By Eddie Lowen
Not long ago, Drew Dyck read this inspirational quote from Oprah Winfrey on the java jacket of his Starbucks coffee cup: “The only courage you ever need is the courage to live the life you want.” The Leadership Journal editor instinctively analyzed this Oprahism.
It’s exactly what you’d expect from Oprah. Or Joel Osteen.
Having an eye for theological truth—more simply known as truth—Dyck realized what was intended as inspiration was actually a giant dose of what I call gagology. He was so troubled by the misleading potential of Oprah’s message that he literally crossed-out the word live and replaced it with the word sacrifice. His edited version read: “The only courage you ever need is the courage to sacrifice the life you want.”
That edit is a blatant rebuke of Oprah. It’s also a bold alignment with Jesus, who called his followers to be cross-carriers and said, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
Dyck edited several more Oprah quotes, all of which highlight the chasm between the self-aggrandizing message of secular inspiration and the self-crucifying message of Jesus.
My discovery of Dyck’s blog was timely. I found it as I prepared the opening message in a series from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. That week, I shook my head often at the demanding message of Jesus in Matthew 5–7. The two-word command that captures it best is in the final verse of Matthew 5: “Be perfect.”
The most inadequate characterization of the Sermon on the Mount I found called it a “pep talk” by Jesus. Actually, it’s the opposite. Nothing about the Sermon on the Mount works as a pregame devotional by an NFL team chaplain. How does a linebacker apply instruction like, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) or “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (5:39)?
So much of what Jesus expects of his followers remains foreign and unnatural to me. Some of his best-known teachings contradict my instincts—and a lot of my past behavior. After 40 years of learning to follow Jesus, if someone strikes me or tries to intimidate me, I’m more likely to resist or retaliate than to feel blessed or turn the other cheek.
I can’t even get through the Beatitudes that kick off this sermon without noticing that the words of Jesus aren’t much like the chicken soup my soul has slurped.
• I should be “poor in spirit”? Jesus wants me to think less of myself spiritually? What about my self-esteem? Is Jesus saying I’m not actually awesome in every way?
• Jesus wants me to mourn over my sin? Wait, there are plenty of people whose sins are worse than mine. Besides, my mom said I have a good heart.
• The meek shall inherit the earth? Jesus, have you looked around? The meek are getting pummeled all over the world. If you’ve ever had a meek child who’s been run over by the not-so-meek at school, you have to wonder if Jesus meant this.
If a fortune cookie company used the Sermon on the Mount for material, it would be out of business in a week. What customer wants to crack open his fortune and read, “If you violate even the smallest of God’s commands, or cause others to do so, you are nothing to God.” Yet that’s what Jesus said in Matthew 5:19 (and didn’t even include your lucky numbers).
Without the radical opposing force of God’s truth, both our message and our lives will deteriorate. That’s why I’m viewing feel-good, inspirational chatter more skeptically than ever.
I would never suggest that sayings, stories, and poems do not inspire. But they can also conspire. I offer Facebook and Twitter as exhibits 1 and 2. Gagology is everywhere on social media, while gospel is scarce.
I’m less interested than I’ve ever been in making the Bible fit my template. Instead, I want to help lead a community of believers that is obsessed with the person, mission, and commands of Jesus.
Over the last couple years, I’ve seen what happens when people replace gospel with gagology. It’s not pretty. I’ve seen too many people change their life motto from “I am crucified with Christ” to “I did it my way.” To explain the shift, they often say something about finding themselves (the gospel of this age), rather than denying themselves (the gospel of Jesus Christ).
I can’t help but be warned by God’s message to the unfaithful priests of Malachi’s time: “You have wearied the Lord with your words. ‘How have we wearied him?’ you ask. By saying ‘All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them’” (Malachi 2:17). My translation: your “chicken soup for the soul” is rotten.
Choose the Gospel
It’s fascinating that a pastor who reached the pinnacle of Christian celebrity a few years ago left church leadership to literally follow Oprah, whose most avid fans regard her as a spiritual mentor. This pastor now tours with Oprah, speaking at her inspirational event called “The Life You Want.” But that’s the problem. We weren’t created to pursue the lives we want. We should model Paul, who wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). And Christ laid down his life. There’s no way to marry gospel and gagology.
I return often to Paul’s warning to Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16). Those six words form a warning that, if remembered and applied, will cover just about any possible detour we could take in our teaching and living.
I deeply love grace. I badly need grace. I desperately want to share grace. But God’s grace is intended to forgive sin, not obscure it. Titus 2:11-13 speaks of a grace that sanctifies and empowers us to obey: “The grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
We all know what it is to be lured by something. We know what it is to wrestle against an illicit desire of some kind. So, we should never condemn a fellow struggler for struggling. Strugglers struggle. But if we ever stop calling one another to the radical obedience Jesus described, we will lose much.
Eddie Lowen serves as lead minister with West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.