David was trekking through the arid Judean wilderness when he wrote,
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. (Psalm 63:3–4)
David’s wilderness wandering was no “Walden” experience for him. He was not on a desert spiritual retreat to escape the busyness of life and reconnect with God. David was retreating from people who wanted to kill him (Psalm 63:9). Once again, he was trying to keep a step between himself and death (1 Samuel 20:3), and he felt its chill breath on his neck.
“We typically experience the preciousness of God more in seasons of privation than in seasons of prosperity.”
So, telling God that his love was “better than life” was no hyperbolic, romantic, poetic flourish for David. It was the cry of his heart while facing the fierce reality of death. It was his privation of apparent security that heightened David’s sense of the preciousness for what God had promised to be for him. And so, it was another example of the sweet psalmist of Israel (2 Samuel 23:1) writing one of his sweetest psalms in one of his bitterest experiences.
God’s Greater Gifts
That is a consistent experiential pattern in the lives of saints throughout the Bible and the history of the church. The people of God typically experience the preciousness of God more in seasons of privation — in hardship or need — than in seasons of prosperity. Which is why Christians pray strange things like this:
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision. (“The Valley of Vision”)
The valley is the place of vision? The preciousness of God is experienced in privation? At first this can seem counterintuitive. Didn’t Jesus tell us that the Father loves to give good gifts to his children (Luke 11:9–13)? Yes. Wouldn’t prosperity more effectively communicate God’s goodness to us than privation? Ultimately, yes. In fact, isn’t privation the withholding of good gifts while prosperity is giving good gifts? No, not if privation is a means God uses to give us the best gifts of the best prosperity — which is precisely what he does.
The Prospering Power of Privation
One place (of many) the divine logic can be seen is in something the apostle Paul wrote a millennium after David:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
In other words, the temporary physical privation Paul and his partners experienced pointed to an eternal spiritual prosperity for Paul, his partners, and his hearers/readers. Their privations helped them all look beyond the transient seen to the eternal, infinitely prosperous unseen promised to them, and their inner selves were renewed in an unconquerable hope that could never be disappointed here, no matter what happened on earth.
“Nothing demonstrates the value of a treasure more than what we are willing to suffer and lose in order to have it.”
But their earthly privations were more than pointers to a future prosperity. They were producing some of that future prosperity. That’s what Paul meant in verse 17, when he said that our seen light and momentary afflictions — like being perplexed, persecuted, and struck down (2 Corinthians 4:8–9) — are preparing for us an unseen incomparable weight of glory. The Greek word Paul used (katergazetai), translated “is preparing,” means to produce or bring about.
Paul knew Jesus clearly taught that the privations his followers endured for his sake and in faith would be abundantly rewarded by the Father (Mark 10:28–30). He knew our faithful suffering would be rewarded. But Paul also knew that the one great reward worth having more than any other was Christ himself forever (Philippians 3:8–11), and that our faithful sufferings would be most rewarded with that Reward.
A Prosperity That’s Better Than Life
That was the reward David also desired most (Psalm 23:6; 27:4). It’s why he was able to say in that dry and weary wilderness, with death nipping at his heels, that God’s steadfast love was better than life to him. David did not love his earthly prosperity more than he loved God, or more than God’s purposes, or more than God’s promises.
David learned what his greatest prosperity was, where his most valuable treasures were laid up, through his many wilderness wanderings, his many desperate moments, and his many persecutions. David’s privations, far more than his earthly prosperity, prepared for him an incomparable weight of glory. And because of them, he has pointed the rest of us to true prosperity for three thousand years.
“The true, biblical, Christian gospel is a prosperity gospel.”
The true, biblical, Christian gospel is a prosperity gospel. It is discovering a treasure of such surpassing worth that those who find it simply aren’t willing to settle for the mud-pie prosperity of this fallen world. It is a treasure that is better than life, and nothing demonstrates the value of a treasure more than what we are willing to suffer and lose in order to have it (Matthew 13:44; Philippians 3:7–8). And this treasure is discovered and experienced far more often in the field of earthly privation than earthly prosperity.