A Review of
The Gospel for the Person who Has Everything
Reviewed by Andrew Camp
A few years into our marriage, my wife and I moved from San Bernardino, California to Park City, Utah in order for my wife to finish her degree. If you know anything about these two cities, you know how radically different they are. On our way out of San Bernardino, with all of our belongings in a truck, I remember hearing on the radio that San Bernardino was declaring bankruptcy. In Park City, on the other hand, there is an inordinate amount of wealth. People move to Park City having “made it” in life (the median price for a single-family home in Park City is currently $2 million). Think Type-A go-getters. Highly successful business people. Hollywood elites. Star athletes.
My wife and I did not move here on those terms; we moved here on a student-loan budget. Skiing Deer Valley Resort was simply not in the equation for us, and still isn’t. Fast forward a few years of living here, and I find myself a pastor to these people with whom I have little in common. And yet, the rich and the strong still need the gospel.
Sadly, the typical evangelical presentation of the gospel begins with trying to convince people how absolutely deplorable they are. We start with sin. We start with the problem. “Our lowest human natures are appealed to in an attempt to raise us to the highest ideals of Christ” (40). According to this presentation, one cannot accept the incredibly great news until one has reached a sufficient level of misery.
Thankfully, Will Willimon noticed this problem and addresses it in The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, originally published in 1978. As a young pastor he realized that the evangelical gospel presentation is perfectly suited for the downcast, the outcast and the broken hearted, but he also met plenty of people who lived happy and fulfilled lives. They did not need the church, and it seemed the church did not need them, leading Willimon to reflect, “Perhaps our preaching and theology have left them out altogether” (18).
What needs to change in order for our gospel presentation to reflect this?
Instead of starting with the problem, we start with the answer, namely Christ himself. “Christ becomes the answer that stands, not at the end of all our selfish desires and fearful questions, but the answer that stands before we even knew or dared to ask the most important of life’s questions” (45). According to Scripture, conversion comes not when we realize how wretched we are, but rather that even in our rebellion, God has found us through Christ and has become a friend. Think of Saul when he met Christ on the road to Damascus. Christ moved close to a strong and fulfilled person. Saul was not brought to his knees through Christ’s condemnation but rather through love and acceptance. And our problem, and maybe the evangelical church’s problem, is “not what we have done or not done, not what we have felt or not felt or believe or not believed, but simply we have not remembered with how great a love we have been loved” (51, emphasis mine).
Forgetting how deeply loved we are has serious ramifications. For Willimon, the biggest is that the church treats people as babies in the faith and perpetuates childishness instead of helping them develop a bold faith that takes risks for others. Instead of preaching a mature faith of freedom, risk, gracious giving, multi-faceted truth, depth and objectivity, the church is prone to fall prey to immature substitutes, like fundamentalism, contemporary messiahs (or the cult of celebrity pastors), and the prosperity gospel, which further alienates people.
Starting with Christ and leading people to mature faith, the church can speak to the person who has everything. Instead of confronting people with their wretchedness, the church confronts them at their strongest point. According to Willimon, “We must take seriously the fact that power, strength, maturity, self-discipline, and freedom are not hindrances to living the Christian faith but are gifts to be used gratefully and sacrificially” (78). This means the church cultivates in people gratitude, recognizing that all they have been given and blessed with is a gift from God. But the church must also help the strong still see their needs, but they are a peculiar set of needs, often which they are blind to because of their strengths. And finally the strong need a challenge—they want a challenge; they want to know that what they have can be used for grander purposes.
As the church ministers to the strong, they will also need to reclaim the Christian ethic of response over and against an ethic of achievement. Christians need to be constantly reminded that their good deeds are not done in order to achieve anything, for remember Christ has already loved us. Rather as Christians we are compelled by the love by which we have been loved. Willimon reminds us, “You can’t beat people on the head, bring them to their knees, devastate their human dignity, and then expect them to act like mature, responsible, full human beings” (96). Instead, the church must help her congregants to do the hard work of using their power in responsible ways, for let’s face it, the majority of white, American evangelicals have been blessed in special ways. The question becomes, what will we do with it?
This is the challenge that the strong need to be confronted with. The church needs to stop placating people, giving out nice, naïve platitudes, and start proclaiming the gospel that awakes people from their stupor and asks them to rise to meet the challenges of our day.
In order to do this, the white evangelical church needs to rid herself of the great heresy that religion is a private affair, expressed in the ideas of “Me and Jesus,” or “Do your own thing,” or a “Long Ranger Christianity.” Rather we need to remember that Christianity is a social religion. We cannot flee our community or our world because Jesus’s incarnation demonstrates once and for all that God desires to be in the world. God’s desire is for the world.
Leaders will also need to stop worrying about the little old ladies of the church as they seek to address the problems of today. And really, as Willimon points out, the little old ladies might be anyone. “She is anyone who would rather remain in the world as it was rather than venture forth into the world as it could be, who would cling to infantile gods and childish hopes rather than grow” (118). In this time, the church needs to remember the truth of what God says about us as believers. That the same Spirit which raised Christ Jesus from the dead now resides in us. That God has commissioned us to be witnesses to this incredible work and love.
Willimon saw something in 1978 that feels even more pertinent today. This is a much needed book for this time as the church continues to discern and hopefully rediscover the great and awesome call she has been given. Willimon writes:
Faith is not being sure of where you are going but going anyway because you like the traveling companions and you know who leads the way. Faith is a journey which you do not wait to begin until you are desperate and have nowhere else to go or until you are devastated and miserable and are forced to go; faith is going because you have heard the good news that the Guide is trustworthy and that the trip is worth the cost (121).
In this new year, may we as the church discern how to live into this call.