Living the good life

I’m writing this in Boise, a city where I was touched by God’s grace many years ago. In 1976 I had been invited by a church there to launch a ministry to young adults. Now, decades later, I’ve spent the weekend visiting friends from that era—Nick, Howie, Way and Beth. Each has gone on to satisfying, if varied, careers with at least one feature in common: all of us have lived the good life!

But what is the good life? Is it linked to material comforts, to social standing, or to personal pleasures?

By those measures all five of us have missed the mark. None of us have big portfolios. None of us have any status except in very small circles. And our set of personal pleasures—using the ordinary sense of the phrase—are modest. We are, in fact, all ordinary folks living in modest circumstances. Nick picked up a 12 foot used sailboat for $250 so he may be the most extravagant one among us. Both Way and Howie are pastors in small churches. Nick works as a Christian education specialist with a mission agency. Beth supports her husband, a house church pastor, and teaches in a grade school. And I’m a pastoral care consultant with a small mission support agency. Not the good life by most measures, but it is a life all of us treat as a gift from God.

One biblical theme offers a basis for our own version of the good life. It came into focus for me as we held our first young adult group retreat in McCall about a month after I arrived in Boise—in February of 1976. It was a time for me to invite the 20 or so participants to a focus. The topic I selected was new to me. I called it “The Truth versus the Lie” and used John 8 as a focal point. Steady readers of this site will recognize that text as a favorite of mine as I take it up again and again. Why? Because it offers a distinctive basis for measuring whether a life is good…or something other than good.

Let me say more about it with a bit of technical commentary (bear with me, please!). In earlier years, during my college course in biblical Greek, I noticed that the underlying text of John 8:44 uses the singular form, “the lie” and the related particle “it”, but our English translations all globalize the usage so that it reads (as in the ESV here): “When he [the devil] lies [literally: “speaks the lie”] he speaks out of his own character, for his is a liar and the father of lies” [literally: “it”]. The same switch from the singular “lie” in the original language into a globalized form is also found elsewhere in the New Testament.

Let me give a literal reading of two such texts. One is Romans 1:25, “because they exchange the truth about God for the lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator…” Another is 2 Thessalonians 2:10-11, “and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so to be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe the lie.”

So in my winter talks at the McCall retreat center I proposed that even if the globalized version of “the lie”—translated as “what is false”—has merit for the translators, there is a biblical basis for identifying one original lie: the persistent ambition of Satan to attain independence from God by taking up a god-like status. Think, for instance, of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness when Satan asked Jesus—the Son of God—to worship him! And it was this ambition that was the lynchpin of Adam’s fall: “you can be like God” by becoming a new and self-appointed moral agent: “knowing good and evil.”

The reality—or “the truth”—however, is that there is only One God, namely the Father-Son-and-Spirit God, and he alone is worthy of all worship; and he alone establishes the distinctions of good and evil. Not Satan; and not us.

So what is the truly good life? A Christ-based life: united to Goodness himself. A life lived with and by the truth that God alone is God. We are not gods and we should know not to compete with him. He alone is the source of life, truth and goodness. Apart from him we can do nothing. The measure is his own eternal life which owns us. And—now sharing in the life of faith—we find him to be the source of our love, joy, peace, patience, and more.

As we visited this weekend we all talked about some of the challenges we have faced or are facing at present. Beth’s husband has an aggressive brain cancer, discovered just a few weeks ago, and no health insurance. Yet as we spoke he told me that much to his surprise he experienced a distinct sense of joy at the same time he and Beth were processing the news. Joy? The good life? Yes.

Way has a church made up mainly of recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, and recently incarcerated people who are now believers—some making it and others still struggling. Yet we talked of the pleasure we share in God’s care for us.

I found that we all still have one thing in common. We know that God likes us. That is, that he loves us with a genuinely affective care! We know this to be true not only as a promise offered in Scriptures; but as a truth we have all shared for the past three decades. I’m not sure if any of the others recall the McCall retreat in the winter of 1976—probably not!—but the truth that God alone is God, and that the Lie is not to be embraced, is a reality shared by each of us even today.

Let me end on a more practical note. How does the good life of “living in the Truth” compare to “living in the Lie”? Let me leave that to you, the reader, to sort out in conversation with the Scriptures and with the greatest of all Guides to understanding the Word—Christ’s Spirit. But I can suggest a few possibilities to prime the pump.

Instead of seeking greater standing and status, live as if others are more important than you are. Instead of defining yourself by your skills and your knowledge, embrace the role of a servant who freely shares personal resources as gifts to build up others. Instead of seeking your own pleasures, delight yourself in pleasing others. Before judging others for their sinful behaviors, invite God to increase your compassion and love for them.

So, living the good life is all about being captivated by the one who, alone, is good: God himself. It’s a joy that will never end!

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