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The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ

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The Good and Beautiful Life

Putting on the

Character of Christ

James Bryan Smith

Formatio books from InterVarsity Press follow the rich tradition of the church in the journey of spiritual formation. These books are not merely about being informed, but about being transformed by Christ and conformed to his image. Formatio stands in InterVarsity Press’s evangelical publishing tradition by integrating God’s Word with spiritual practice and by prompting readers to move from inward change to outward witness. InterVarsity Press uses the chambered nautilus for Formatio, a symbol of spiritual formation because of its continual spiral journey outward as it moves from its center. We believe that each of us is made with a deep desire to be in God’s presence. Formatio books help us to fulfill our deepest desires and to become our true selves in light of God’s grace.

InterVarsity Press

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©2009 by James Bryan Smith.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from InterVarsity Press.

InterVarsity Press® is the book-publishing division of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA®, a movement of students and faculty active on campus at hundreds of universities, colleges and schools of nursing in the United States of America, and a member movement of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. For information about local and regional activities, write Public Relations Dept. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, 6400 Schroeder Rd., P.O. Box 7895, Madison, WI 53707-7895, or visit the IVCF website at

Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Design: Cindy Kiple

Images: Blue butterfly: Paul Beard/Getty Images

ISBN 978-0-8308-7876-5

For my teachers

Dallas Willard and Richard J. Foster

Scribes of the kingdom who have brought

us treasures, old and new

Matthew 13:52



How to Get the Most Out of This Book

1 The Good and Beautiful Life

Soul Training: Writing a Letter to God

2 The Gospel Many People Have Never Heard

Soul Training: Play

3 The Grand Invitation

Soul Training: Hospitality

4 Learning to Live Without Anger

Soul Training: Keeping the Sabbath

5 Learning to Live Without Lust

Soul Training: Media Fast

6 Learning to Live Without Lying

Soul Training: Silence

7 Learning to Bless Those Who Curse Us

Soul Training: Praying for the Success of Competitors

8 Learning to Live Without Vainglory

Soul Training: Secret Service

9 Learning to Live Without Avarice

Soul Training: Deaccumulation

10 Learning to Live Without Worry

Soul Training: Prayer

11 Learning to Live Without Judging Others

Soul Training: A Day Without Gossip

12 Living in the Kingdom Day by Day

Soul Training: Living One Day Devotionally

Appendix: Small Group Discussion Guide




The great preacher and founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley (1703-1791), was once approached by a man who came to him in the grip of unbelief. “All is dark; my thoughts are lost,” the man said to Wesley, “but I hear that you preach to a great number of people every night and morning. Pray, what would you do with them? Whither would you lead them? What religion do you preach? What is it good for?” Wesley gave this answer to those questions:

You ask, what would I do with them? I would make them virtuous and happy, easy in themselves, and useful to others. Whither would I lead them? To heaven, to God the judge, the lover of all, and to Jesus the mediator of the New Covenant. What religion do I preach? The religion of love. The law of kindness brought to light by the gospel. What is this good for? To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves, to make them like God, lovers of all, contented in their lives, and crying out at their death, in calm assurance, “O grave where is thy victory! Thanks be to God, who giveth me victory, through my Lord Jesus Christ.”

His answer is a beautiful and succinct description of the good and beautiful life.

But those answers are not what you might hear today. We seldom talk about virtue these days, but Wesley knew virtue was central to developing a vibrant, joyful life. How do people become virtuous? Wesley understood that the Christian gospel is the fundamental building block of the life we long for. We yearn to know and be known by God. But not just any understanding of God will do. Wesley describes God as the judge—God is holy—and yet he also calls God “the lover of all.” We were designed to be in fellowship with a loving and holy God. Yet we cannot merit this on our own, so Wesley says he would lead his hearers to Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant, a covenant of forgiveness and regeneration through which we become people in whom Christ dwells and delights.

And what is the religion Wesley prescribes? Not a religion of laws or ceremonies or mystical knowledge, but of love and kindness. Our world is badly in need of people who love, and it is hungering for people who demonstrate genuine kindness. We are so deprived of it that we are astonished when we encounter it. And what is the point of this religion? To get us to heaven? No, to get heaven into us. To help us discover a relationship with God wherein we enjoy God and are easy in ourselves. If we can discover such a life, Wesley believed, we can even face our death with calm assurance and the certainty of a joyful eternity.

The Apprentice Series of books, of which this is the second volume, is designed to do exactly what Wesley is describing. This book, its predecessor and the third volume have a single aim: to draw people into the divine conspiracy of love and transformation. The first book, The Good and Beautiful God, focuses on the God that Wesley described: loving, holy, forgiving and joyful. This book shifts the focus onto our own lives, hearts and character. It contains a method of growth toward a virtuous life of gladness and kindness. The third book, The Good and Beautiful Community, endeavors to help readers apply the principles of kingdom living into their everyday lives: in their homes, at work, in their communities and in their world.

How Does Jesus Think?

One of the central principles of the Apprentice Series is that we live at the mercy of our ideas and our narratives. What we think determines how we live. If we think God is an angry accountant frowning on us and would love us if only we are good enough, that narrative will be seen in how we live. Or if we think that being an angry person or hating our enemies are good things, then that too will be expressed in our day-to-day living. A lot of false narratives about God and human life are perpetuated in our world, sometimes even in our churches. The solution is to examine what Jesus thought, even before we look at what he did.

Jesus, the second member of Trinity, is intimately connected to God the Father and God the Spirit. Jesus reveals to us the character and nature of God, and his testimony is the best and most reliable the world has ever seen. So I believe that the key to beginning a good and beautiful life is to adopt the narratives of Jesus. I discovered that as I replaced my old, false narratives with the narratives of Jesus, my life began to change in many ways. I fell in love with the God Jesus knows. I began to see myself as someone in whom Christ dwells, as sacred and valuable. I started to treat people differently as I entered the kingdom, and learned that I really can pray for my enemies and bless those who curse me. Some of them even stopped cursing me!

The Four Components of Change

The mind and the ideas and stories that are imbedded in it are the beginning place for change, but transformation involves three other components as well. We need the practice of the spiritual disciplines, which are designed to cure the soul, not earn merit in heaven. Each chapter in this book ends with a soul-shaping tool that is designed to help embed the narrative of Jesus. I am convinced that while we can change by renewing our mind and practicing disciplines on our own, we find deeper and more lasting change within a community. We need others to help us see who and whose we are.

The mind, the disciplines and the community are foundational aspects of change, but the real change agent is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit leads us to Jesus, reveals the Father, exposes falsehood, offers correction, and gives us the needed encouragement that make growth and transformation possible. The Spirit helps us change our narratives by leading us into truth, enlightens us as we practice the disciplines, and binds us together in community. If not for the work of the Holy Spirit, transformation simply will not take place. But we must participate in this process. By serious reading and reflection, by practicing the spiritual exercises and by entering into community, we create the condition in which the Spirit can transform our character. Figure 1 offers a visual understanding of the relationship of the four components. The Apprentice Series is built on this model.

