In 2007, actor Owen Wilson slashed his wrists in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. People magazine’s cover story about the “funny man who had it all” implied that his material abundance gave him every reason to live. Public shock over his actions unveiled the widespread belief that money, fame, cars, sex, a second home on the shores of Maui, and the whole celebrity package really do buy happiness. After all, wasn’t Owen Wilson living the good life?
In a subsequent issue of People, one letter to the editor astutely asked, “If a red-hot career, traveling the globe, a Malibu mansion and million-dollar paychecks didn’t prevent Owen’s ‘demons’ from rearing their ugly heads before the August incident, why would they do the trick now?”
The irony is inescapable: most of Owen Wilson’s fans would have, in a heartbeat, exchanged their mundane, commonplace lives for that of their idol. But the trade would have given them the life Wilson desperately wanted out of.
Most of us don’t have access to the amount of money and possessions celebrities do, but a similar story plays out in countless lives. If money were enough to constitute the good life, why does the prosperity-driven United States have a higher per capita suicide rate than war-torn, tragedy-plagued, poverty-riddled Sudan?
One thing is clear: what’s relentlessly advertised and sold to us as the good life is not the abundant life Jesus said He came to give in John 10:10.
Exchanging Good Things for Great Things
Nanci and I once spent five days aboard a ship that belongs to Operation Mobilization. The Logos Hope goes from port to port, bringing the gospel message all over the world. The volunteer teams use street dramas and music to share the Good News; other crew members distribute Bibles and Christian books to people visiting the ship’s huge bookstore.
While docked in Jamaica, we watched a crew of four hundred young people from sixty different nations welcome and serve thousands of visitors. Some also left the ship for the day to serve the poor in surrounding communities.
As we talked late into the night with crew members, we heard laughter and stories of God’s life-giving grace. These young people, many with little cash in their pockets and without credit cards, could have been making much more money doing something else. We might have felt sorry for them, since accommodations and food service on the Logos Hope are more like a warship than a cruise ship, and they often worked long hours at menial chores. Instead, we envied them, because while it wasn’t a perfect life, for most it was clearly an authentic, rewarding, happy-making life.
Nanci and I met Audrey, a young woman from the Philippines who had been serving for a year in the ship’s laundry. She told us a story about people trusting Christ after she spoke to them. Even though she didn’t know their language and they didn’t know hers, they had somehow understood her words. She’d witnessed a miracle. Her face beaming with joy, she said, “Every time I remember this story, I’m constantly amazed how limitless and how powerful our God is. It is such a privilege to be bringing this hope to all the people!”
So who lives the good life: Owen Wilson or Audrey on the Logos Hope?
What Jesus Said about Wealth
Google “the good life,” and you’ll find advice from both secular and religious sources on how to achieve a life worth living. Some of these attempt to temper the money-centered worldview. An article on MarketWatch.com entitled “The Good Life Is Not Only about Money” says, “Being healthy and wealthy have always been two well-known ingredients of happiness,” but it goes on to point out the importance of “being spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically healthy.”
Still, when I searched for “he’s living the good life,” the first two videos that popped up were people in plush surroundings, the first one flipping through a huge stack of cash and singing about partying, and the second one lounging in a luxury resort. A third was about a famous nightclub. One article was titled “The Keys to Building Wealth and Living the Good Life.”
Neither the videos nor the article clearly defines the good life. Why? Because the creators assume the viewers and the readers agree it’s about accumulating and spending lots of money to purchase happiness.
Yet despite both personal experiences and studies indicating money alone doesn’t bring the good life, countless people think and live and make choices as if it does.
Every truth seeker must grasp how fundamentally flawed this worldview really is. To correct this fatal perspective, Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15, NIV).
The last portion of this verse is rendered this way in different translations:
Your true life is not made up of the things you own. (GNT)
Life is not measured by how much you own. (NLT)
Even if a man has much more than he needs, it cannot give him life. (WE)
Jesus immediately followed this statement with the parable of the rich fool, turning our idea of the good life upside down:
There was a rich man who had some land, which grew a good crop. He thought to himself, “What will I do? I have no place to keep all my crops.” Then he said, “This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and other goods. Then I can say to myself, ‘I have enough good things stored to last for many years. Rest, eat, drink, and enjoy life!’” (Luke 12:16-19, NCV)
So far, doesn’t this story sound great? Store up lots of money for yourself, retire early, and live large!
These different translations of verse 19 capture the rich man’s philosophy, which sounds remarkably like the American dream:
Live it up! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. (CEV)
Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry. (RSV)
Relax! Eat, drink and have a good time! (PHILLIPS)
You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life! (MSG)
Jesus didn’t accuse the man of dishonesty, theft, or injustice. For all we know, he might have faithfully attended synagogue. He was living the life others dreamed of. What’s wrong with that?
Then comes the big surprise: “But God said to him, ‘You fool! Tonight you will die. Then who will get what you have stored up?’” (Luke 12:20, CEV).
What derailed the rich man’s attempts to live what he believed was the good life? First, death. Second, God’s judgment on his now irreversible life. In the predigital age, a high school photography teacher taught me how to develop photos by immersing photo paper in solutions. As long as the photograph remains in the developing solution, it can change. But once it’s dropped into the stop bath, it’s permanently fixed. Likewise, when we die and enter eternity, our lives on Earth will be permanently fixed, never again to be altered or revised. “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27, NIV).
The rich man wasn’t merely a fool like the kind described in the book of Proverbs, who still had an opportunity to repent and choose wisdom (see, for example, Proverbs 26). God’s appraisal of us after we die is final. There’s no reset button, no do-overs. If at the end of your life God calls you a fool, you’ll be a fool forever.
This parable serves as a warning to all of us. Jesus applies the rich fool’s experience to that of others: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). To lay up treasures for ourselves and not be rich toward God means clinging to our riches instead of honoring God by helping those who are physically and spiritually needy.