“She’s really living her best life. Traveling. Just doing whatever she wants, you know?”
I heard these words last week on a street in Rome packed wall to wall with college students and young adults all living their best lives. Having just finished a missions conference, we were there too — perhaps also in pursuit of our best lives. My family tramped with the masses from fountain to monument to obelisk, each one bearing witness to a man who lived one or two thousand years ago.
Selfie sticks were the banner and “Cheeeese” was the chorus, as smartphones documented everyone’s best life on social media.
Living my best life. It’s a hashtag, a colloquialism, a mantra of our day. It’s Oprah’s most oft-quoted advice and a variation of Joel Osteen’s #1 New York Times Best Seller. It has made its way from the lofty platforms of gurus and into the mainstream. It’s so pervasive, in fact, that we Christ followers must ask ourselves if it’s even inside the church — inside of us.
Sanitized Prosperity Theology
We are quick to reject the blatant heresy of prosperity preachers. We bristle at televised healings, so-called slayings in the Spirit, and promises that if you give till it hurts God will bless you. The guarantees of health and wealth in exchange for enough faith make us alternate between laughter and fury. Can you believe these guys? we ask one another. How do people fall for this nonsense?
But — but — do you and I not believe, on some level, that because our God is good, and because our behavior is pretty good, our lives should be good too? Do we not expect a certain amount of health and wealth ourselves? I mean, we gave our lives to God. We dedicated our children to him. We read his word. We give (at least a little something) when the offering plate is passed. We sing songs to praise him. We start our mornings in prayer to him. We are his and he is ours. So he should bless us, right?
For so many of us in the West — and I am looking in the mirror with grief here — Christianity is the cherry on top of an already sweet ice cream sundae. There’s a sanitized prosperity theology lurking in the corners of our hearts and minds: I am a child of God. It’s his will for me to live the good life — my best life, right here, right now.
Lay Down Your Life
What does living my best life look like according to Scripture? We must ask this question of Scripture because we are inundated with answers from other sources. Social media, magazine covers, movies, and all the memes of pop culture tell us that our best lives should resemble that girl described on the streets of Rome: “Traveling. Just doing whatever she wants, you know?”
But Christ’s words cut to the heart:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:34–36)
According to Jesus, the best life is the one that is lost in him. In stark contrast to the cultural air we breathe, Jesus exhorts us to not pursue the whole world. Instead, he lovingly instructs us to take up our crosses and follow him, our Savior, who willingly laid down his life for ours.
Jesus says our best lives are found when we lay them down.
It was not lost on my family that as we photographed ourselves in front of crumbling Roman monuments to men, we were building our own monument — a digital record of our trip, our family, our (best?) life. Just as the obelisk that documents battle victories decays, so too will our photos and social-media accounts. All monuments to men — limestone, digital, and otherwise — must eventually fall.
But there is a kind of monument that will last. There are deeds that are eternal, and they are carried out in the “best life” commanded by Christ. A life that is lost in him is actually saved. And works done for his sake last forever and ever.
The apostle Paul said that eventually
each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire. . . . If the work that anyone has built on [Christ’s] foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved. (1 Corinthians 3:13–15)
As Christians, our work will be tested. If we have built on the foundation of Christ, if we have lost our lives and done our work for his sake, our work will survive and we will be rewarded. Or we will spend our lives on works that will burn, though we will be saved.
How are we living? Will our works crumble like the supposed Eternal City of Rome, or will they actually stand for all eternity?
Life Poured Out
My family and I visited the site where Paul was likely imprisoned in Rome. From his captivity, awaiting trial, Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, saying, “I want you to know brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12).
Later, he wrote, “Yes, and I will rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). And then, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering, . . . I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:17–18).
Counter to our flesh and our culture, Paul shows us how living the best life that Jesus offers is a pouring out that leads to joy. This approach to life directly opposes the health, wealth, and good life that we in the prosperous West have come to expect.
The best life that the world offers is one that is fleeting. The monuments we build to ourselves will crumble. But the life that lasts, and the life that produces joy, is the life that is lost for the sake of Jesus and the gospel.
By God’s grace and with his help, may you and I really live our best lives.