Figure 1. The four components of change

How this Book Came to Be

This book is the culmination of twenty-five years of learning from two great men, Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. Richard has been my mentor since I was his student in college. And I met Dallas and eventually served as a teaching assistant for a little over ten years. The idea for this book took shape soon after I began working with Dallas. He kept talking about the need to create “a curriculum for Christlikeness” for individuals and churches. His blueprint for such a curriculum can be found in the ninth chapter of his The Divine Conspiracy. Even as he was developing that chapter, I queried, “Can this really be done, Dallas?” He said, “Yes, of course.” Then I asked, “Why don’t you do it?” and he responded, “Because I think you should do it, Jim.” No pressure.

In 1998 I began working with his simple blueprint for a course in learning to live as Jesus taught, and slowly created a curriculum. In 2003 I asked the church leadership board of Chapel Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita if I could invite some church members to go through this curriculum with me. They agreed, and I led twenty-five people through the thirty-week course. Midway through that year I began to suspect that Dallas was right. Genuine transformation into the character of Christ is possible.

Since that time I have led another seventy-five people through the curriculum, and the results have been the same: significant life change. One woman’s response is typical: “What are you doing to my husband? He is a different person! He is more patient and more attentive to our whole family than ever before. I don’t know what is going on, but you can be sure I am taking the course next year.” This series also has been used in youth groups and on the college campus. Who is the target audience for this material? Anyone who longs for change—young or old, new Christian or mature Christian, male or female, it doesn’t matter.

The Issues Addressed in This Book

This book is aimed at your heart. Your heart is the center of your life and is revealed in your actions and solidified in your character. Spiritual formation is ultimately character formation. This book begins by looking at human life in general and asks, Who is living a good life? Chapters two and three explore the essential message of Jesus and who he is addressing. Both chapters introduce the available and unshakable kingdom of God and explain its importance in our lives.

The remainder of this book is an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount and follows Jesus’ outline for how to develop a genuinely good life. Chapter four deals with anger, followed by chapters on lust, lying, blessing those who curse us, vanity, avarice, worry and judging others. Chapter twelve provides direction and encouragement for how to live in the kingdom of God day by day, with a specific focus on how to live one day closely with God.

I encourage you to proceed with hope and certainty that you are engaged in something that can make a positive difference in your life. I am confident that God, who has begun a good work in you, will bring it to completion. So move forward with the assurance that you can and will be changed, and as you change, those around you will see it and be inspired. May God change your mind, heart and life, and use you to change the world.

How to Get the Most Out of This Book

This book is intended to be used in the context of a community—a small group, a Sunday school class or a few friends gathered in a home or coffee shop. Working through this book with others greatly magnifies the impact. If you go through this on your own, only the first four suggestions below will apply to you. No matter how you use it, I am confident that God can and will accomplish a good work in you.

1. Prepare. Find a journal or notebook with blank pages.

You will use this journal to answer the questions sprinkled throughout each chapter and for the reflections on the soul-shaping experience found at the end of each chapter.

2. Read. Read each chapter thoroughly.

Try not to read hurriedly, and avoid reading the chapter at the last minute. Start reading early enough in the week so you have time to digest the material.

3. Do. Complete the weekly exercise(s).

Engaging in exercises related to the content of the chapter will help deepen the ideas you are learning and will begin to mold and heal your soul. Some of the exercises will take more time to complete than others. Be sure to leave plenty of time to do the exercise before your group meeting. You want to have time not only to do the exercise but also to do the written reflections.

4. Reflect. Make time to complete your written reflections.

In your journal go through all the questions of each chapter. This will help you clarify your thoughts and crystallize what God is teaching you.

5. Interact. Come to the group prepared to listen and to share.

If everyone takes time to journal in advance, the group’s conversation will be much more effective. It is important to remember that we should listen twice as much as we speak! But do be prepared to share. The other group members will learn from your ideas and experiences.

6. Encourage. Interact with each other outside of group time.

Use technology to stay in touch; send an encouraging e-mail to at least two others in your group between meeting times. Let them know you are thinking of them, and ask how you can pray for them. Building strong relationships is a key factor in making your experience a success.


The Good and Beautiful Life

“The meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering . . . but in the development of the soul.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

One summer I worked as an intern chaplain at a retirement center. It was a pretty easy job. The residents were all in good enough health not to need constant care. They seemed to enjoy living together, kind of like a college dorm experience for people with gray hair, wrinkles and a lot of wisdom. I saw smiling faces everywhere I went. In our daily chapel a woman named Gladys played a hymn, I gave a short devotion, and we ended with one more hymn and a benediction. The rest of the day the residents spent thinking about their children and grandchildren, having tea or shooting pool. It was a pretty nice job. Sipping tea with grandmothers and shooting pool with grandfathers was not a bad way to spend a summer.

Mostly I mingled during social times, but occasionally someone would request a visit from me. One day my supervisor handed me a slip that said, “Ben Jacobs, Room 116, requests a visit from a chaplain.” She looked at me and said, “Good luck with this one, Jim.” Her tone told me that she knew I was up for a difficult afternoon. What could be tough about this? I asked myself as I made my way to Ben’s room. I knocked on the door, and a deep voice bellowed, “Come in, young man.” Ben sat in his rocker, with a shawl around his legs, wearing a blue cardigan and a button-down shirt. He had gray hair, a well-trimmed beard and very severe features: large, deeply set eyes and a very long, thin nose. He looked serious and important, and like one who would not be crossed.

“Good afternoon, Ben,” I said, reaching out my hand to shake his.

“Sit down, son,” he said, matter-of-factly, without shaking my hand.

For the next half an hour we talked about philosophy and world religions. I was not sure if he wanted to test me to see if I was intelligent and well read or if he just wanted to impress me. He certainly did impress me. He knew a great deal about very sophisticated matters in religion and philosophy. We engaged in a debate over which philosopher was the best. I suspected, however, that he did not want to debate philosophy, but I was not sure what he really wanted. After a while he said, “Well, you must have much to do. I will let you go now. Good day.”

This time he did shake my hand, and as I left the room he said, “Would you please come back tomorrow?”

For the next six days I went to room 116 and talked with Ben, and each day he opened up a little more, sharing more about his life in bits and pieces. Then, on the seventh visit I discovered Ben’s main intention. He wanted someone to confess to. Not any one sin; Ben wanted to confess to having lived a bad life. Surprisingly, his life, according to many, was really not so bad. Some might even say he lived well.

“I was born in 1910. I made my first million by 1935. I was twenty-five years old. By the age of forty-five I was the richest man in my state. Politicians wanted to be my friend. I lied, cheated and stole from whomever I could. My motto was simple: take all you can from whoever you can. I amassed wealth, and everyone was impressed with me. I had a lot of power in those days. I had two thousand employees, and all of them looked up to me or were afraid of me. Money was really all I cared about. I had three wives, all who left me either because of neglect or because they caught me in one of my many affairs. I have one daughter, who is now in her forties, but she refuses to speak to me.”

