorly.
Yet the abundance of the life we are to live must be in some respect independent of the circumstances of our lives. We must be abundant in mercy, even if we are treated unmercifully, in respect even if we are disrespected, in love even if we are lonely and unloved, in honor even if we are dishonored, in generosity and hospitality even where we have little, in service even if we have no offices or no authority, and so on and so forth. Whether we are living an abundant life does not consist in the abundance we are receiving from God, for such life and breath and talent and opportunity as we have is a gift that we have done little to deserve in life, try as we might to convince ourselves and others otherwise. Rather the abundance of our lives consists in what we have given, how our lives have benefited those around us, and what genuine and heartfelt service we have given to God and to others. Hopefully we can all say that we have lived abundant lives, no matter the conditions that we have dealt with, and let us hope that the fruits we leave behind are not marred by any roots of bitterness, or any casting shade on those around us, for we are all crops to be judged, and not the judges of the crops of others, for who knows under what conditions those crops have grown. Sometimes the receipt of any harvest at all is a miracle given what some have had to deal with.
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 See, for example: