Synopsis: An abundant life doesn’t consist of material possessions. It is instead rooted in the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. As God’s people, we’re liberated from an inordinate desire for things and are enabled to generously serve God, ourselves and all people. This is fun! We become co-creators with God.
What is an abundant life? My Dad used to tell me that we’re blessed if we have shelter, clothing, food, and health and are able to work. To me, that’s Dad’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The economic upheaval the whole world is going through as a result of the coronavirus pandemic makes me think of Dad’s words. As in Paul’s advice to Timothy, “A devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on or feet, that’s enough” (1 Timothy, 6:6-8).
The first time I saw stark hunger was in my mission assignment in the Philippines. I can still see the haunted faces and emancipated bodies of starving children. That never leaves me. On the flip side of such suffering, Imelda Marcos, the wife of then dictator Ferdinand Marcos was notorious for her extravagant lifestyle. She had grown up in poverty during World War II. As a child she had begged for candy from the American soldiers fighting against the Japanese.
Now, nothing could satiate her thirst for power, wealth, and fame. She was known as the “iron butterfly” for her combination of ruthlessness, corruption, and ostentatious extravagance. She and her friends sometime took a Boeing 747 jet to go on a shopping spree in New York City. After Marcos was overthrown in the nonviolent People’s Power Revolution in 1986, the presidential palace was opened to the public.
We all went and gawked at the extravagance. There was a private chapel with all kinds of religious artifacts from around the world, including good-luck charms. The number 9 was their lucky number. The basement area was Imelda’s gigantic wardrobe the size of a huge department store with racks full of designer clothes and thousands of shoes. She was known to have a fetish for shoes. Was their extravagance the epitome of an abundant life? Or was it an impossible attempt to fill a profound need coming from bottomless desires? I’m convinced it was the later. And how do the lives of famous and powerful entertainers, politicians, business leaders, and religious leaders in our country mirror those drives and needs?
The abundant life is, instead, like the life of the first Christians in Acts 2 where they freely gave themselves to what they had in common. They shared their talents and possessions for the common good, building each other up. Consequently, they together accomplished great things. Others took notice and were eager to join their fellowship which kept growing and spreading. This is a radically different understanding of the abundant life from the usual understanding of most people. It liberates us to use the things we have to generously serve God, ourselves, and our neighbors. This is fun! We become co-creators with God as we develop our families, our church, and our communities.
Many churches, unfortunately, tend to instead operate out of a theology of scarcity. Life is hard and we need to make do with what we have. We become defeatist and unable to dream and imagine what God could empower us to accomplish when we combine our resources.
The flip side of this is churches that peddle a simplistic prosperity doctrine that equates Christian faith with God’s blessing expressed in wealth and material stuff—we ask in faith and receive. That’s a caricature of the abundant life. It’s a failure of imagination or of any serious spiritual reflection.
I love Psalm 23 because of the images of abundance. God is our shepherd and we are sheep grazing in verdant green pastures that restore our souls. This doesn’t mean that life is always easy. The very next paragraph is about suffering and death. Even here, God walks with us and comforts us. Consider all the images of provision in this psalm. I lack nothing. God restores my life. God leads me in paths of righteousness. God is continually with me and comforts me. God prepares a table for me. Goodness and loving-kindness pursue me all the days of my life. And the house of God is my dwelling place forever.
This generous God, who provides so bountifully, is also a revolutionary God. Through Jesus’ resurrection God loosened a great energy that creates a new people who share common life, witness, prayer and belongings. I invite us to consider how we are part of this resurrection life. Kirk Byron Jones tells about the ultra-lively pastor of Memorial Church at Harvard University. When people asked him how he was doing, instead of the familiar response, “Fine, how are you?” he would catch them off guard by responding, “I flourish!” He comments:
In the final analysis, being fine with flourishing has to do less with how much you have and more with a heightened appreciation for the value of whatever you do have—for yourself and for others. [He] tells the story of visiting a home in a village and being hosted warmly. As he spoke with the adults, he noticed a little girl, and he gave her a few pieces of gum. Later, outside, he saw the little girl again—surrounded by other children. She was sharing the gum with her friends. When we’re living in God’s overflow, there’s an abiding sense of having what you need and always having enough to share. Appreciating what we have, rather than ruminating over what we don’t have, allows us to abide freely and fully in ever-flourishing blessing.
I’ve been privileged to see such generous spirits here at our church since we’ve not been able to meet. One was when members of the Hispanic Pentecostal church sent a work crew to deep clean the whole building. As I sat in my office I could hear them chatting in Spanish as they joyfully scrubbed and cleaned. They hardly missed a speck of dust and even thoroughly cleaned my office as I waited in the next door conference room.
The other is the ongoing distribution of food by volunteers from A Place to Stand working in our church basement. They’re so happy as they fill bags of groceries to give to needy school children and their families. At one point there were lines of filled grocery bags stacked along the basement hallways waiting to be distributed. It’s the wealth and abundant life of generous people sharing what we have.