Ben paused to look at me, to see if I was judging him. I wasn’t. I was somewhat stunned. He looked so grandfatherly in his cardigan sweater; he looked nothing like the kind of person who could have lived such an ambitious, selfish, even sinful life. He went on, “I suppose you could say that I ruined my life, because today, I have nothing really. Oh, I still have a lot of money. I still have more money than I could ever spend. But that brings me no joy. I sit here each day, waiting to die. I have nothing but bad memories. I cared about no one in my life, and now no one cares about me. You, young man, are all I have.”

Everyone Wants to Be Happy

Some of us are introverts, some are extroverts. Some of us like cats, others like dogs. Some of us like to take risks, others play it safe. Each of us is unique. But there is one thing that every one of us has in common: everyone wants to be happy. No one seeks a dull, lifeless, boring, meaningless life. I have never met a person whose goal was to ruin his or her life. We all want to be happy, and we want it all of the time. And we want it for those we love. Recently there was a poll taken that asked this simple question: “What did your parents want most for you—success, wealth, to be a good person, or happiness?” Eighty-five percent said happiness.

Do you agree that everyone wants to be happy?

Ben wanted to be happy. He never set out to live a sad, joyless life. Ben did not decide, “I think I will make a series of selfish decisions in an attempt to ruin my life.” He thought he was pursuing happiness. Ben was pursuing happiness, joy, contentment and prosperity, just as all of us do all of the time. The problem is Ben had adopted a set of ideas about what success and happiness are, and they were all wrong. He was simply obeying a false narrative about what constitutes a good and happy life. His dominant narrative, like all dominant narratives, dictated his behavior and justified the outcomes. No one ends up in a situation like Ben’s all at once. It takes a long time to ruin a life. It all starts with the stories we live by.

To be sure, in our day there is a difference between being happy and being joyful. Happiness is a temporary condition based on our circumstances. Joy is an inner disposition not based on external circumstances and therefore not subject to change. The old devotional writers, notably people like John Wesley, used happiness to describe the good and virtuous life. True happiness meant that a person was also good. Wesley said famously, “You cannot be happy without being holy.” This is the sense I am using happy to describe the good life.

False Narrative: Happiness Comes from Following the Principles of This World

If you watch an hour of prime-time television, you will be subtly introduced to the world’s values. Twenty minutes will be filled with commercials for various products, from hair care to hotel chains to tires. Indirectly, the narrative says something like this: happiness comes from sex, money and power. A bikini-clad woman stands next to a set of tires, implying that women will be attracted to a man who buys those tires. Or a handsome man looks very content as he enjoys his stay in five-star hotel. The point is clear: expensive luxuries will make you happy.

All of these narratives are false, meaning they are built on half-truths or outright lies. When we adopt them, they slowly destroy our souls. Ben lived by these false narratives. He amassed a lot of wealth, had a great deal of power and engaged in a lot of meaningless sexual activity. All behavior is based on a narrative. Positively, our cultural narrative can be stated a number of different ways: “Look out for number one.” “You only go around once, so take all you can.” “All is fair in love and war.” These are commonly used to justify immoral or unethical behavior.

Negatively, our cultural narrative says, “Don’t suppress desire; all desires are good.” “Rules are made to be broken.” “Don’t be confined by your commitments.” “Nice guys finish last.” These were the narratives Ben lived by, which ultimately left him sad and lonely, captive to the memories of hurting others in his quest for “happiness.” Ben told me that he was intrigued by Jesus but found his teachings impossible to live by. He told me that he assumed that if he tried to obey Jesus’ commands, he would find life boring, constrictive and unpleasant. He assumed that Jesus would make him a weak failure.

How to Ruin Your Life (Without Even Trying)

In Romans 1:18-32, Paul describes how a human life spirals into ruin. Written nineteen centuries before the advent of modern psychology, Paul’s assessment of the human person remains the most brilliant depiction of soul destruction I have ever read. Perhaps you will want to read Romans 1:18-32 in your own Bible, in its entirety, but for now I would like to summarize his ideas in what I call “The Six Steps of Ruin: The Process of Becoming Nothing.”

1. The turn away: I want to be God. The first step toward ruin is to refuse to let God be God. To be more specific, it is refusing to give honor and reverence to God. Paul writes, “though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21).

2. The mind darkens (contra reality). Now, if there is a God, as Christians suppose, then that God is the creator of all, the only being that exists without a first cause, a perfect and powerful being. In short, if there is a God, we ought to honor and give thanks to God. Therefore, refusing to do that (step 1) is a step away from reality. It goes against the truth of the universe. Therefore, our minds, which thrive on truth and reality, become dimmed. Paul observes: “they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:21-22)

3. Idolatry: We must have a god. If we reject God, then something must take God’s place: “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Someone or something must take the place of God. We would like a god who would do a lot of good for us and ask very little in return. The solution: create an idol. Paul describes the next step downward: they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (Romans 1:23). Idols do not have to be little images; they can be anything we invest our lives in, in order to gain pleasure, happiness and a false sense of purpose. Here is the key: the idol serves us by giving us our desires, and we serve it by sacrificing our life energy to it.

4. God leaves us alone: Wrath. Unless we discover the futility of this existence and turn back to God, we are forced to push forward in our idolatry. Being rejected, God has no other choice. Paul delivers what I consider to be one of the most frightening verses in Scripture: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (Romans 1:24). God simply lets us be. God’s wrath is his righteous stand against sin, which he cannot endorse.

5. Pleasure is pursued at all costs. Disconnected from reality and on our own, we must find a way to find fulfillment. Though temporary, the easiest route is through our bodies. Lust and gluttony are shortcuts to happiness. But the “high” that comes from our bodies (through drugs, alcohol, food, sexual encounters, pornography) has a constantly diminishing effect. Each time we engage in these activities, the pleasure decreases, thus requiring greater frequency or greater quantities to match the level of pleasure sought. Paul puts it this way: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions” (Romans 1:26). The initial “lusts of their hearts” has now turned into “degrading passions.”

6. Sin reigns. The final step is the worst and is a natural conclusion to the previous five steps. Sin and wickedness become normative, automatic behavior. When we reject God and consequently try to replace God with things that cannot satisfy, we naturally begin to reflect everything that stands against God, namely, sin. Paul offers a list that, though ancient, is descriptive of many today:

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Romans 1:28-31)

Each day when I pick up the newspaper I see Paul’s depiction of the downward spiral lived out in the modern world: politicians using their power improperly, rape, murder, arson, runaways, gangs, drug dealers, prostitution and so on.

How have you seen this downward spiral in others or experienced it in your own life?

It all starts with that fatal first step, the same step by which Adam and Eve fell from God in the Garden: refusing to show respect and thankfulness to God. That step begins a movement away from a good and beautiful life, and ends in a life of sin and ugliness.

