The Feel-Good Gospel
How We Use God for Comfort
It wasn’t the response I had hoped for.
On our first long-distance call, the future Mrs. Morse asked me how my day had gone. Excited, I detailed how, just that afternoon, I finally had an opportunity to share the gospel with a friend when he opened up to me about a recent breakup. I enthusiastically recounted the conversation with her, assuming she would be impressed.
After listening, she paused, then asked, “Well, did you share the gospel with him?”
She must not have heard me, I thought. I began retelling my story.
“Yes, you told me that. I was just wondering if you shared the good news that Jesus can save him from his sin, death, and God’s wrath through his substitutionary death and subsequent resurrection — not just that God could make him happier after a tough breakup.”
Stunned, I retraced the interaction in my mind. Surely, I had, right?
Turns out the gospel I shared was not the one which Paul called “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16) — however much it may have felt like it. Rather, I had shared a kind of feel-good gospel with him. To this brokenhearted romantic, I had offered only a cookies-and-cream Christ ready to cater in the moment to his messy breakup. And while Jesus certainly does invite the dissatisfied, the thirsty, the unhappy near to find joy in him, the gospel does not say that Jesus first died to spare him from the immediate heartache of an ended relationship. Jesus came to address more than our felt-needs of the moment.
The Gospel of Feel-Good
The qualification cannot be overstated: God is “a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1), the emotional ballast for all saints going through valleys, our fortress to shelter his people from the storms of this life. He does indeed answer his children’s prayers: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14). When you suffer, run to him. If you’re happy, go to him. When you’re anxious, turn to him. He is our Father and invites us near, both on sunny days when all is well, and in stormy nights when shadows creep along the bedroom wall.
But we must never forget: Christianity is about so much more than comforting erratic human psychologies. Christianity doesn’t terminate on us. The word of the cross is not first given for present mental health but for the eternal salvation of the soul. Emotional flourishing will be found in the shadow of the cross — a cross which is not first and foremost about emotional flourishing.
God has much to say to the anxious, the depressed, the angry, the grieving, the confused, the despondent, to all the discontent who will trust him. But God’s revelation isn’t primarily about meeting these ailments. Jesus did not come into the world to first save us from our sadness — but our sin. Yet that is not what the new prosperity gospel of emotional health, wealth, and happiness teaches. We may shake our heads at messages about Jesus bringing believers mansions and Mercedes, all the while subtly believing that Jesus’s primary mission entailed giving us our best (emotional) lives now.
Self-Help in Christian Veneer
This new “gospel” deals little, if at all, with what’s perceived to be immediately helpful. It lives on the diet of topical teaching that helps you live better today instead of helping you know and worship God now and forever. It promotes a shallow form of happiness, not holiness; man’s needs, not God’s glory. It is well-known in the Christian publishing world that books on Christian living sell — while most books on God and the cross do not.
In this modern “gospel,” the chief problem with sin is that it doesn’t work — not that it offends a holy God. It overlaps with the old gospel in that it denounces destructive sins, but for very different reasons. It encourages us to fight anxiety because it isn’t helping you sleep at night. Quit porn, because it isn’t preparing you for marriage. Forgive your mother, because you’re only hurting yourself in the end. Conquer envy, because it’s not making you happy.
To achieve these ends — to sleep better, to secure that spouse, to stop the self-abuse of unforgiveness, to become happier — the feel-good gospel sends us to God for help. It invites us to rub the bottle and ask for him to fix our present inconvenience — not to forgive or transform or give us more knowledge of him. It beckons us to settle for rejuvenation, not regeneration — being burped and fed, not born again.
This “gospel” might encourage us to memorize some verses in this area or that, but are these the only ones we memorize? If it does, ours has become the gospel of practical living. Self-help with a feel-good, religious gloss. We replace the sun from the center of the universe in favor of a fragment of its warmth and light.
Comfort Has Become Chief
J.I. Packer describes the change from the ancient gospel to this newfangled one:
One way of stating the difference between it and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively concerned to be “helpful” to man — to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction — and too little concerned to glorify God.
[The old gospel’s] center of reference was unambiguously God. But in the new gospel the center of reference is man. This is just to say that the old gospel was religious in a way that the new gospel is not. Whereas the chief aim of the old was to teach men to worship God, the concern of the new seems limited to making them feel better. The subject of the old gospel was God and his ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him. There is a world of difference. (Introductory Essay to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ)
The feel-good gospel loves the effect of the Christian faith while tragically forgetting its God and true gospel. The comfort of man — not the worship of God — has become chief. The news that man can be happier — not that Jesus died for sinners — is the good news. Man comforted — not Christ crucified — is the heart of the system. And it deceitfully promises to hand out these effects to sinners when God says the wicked have no right taking up his promises while living in unrepentance. “To the wicked God says: ‘What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips?’” (Psalm 50:16).
Loving the emotional gifts above the Giver leaves worshipers neither light nor warmth.
Emotional Health, Incidentally
The paradox stands that emotional health is caught when indirectly sought. Packer writes, “The old gospel was ‘helpful,’ too — more so, indeed, than is the new — but (so to speak) incidentally, for its first concern was always to give glory to God.” The emotional help that our God provides his people is unparalleled. His promises and Person give us reason to always rejoice — remember, this is true. But this stability is often attained accidentally as we “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33).
We see such help, in one of many places, in Isaiah’s charge to comfort the people (Isaiah 40:1). The prophet asked, “What shall I cry?” (Isaiah 40:6). After he then hears about the glory of God’s revealed word, God tells him to go up on a high mountain and herald the good news, to lift up his voice with strength, and to say to the people, “Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:9).
Well-being will come through true worship. Seek comfort for comfort’s sake, relegate God to the background, and you get neither.
Promise of Perfect Peace
Emotional health in the Christian life comes first from looking outside ourselves. Hate sin, love Christ, trust in his power to save, seek to live for his glory, and we mature in emotional health. The truly happy man seeks God in his word, planting himself by life-giving streams, and his “leaf does not wither” (Psalm 1:3). We seek first for God, and, in finding him, we gain fullness of joy in him, and heaven thrown in.
Must we choose, then, between pursuing happiness in God and glorifying him? No. In fact, we must not. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. We seek for happiness in God, for his glory, not so we can settle for our best life now, with God at the periphery. We seek eternal life, not in a pleasant state of mind in the moment, but in knowing Jesus Christ and the Father who sent him (John 17:3). And as we set our minds on Christ, he will, in his perfect time, keep us in perfect peace (Isaiah 26:3).
Human feelings are not ultimate; God is ultimate. Jesus is not a means to real joy; he is our joy. We do not dethrone the God of all comfort for comfort itself. Our hearts and souls will not truly flourish until firmly planted in this bedrock: “Behold your God!”