Sin Is Ugly, Virtue Beautiful

Sin has many defenders and no defense. Sin is ugly. It is the opposite of beauty. When I see a man leering at a woman, it makes me cringe. Anger can be ugly. When I see someone become enraged it is unsightly. Worry is unbecoming, and judging others is repulsive. When I hear someone saying terrible things about another, I feel ill. Pride and prejudice, deception and degradation—all are ugly. When I see these in others, it is clearly unattractive. But when I see them in myself, I am quick to rationalize and minimize them. Despite its ugliness and destructiveness, sin still manages to lure us into its illusion of happiness.

In contrast, virtue—not the outward appearance but the inner reality of a heart that loves goodness—is beautiful. When I see someone tell the truth, though it hurts them, it is lovely. When man treats a woman not as an object but as a person, I see beauty. A person who does a good deed in secrecy is a marvel and wonder. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton describes his life of sin and his eventual turning to God in his early years. He despised and ridiculed the word virtue, which had come to mean “prudery practiced by hypocrites.” But Merton discovered that virtue, the power that comes from moral excellence, is the only way to the good life.

Without [virtue] there can be no happiness, because virtues are precisely the powers by which we can come to acquire happiness: without them, there can be no joy, because they are the habits which coordinate and [provide an outlet for] our natural energies and direct them to the harmony and perfection and balance, the unity of our nature with itself and with God, which must, in the end, constitute our everlasting peace.

“Sin is always ugly; virtue is always beautiful.” Give some examples to back up that statement.

Sin is always ugly, and genuine virtue is always beautiful. Sin leads to ruin, virtue to greater strength. And this is why everyone, even atheists, love Jesus. Jesus was pure virtue. He lived a good and beautiful life, which he is calling his apprentices to live. A virtuous person is a light to everyone around them. I met such a person a few years ago, and he is still having an impact on me.

A Life Well Lived

In the summer of 2006 I had the privilege of meeting one of my heroes: legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. Coach Wooden still holds many records that may never be broken. He won ten NCAA basketball championships, the last one in 1975. No other coach has had more than four. During one streak his teams won eighty-eight straight games. No other team has won more than forty-two. He coached some of the greatest players ever to play the game (Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). He is thought by many to be not merely the greatest basketball coach of all time but the greatest coach of any sport in any era. To this day his former players call him, often once a week, to tell him they love him, to thank him for how he influenced their lives and to seek his advice in all areas of life.

Though he is revered for his success as a coach, his winning record did not make Coach Wooden who he is. During the afternoon I spent with him, I asked him the secret to his life. He said, “Jim, I made up my mind in 1935 to live by a set of principles, and I never wavered from them. They are based on the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. Principles like courage and honesty and hard work, character and loyalty, and virtue and honor—these are what constitute a good life.” For three hours I wrote down nearly everything he said. I watched him as he engaged in conversation with my then fourteen-year-old son, Jacob, treating him as if he were the only person in the room. Jacob’s eyes were wide as he stared at John’s memorabilia: baseballs signed by legends such as Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter and Joe Torre, all saying things like, “To Coach Wooden: You are my inspiration.”

John Wooden found the right way to live, and he lived it every day. He fell in love with and remained devoted to Nellie, his wife of fifty-three years, when they were young. On the first day of basketball practice, he spent the first hour teaching his players how to put their socks on properly. Not doing so, John said, would lead to blisters. He was teaching his players an important life principle: Do even the small things well. He told his players to acknowledge the player who passed the ball to them when they scored. The practice of pointing to the player who assisted in scoring started at UCLA. Wooden told his players, “Discipline yourself so others won’t have to.” “Never lie, never cheat, never steal.” “Earn the right to be proud and confident.”

John has lived an amazing life. His love for his beloved wife and for Jesus seemed to fill the room. He smiles infectiously, laughs easily and is genuinely humble. He is glad to be alive, able to see his children and grandchildren, but he told me he is ready to move on to the next life so he can be with Jesus and his beloved Nellie. John has lived a wonderful life, “better than I deserved,” he told me. But the truth is that he has lived the kind of life we are meant to live, based on truth, virtue and integrity, a life leading to true happiness. John Wooden has lived a good and beautiful life.

You may have noticed that John was born in 1910. That was the same year Ben was born. They lived through the same century together, witnessed the depression, two world wars, economic suffering and prosperity, and over a dozen presidents. They lived in the same country, though on different coasts. Neither one started out with a greater or lesser advantage, yet the difference in their lives was stark. What was the difference? Ben lived his life under an illusion, a false narrative about life and happiness, which ruined his life. He lived his final days in fear of death. John arranged his life around truth, around the teachings of Jesus, an accurate narrative about what constitutes a good life. By following this narrative he lived a glorious life, is content and looking forward to a radiant future with Christ. Ben built a life on shifting sand; John built his life on the strong rock of Jesus.

I want to be clear that God did not bless John because he did good deeds. John’s good deeds led to a virtuous life, which is its own reward. God does not mete out blessings and curses based on our behavior alone—if that were so, all “bad” people would suffer and all “good” people would be blessed. But there is a life of joy and peace that only those who follow God can know.

Have you met someone like John Wooden? If so, how did his or her life impact you?

Neither John nor Ben are normal in that both achieved extraordinary success in life. Both were exceptional in their own ways. But you and I are no less exceptional. Each day we make decisions that move us closer to a life of virtue or vice. We face decisions whether to be greedy or generous, self-centered or self-sacrificing, condemning or forgiving, cursing or blessing. While Ben and John were not average, everyday people, their souls are no different than ours. No matter who we are, we must choose the narrative we will practice daily.

Jesus’ Narrative

John Wooden became a Christian at a young age and built his life around Jesus’ teachings. Jesus’ narrative goes like this: “The good and beautiful life is created by doing the things I commanded, not as laws or rules, but as a new way of life.” Jesus states this narrative at the end of his Sermon on the Mount. Later, we will examine that sermon very carefully, but I want to begin by looking at how Jesus ends his teaching. After giving the most profound sermon the world has ever heard, Jesus says,

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall! (Matthew 7:24-27)

All who take Jesus’ words to heart and arrange their lives around them will be like a person who builds a house on a rock, never to be shaken, even in the storms and floods.

In contrast, those who refuse to listen and obey build their house on sand. When the storms of life come, they can be sure that their house will collapse. What words is Jesus referring to when he says “hears these words and acts on them”? The Sermon on the Mount. He is talking about his command not to be ruled by anger or lust or deception. Not retaliating or worrying, and not judging people. Strangely, many Christians simply ignore these teachings, seeing them as too hard or perhaps not necessary for the ordinary person.

This book is built around the Sermon on the Mount. The aim is to help Christians understand and implement the teachings of Jesus about things like anger, lust, lying, worrying, pride and judging others. What Jesus teaches about these things is simply the truth. Living according to his teachings leads to a good life, a life that can withstand the storms and trials we all face. Disobeying his teachings leads to a life of ruin. Jesus is not making life more difficult but is revealing that the way to the good and beautiful life is to obey his teachings. There is no other way. Either our lives conform to his teachings, or we fail to live a good and beautiful life.

Maps and Lighthouses

Years ago, Gordon Livingston was a young lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division, trying to orient himself during a field exercise at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He writes, “As I stood studying a map, my platoon sergeant, a veteran, approached. ‘You figure out where we are, lieutenant?’ he asked. ‘Well, the map says there should be a hill over there, but I don’t see it,’ I replied. ‘Sir,” he said, ‘if the map don’t agree with the ground, then the map is wrong.’ Even at the time, I knew I had just heard a profound truth.”

Maps attempt to tell us the way things actually are. The closer a map comes to matching reality, the better it is. The same is true with our narratives. Some narratives are simply wrong. Other narratives, particularly those of Jesus, are exceedingly accurate—perfect even. We can easily tell the accuracy of the map by comparing it to the terrain it depicts. Lieutenant Gordon learned a great truth: if the map does not agree with the ground, the map is wrong. The ground is never wrong.

Narratives, too, try to guide us, to orient us, to tell us which way to turn. But if the narrative does not agree with actual life, the narrative is wrong. The false narrative Ben lived by proved inaccurate. It told him, “This is the way to the good life,” but he ended up with a ruined life. The problem, then, is not with life but with the narrative. Jesus’ narrative, in contrast, matches reality. No one has ever followed his teachings and been disappointed. No one has ever put his teachings into practice and found them false. His instructions perfectly coincide with reality. We will not find the good life any other way than by obeying Jesus. We must conform to his way.

One dark and stormy evening a ship with a proud captain was heading directly into an oncoming ship. The other ship signaled, “Turn around,” but the proud captain refused. He signaled the other ship to get out of his way; after all, he was a famous captain piloting an important ship. The other ship signaled again, “Turn around—now!” Again, the captain refused, signaling, “No, you must turn. This ship is the SS Poseidon, and I am Captain Franklin Moran!” Finally the other “ship” signaled: “Turn now—this is the lighthouse, and you are about to hit the rocks.” Certainly we are free to live our own way. So is a captain free to deny the light from the lighthouse and do what he wants. He is not free, however, from the rocks. Reality is what we smack into when we are wrong.

We should read the Sermon on the Mount this way. Jesus is not demanding we live his way in order to get his blessing or get into heaven when we die; he is simply telling the truth about reality. He warns against lust, not because he is a prude but because he knows it destroys human lives when unchecked. He tells us not to worry, not because it will give us ulcers but because people who live with him in the kingdom of God need not worry; it is a waste of time. Lust and worry, judgment and anger, retaliation and pride are never good or beautiful, and never lead to freedom. In fact, they are a flight from freedom.

We cannot find happiness or joy apart from a life of obedience to the teachings of Jesus. C. S. Lewis wrote, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” God is not being stingy and withholding joy apart from our obedience; there simply is no joy apart from a life with and for God. “God, please give me happiness and peace,” we plead, “but let me also live my life as I please.” And God answers, “I cannot give you that. You are asking for something that does not exist.”

The Cost of Nondiscipleship

Spiritual formation and discipleship cause many people to think about the high cost involved in developing a deeper life with God. Gone will be a life of pleasure, a life filled with laughter and fun. Entertainment, watching movies, eating delicious food, surfing the Net and playing games with friends will all have to be taken out of our lives. This is far from the truth. Those who follow Jesus do not have to live austere, sad and sour lives. In fact, the opposite is true. Christ-followers experience the highest form of pleasure, laugh with depth and enjoy all of the goodness life has to offer. Kingdom-dwellers are simply more discriminate about how they seek entertainment and pleasure. They trust in a good and beautiful God who has come not to rob them of joy but to bring them real and lasting joy, the kind found when moderation and boundaries are applied.

The idea that following Jesus’ teaching will lead to a boring life is one of the most effective narratives employed by the enemy of our souls. Satan and his minions know all too well that real joy is found only in obeying Jesus’ commands. But with a twist here and there, and the help of well-meaning but misguided religious folk, the Christian life can be portrayed as a holy bummer. The devil wants people to fear the high cost of discipleship. But in reality, the cost of nondiscipleship is much higher. Dallas Willard explains:

Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10).

The question is not, What will I have to give up to follow Jesus? but rather, What will I never get to experience if I choose not to follow Jesus? The answer is clear: we will forfeit the chance to live a good and beautiful life.

Always We Begin Again: Ben Reprised

Before the summer ended, during one of our many conversations, I ended up telling Ben that the only way to live was to follow Jesus. Ben did not offer much resistance to my statement. Jesus, he said, was brilliant. But he said it was too late for him; he had messed up his life and at the age of seventy-five was beyond redemption. I explained that redemption was God’s favorite activity, regardless of age. During the rest of the summer we met each day, and every session became more and more joyful. We read the Gospels together and talked about mercy and forgiveness and the opportunity to change. By the end of the summer, when it was time for me to leave, Ben offered me a very special gift, a rare copy of an old book he knew I loved. Then he told me that he had decided to follow Jesus, had asked for forgiveness and somehow, in a strange way, felt that God had forgiven him. He showed me a letter he had written to his daughter, asking for her forgiveness. The book was a wonderful gift, but the change I saw in his life over the course of a summer was the best gift of all.

The last time I heard about Ben came when his daughter wrote to me, telling me that Ben had died at age eighty-eight. She said they had reconciled, and Ben had come to a saving faith. She said he spent his last years a changed man. Apparently Ben told her about our summer sessions and had asked her to pass on his gratitude. Ben did not live a radiant life, at least for the first seventy-five years. But he was changed and experienced a decade of devotion to God. According to his daughter, Ben died a radiant death.

When in your past have you felt that you could change? What truths from this chapter could you draw on to inspire you that change is possible?

When I think about Ben I think about how change is not only possible but mandatory. Every day we must begin anew. Though the past is written in stone and cannot be changed, the future is like wet cement, pliable, smooth and ready to be affected by what we do. No one is past redemption. All of us have the chance, no matter what we have done or where we have been, to change our minds, hearts and behavior, and to follow the wisest and most loving teacher who ever walked this earth. Each day, Jesus says to each of us, “Come, follow me.” If we say yes, we can be sure that a good and beautiful day awaits us. And when we string those days together into months, years and decades, we will have lived a good and beautiful life. And that life is destined to echo a benediction of love for all of eternity to hear.

Soul Training

Writing a Letter to God

I would like you to write a letter to God that begins with “Dear God, the life I want most for myself is . . .” The rest of the letter will complete this opening statement (or prayer). You may want to acknowledge the mistakes you have made, but try to describe, in the rest of your letter, what a “good and beautiful life” would look like for you. Will it involve a major life change? Will it demand a new set of friends? Will it involve changing old narratives and habits? Feel free to dream big. Let God in on your greatest hopes.

Be sure to keep this letter in a safe place. You will likely want to read it at least once a year to be reminded of the vision you and God have for your life. Let it be a guide and an inspiration. If you feel comfortable, you may share it with someone you trust. If you are working through this book with a group of people, you may want to share your letter with them, but you are not required to do so. My experience has been that this is a great encouragement to everyone in the group.

Reflecting on Your Soul-Training Exercises

Whether you are going through this material alone or with others, the following questions will help as reflect on your experience. Record your answers in your journal. If you are meeting with a group, bring your journal to remind you of your insights as you share your experiences with others.

Describe the letter you wrote this week and how you feel about it.

What did you learn about God or yourself through the exercise?

If you feel comfortable, share your letter with others.


The Gospel Many People Have Never Heard

If I had been asked, fresh out of seminary, “What is the gospel of Jesus?” I would have said, without hesitation, “Jesus died for our sins so that we can go to heaven when we die.” Or if someone had put me on the spot and given me thirty seconds to explain the good news of Christianity to a nonbeliever, I would have answered, “God loves you. But because of your sin, you are separated from God and cannot have a relationship with him. Jesus died for you, and made provision for your sin. Through believing in Jesus you can know and experience God’s love and receive eternal life.”

Have you heard this gospel? Explain how it came across to you, and how you lived as a result of it.

I still believe this today. The gospel—which literally means “the good news”—of Christianity certainly contains this message. I fully believe that God loves us, that we are separated from God by our sin, that the sacrifice of Jesus is the only means of reconciliation, and the necessity of receiving Jesus by faith. I not only believe these things, I believe that they are essential and nonnegotiable. I learned those truths when I was becoming a Christian, and thirty years later I still believe they are true.

What I later discovered was that there is even more good news. In The Good and Beautiful God, I wrote about the importance of knowing that we are loved by God (chap. 5), forgiven by God (chap. 7), and raised to new life in Christ (chap. 8). These essential truths have radically changed my life. But I learned that this gospel is incomplete. I came to realize, thanks to some gifted teachers, that the gospel Jesus preached includes even more than being loved, forgiven, reconciled and given a new identity. I failed to know for over ten years of my Christian life that the gospel also includes an invitation to a great adventure, which I have come to know as “living in the kingdom of God.”

To be sure, those other aspects of the good news (loved, forgiven, indwelt) were enough to help me live as a contented Christ-follower. But it was only after I discovered the “gospel of the available kingdom” that my apprenticeship to Jesus really began to make sense. Why did it take so long for me to discover this important aspect of the gospel? The good news about entering heaven when we die has overshadowed the equally good news that we can enter heaven now. The understanding of Jesus preached from many pulpits (even the one I stood in for years) is primarily that of Savior or ethical teacher. To be sure, he is both. But Jesus as rabbi, the one who teaches us how to live in the kingdom of God, is missing.

Jesus’ Narrative: Getting Heaven into Us Now

In the following pages we will examine a lot of New Testament passages to see how prevalent the missing aspect of the gospel is. My aim is to let Jesus be our teacher, our primary narrative-giver.

Metanoia: The kingdom of God is here. After his temptation in the wilderness Jesus was ready to begin his public ministry. Directly after his baptism Jesus began to preach:

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)

Presumably, this was the opening line of a sermon, a summary of his entire message and perhaps his most provocative or memorable point.

Notice also the phrase “from that time Jesus began to proclaim.” This indicates that he preached this message more than once. This proclamation likely was included every time he preached or taught, because we have no indication that he preached anything else. The word proclaim was commonly used in Jesus’ day for a herald who offered a very special word from the king. Matthew is telling us that Jesus, the King of the kingdom of heaven, has offered a new edict containing very good news.

Jesus’ good news is summarized in a single sentence, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The Greek word for “repent” is metanoia, which means literally, “change your mind.” Most people think repent means “shape up”; thus they think Jesus’ proclamation is a threat. But it is an invitation. The kingdom of God (or kingdom of the heaven) is an interactive life with God. Jesus is essentially saying, “Change the way you have been thinking—a life of intimacy and interaction with God is now in your midst.” Jesus’ hearers were aware that this was a gracious invitation, an offer so good that when Jesus taught it he often had difficulty escaping the crowds.

This was Jesus’ first and only real sermon point. And because Matthew indicates Jesus proclaimed it every time he spoke, I have come to believe that the kingdom was the primary topic of Jesus’ preaching.

Not only preaching but teaching. What was the content of Jesus’ teaching? The kingdom of God. Jesus primarily taught in parables, and nearly all of his parables were about the kingdom.

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field.” (Matthew 13:24)

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” (Matthew 13:31)

And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Luke 13:20-21)

It is much more difficult to find a teaching of Jesus that was not about the kingdom than to find one that is.

Jesus continued to teach his disciples about the kingdom of God even after his resurrection:

After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3)

After looking at the Scripture passages above what stands out to you?

Apparently the message had not changed. From his opening sermon to his hillside teaching to his postresurrection discourses, the subject is the same. Jesus preached and taught about the kingdom of God, and he expected his followers to do the same. In the Gospels, Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God over one hundred times. How can we have missed it?

What Jesus’ Followers Preached and Taught

When Jesus sent his disciples to preach, he scripted their sermon to be exactly as his:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: . . . “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” (Matthew 10:5-8)

It’s the same sermon message Jesus proclaimed. This should tell us something.

What about the apostle Paul? Did he teach about the kingdom of God?

He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke out boldly, and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God. (Acts 19:8)

He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (Acts 28:30-31)

For “two whole years”—his final two years on earth—Paul preached nothing but the kingdom of God.

And in Paul’s letters he uses the phrase “kingdom of God” or its equivalent fourteen times. For example:

For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)

Why are we unaware that Paul taught about the kingdom?

He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14)

The kingdom is not something only Jesus preached and taught; his followers taught it as well.

How Often Have You Heard about the Kingdom?

After discovering that the central message of Jesus, his disciples and the apostle Paul was the kingdom of God, I wondered why I had never heard much about this before. I discovered I was not alone. Dallas Willard recounts the following:

At the 1974 Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization, Michael Green asked rhetorically, “How much have you heard here about the Kingdom of God?” His answer was, “Not much. It is not our language. But it was Jesus’ primary concern.” . . . Peter Wagner . . . adds, “I cannot help wondering out loud why I haven’t heard more about it in the thirty years I have been a Christian. I certainly read about it enough in the Bible. . . . But I honesty cannot remember any pastor whose ministry I have been under actually preaching a sermon on the Kingdom of God. As I rummage through my own sermon barrel, I now realize that I myself have never preached a sermon on it. Where has the Kingdom been?”

I was relieved after reading this. Michael Green, a leading expert in the area of evangelism, and Peter Wagner, the founder of the church-growth movement, were in the same situation as I was.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great British preacher, noticed the same problem in his country:

It is indeed very surprising that at the end of the twentieth century, men and women should still be all wrong about what the Gospel is; wrong about its foundation, wrong about its central message. . . . And yet, that is the very position by which we are confronted at the present time.

With as much biblical scholarship as we have available today, it is shocking to me that we have not heard more about the kingdom. If this is indeed the central message of the gospel, we simply cannot be wrong about it.

How did things get this way? I discovered that a powerful false narrative forced people to completely neglect the kingdom of God.

False Narrative: The Kingdom of God is Future

No serious biblical scholar would deny that Jesus’ proclaimed the kingdom of God. However, many scholars conclude that Jesus was not talking about our present world but rather an epoch in history that has not yet begun. Obviously, the world as we know it is not running under the authority of God.

For example, Bible scholar John Bright says,

The New Testament church . . . was confident that the victory of all the dark powers of the old aeon had been won in Christ, so much so that the Kingdom of God could be spoken of as a present thing. Yet it was all too painfully aware that the Kingdom remained an unconsummated thing of the future which had yet to come in its power. In tension between the two the New Testament church lived and waited.

Because Jesus did not establish a complete reign over all people and governments, Bright and others have concluded that the kingdom of God is “an unconsummated thing of the future.”

While “the Kingdom of God could be spoken of as a present thing,” in actual practice most seminary professors choose to put the emphasis on the future aspect of the kingdom of God, so much so that nothing much is taught about the present aspect of the kingdom. By labeling the kingdom as an eschatological (end times) reality that will come at the return of Christ, its role and value for our present lives is negated. This is a very big reason the kingdom of God seems to have been lost to most Christians.

There is no doubt that the kingdom of God has not been fully established. No nation, no state and no person lives in complete accord with the kingdom of God. My own heart and life is an example of that. I have moments when I strive and even succeed in living obediently to God and actually practice the principles of the kingdom. But I have just as many moments when I run the “kingdom of Jim” and choose to disobey the teachings of Jesus. Thus I pray, every day, “Thy kingdom come.”

But this in no way means that the kingdom of God has not come or is not a present reality, or that it came in Jesus and left when he ascended. The kingdom of God is a present reality that will be fully consummated in the future. It is here and is as real and powerful as it will ever be. Everything Jesus said about the kingdom is true in our lives. Yes, one day it will be the governing power over the entire universe, but for now it is intended to be the governing power over you and me.

Jesus never said, “My kingdom teachings—especially all of those parables—are not applicable to you. They are about a future time when I come back in victory.” While he did teach about the kingdom coming in its fullness, he primarily taught about the kingdom in the present tense. He not only taught about it, he ministered by its power. And by its power Jesus’ disciples changed the world, not only in the first century, but in every century since.

What Are the Implications of This Good News?

Just about everyone I know would like to have special powers. That is why we like superheroes who can leap buildings, stop speeding bullets or become invisible. Jesus tells us that those who live in alliance with him in the kingdom of God are endowed with a great deal of power—power to do good. It is demonstrated in the life and ministry of Jesus: “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness” (Matthew 9:35).

Notice the connection: he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom and then demonstrated its power by healing people. When he cast out demons, it too was a manifestation of the power of the kingdom: “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Matthew 12:28). The kingdom was here and now and available, which Jesus demonstrated through his supernatural acts.

Lest we assume that the power of the kingdom was only available to Jesus, Luke 10:17-18 shows that Jesus expected his disciples to utilize the power of the kingdom in their own work and ministry: “The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.’”

The kingdom of God exhibits the greatest power in the universe. Sickness and storms can be brought under its power. Demons are subject to a single word uttered from the kingdom. Paul stated it clearly: “The kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power” (1 Corinthians 4:20). So when Jesus invites us to be with him in order to become like him, he assumes that we will experience the same authority and power that he has.

How Do We Enter the Kingdom of God?

In three places Jesus tells us what we must do to enter the kingdom of God:

I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. (Mark 10:15)

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. (John 3:5)

The first stipulation for entering the kingdom seems daunting: our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, who were very religious people and highly respected for their piety. How can my righteousness possibly exceed theirs?

Jesus was very critical of the scribes and Pharisees because their righteousness was primarily exterior. They focused on outer actions (hand washing, sabbath rules) and not on the inner condition of their heart. The righteousness we need to enter the kingdom is humility, purity of heart and a desire to work on those aspects of our soul that are most important, such as integrity, gentleness, respect and mercy.

The Pharisees kept their outer life, which people could see, clean, but their inner life was filthy (Matthew 23:25-26). To enter the kingdom, we must work on our inner life. This is the aim of this book. In future chapters we will address issues such as anger, lust, lying and judging others. In order to live in the kingdom we must address these issues in our life. When we do, our righteousness begins to exceed that of the Pharisees.

To enter the kingdom of God, the second requirement is to become as a child. Jesus was fond of the attitudes and character of children. Pointing to a child in his midst, he quipped, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). Children are innocent, trusting and have little self-consciousness. They do not naturally judge others or hate people. Those are learned activities. Love comes naturally to children. Of course, children convey more than innocence and love and trust; they can be petty and selfish and fearful. But children do not need to be in control. They have very little authority or power, and live each day in dependence and trust, receiving everything as a gift. And this, I believe, is what Jesus is advocating.

Being childlike does not save us, nor is it meritorious in itself. One can be childlike and be very far from the kingdom. Jesus is telling us that in order to enter the kingdom we need to have the trusting disposition of a child in order to experience the fullness of the kingdom. If we insist on maintaining our power and our control, we cannot enter the kingdom. The kingdom requires submission.

The third prerequisite to enter the kingdom is to be “born of water and Spirit.” This is not a reference to water baptism. “Born of water” was formerly used to describe the birth, because infants live in the water of their mother’s womb before being born. Every living person has been born of water. “Born of the Spirit” describes a second birth, which puzzled Nicodemus, who asked Jesus how it is possible to be born a second time (John 3:9). Jesus explains, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).

When I came into this world I was born “of the flesh” and “of water.” But when I surrendered my life to Jesus, I was “born of the Spirit.” How did that happen? The Holy Spirit had been leading me to Jesus for some time, and when I relinquished control of my life, the Spirit then infused my entire being with new life and new capacities. My love for God and my ability to understand the Bible increased. A few years later I was baptized by water, a sacrament that symbolizes that new birth.

Not everyone enters the kingdom the way I did. In fact, most Christians grow up in the church and are Christ-followers as long as they can remember; they cannot point to a moment when they were born again. Some may feel as if their experience is inferior, but in reality it is far better to have walked a whole life with Jesus. Either way, living the Christian life is learning how to be led by the Spirit: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:14).

What is it like to be so led? Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Wind and spirit are the same word in Greek. Jesus is saying that those who are led by the Spirit are not under a set of laws and rules. We are indwelt by a person far greater than a set of regulations. In order to enter the kingdom we must surrender our lives to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The Heart of the Gospel

After reading this chapter, describe your feelings about this new view of the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ primary message was the availability, presence and power of the kingdom of God, which is the central teaching of the New Testament. The power of the church rests in the kingdom of God. The good news is that we are invited into this life with God. We enter the kingdom through surrender, humility, trust and a willingness to begin working on our hearts in order to become the kind of person God desires us to be. God is creating an all-inclusive community of persons whose hearts and character are shaped by Jesus. This can happen only in the kingdom of God. Fortunately, all of us are invited, regardless of our past.

Soul Training


Play is a spiritual exercise that can teach us about living in the kingdom of God. Many people think play is silly and not very spiritual. Play is actually very serious. By definition play involves randomness. We simply do not know how the ball will bounce or how our friend will respond in our make-believe world. Play cannot be controlled, no matter how hard we try. Sports teams try to keep the game under control, but that is impossible. Every “play” that happens during a game unfolds in unexpected ways. This is what makes play so entertaining.

Spontaneity is one of the spiritual benefits of play. We learn to let go. We relax, let ourselves become vulnerable and open up to whatever happens. I was teaching spiritual formation to a group of twenty college students. One day I told them that instead of sitting in the classroom, we were going outside to play Ultimate Frisbee. Of course, they loved it. During the hour we played, many things happened that none of us expected. I stepped in a giant mud puddle. A shy girl turned out to be a great player. The best moment came when a dog ran onto the field and stole the Frisbee.

We play because our God is good. Grace is sufficient for us. God wants us to be full of joy, and play is a way to experience the goodness of God and the richness of life. But many adults have lost the ability to play. Somewhere along the journey, life takes more serious turns: marriage, a job and children, and we find that we rarely play. At a retreat, I once asked thirty pastors what they do in terms of recreation and play. I was surprised to find that none ever played anything! One said he liked to work in his garden and wondered if that was considered play. I told him that if it nourished his soul, it was very close to play.

What are some ways we can engage in play? I have found the following list helpful. Perhaps you might want to choose one or two of them this week.

If you have children (or nieces, nephews or grandchildren), play with them! Do what they do (board games, hopscotch, even video games). Get down on the ground with them and wrestle!

If you once played a sport (tennis, racquetball, golf) but have not played in a while, dust off the old equipment and find someone to play with.

If you have a favorite hobby (collecting, painting, pottery, gardening) do it with a sense of play and wonder, not as work or something to be accomplished.

Engage in the discipline of wonder: read a book about something you do not know much about, or pay attention to the things around you.

Go to your local recreation center and sign up for a class: pottery, dancing, art, pickup basketball.

Rent a funny movie, make popcorn and laugh till your sides hurt. Laughter is a very special gift from God.

How Does This Exercise Relate to the Kingdom?

Jesus told us we must enter the kingdom as a child, with trust, joyful expectation and very little self-awareness. Play is an act of self-abandonment: we stop taking ourselves so seriously and simply enjoy life. In one sense the kingdom of God is like a playground. Safe within the confines of a play area, with trusting parents overseeing their children, kids are free to slide and spin and climb and enjoy every moment. Because our heavenly Father watches over us, we are free to let go and play. When we play, we are training our bodies and souls to live with genuine excitement. That is what the kingdom of God is all about.


The Grand Invitation

Imet Kevin about fifteen years ago at a small church I was attending. One day our pastor asked Kevin—who was in his late twenties at the time—to come forward and give his testimony. The only problem was that Kevin could not speak; he barely makes sounds. He had been born with Down Syndrome and a host of other physical ailments, including a reconstructed palate. As a result, he emitted grunts and snorts that only his mother could completely interpret.

The pastor therefore had to speak for Kevin, asking him yes or no questions, to which he would nod and grunt, and occasionally light up with a smile that said more than words could.

“So, Kevin, you just got back from the Special Olympics, where you won a medal. Was that a lot of fun?”

Kevin nodded furiously and smiled as he held his medal high. The pastor then turned to the congregation and explained how Kevin might have won more medals that day, but he stopped in every race to help other runners who had fallen or were lagging behind.

“Isn’t that true, Kevin?” the pastor asked.

Again, Kevin nodded, but this time with a kind of shyness and humility.

The pastor then said, “Kevin, you are about the happiest person I know. To what do you attribute the joy in your life?”

Kevin pointed up.

“God?” asked the pastor.

Kevin shook his head yes, several times, then raised his hand as if to correct him, or to add to what was said.

“Something else?” the pastor questioned. Kevin grunted as if to say yes. “What else?”

Kevin then held his arms outstretched, as if he were Jesus on the cross.

“Do you mean Jesus, and his dying for you?”

Kevin not only nodded, but with great excitement started grunting and jumping up and down. He used sign language to say that Jesus loves us all, and that he, Kevin, loved us as well. He gave the pastor a huge hug, and most of us in the pews were misty-eyed if not downright crying. It was the best testimony I ever heard. And that was the moment I first began to understand what the Beatitudes are all about.

False Narrative: The Beatitudes Are Prescriptions for Blessedness

At one point while I was in seminary I began an intensive study of the Beatitudes at the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteous ness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:1-12)

Jesus said that the “poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “those who are meek” and “those who are persecuted” are blessed. Because my most common narrative said we have to earn God’s favor through our actions (legalism), I naturally assumed this list was a prescription for how to get God to be happy with me. Jesus seemed to be teaching that those who had these inner attitudes (meekness) and outer behaviors (willingness to be persecuted) were the truest of all believers. As I meditated on the Beatitudes and studied each one of them one by one, I began to believe that those who practiced them were the Marines of the Christian army, the select few who were a cut above the rest.

I was not alone in my interpretation. In fact, I would later discover that this is the dominant narrative concerning the Beatitudes. A few years earlier I had heard a pastor preach a series on the Beatitudes, and each week he encouraged us to try to be poor in spirit or to be meek or to stand up for Jesus, and if all went well we would experience persecution. Then we would know for sure that we were blessed. This narrative says the Beatitudes are prescriptions for blessedness or means to obtain spiritual wellness.

The problem is, this is a wrong interpretation. And of course, when you interpret a significant passage like this one incorrectly, a host of other problems emerge. After all, this is the opening section of the greatest sermon given by the greatest person who ever lived. If we begin in the wrong direction, you can be sure we will make a lot of other mistakes as we continue. Before we get to the correct understanding of the Beatitudes, I want to explain the context for Jesus’ teaching. Failure to see the context is one reason we fail to interpret the Beatitudes correctly.

The main subject of Jesus’ teaching is the kingdom of God. When Jesus arrived on the scene, everyone wondered when God would restore the kingdom to Israel. And there were five stipulations about who the kingdom was for. By taking a look at these five criteria we can more easily see what Jesus was saying in the Beatitudes, and how shocking those words must have been to some of his hearers and how exciting they were for others.

Five Requirements for the Kingdom of God

The dominant narrative of the Jewish religious leaders was that God had chosen the nation of Israel and was not going to invite non-Jews to the kingdom. Only those who were Jewish would be allowed to interact with God.

The recipients of the kingdom would be male only. In Jesus’ day women were considered second class, or even worse, mere property. Some rabbis even said that women did not have the same souls as men.

The rightful recipients of the kingdom would be faithful keepers of law—holy and ritually pure. The kingdom was not available to someone who did not eat kosher or observe the sabbath—much less someone who was a known sinner (such as a prostitute, an adulterer or a tax collector).

The kingdom could be entered by the physically whole and healthy. Sickness was a sign of sin and God’s curse. The kingdom would not be available to the diseased, the blind or the lame.

The poor had been abandoned by God. Therefore the kingdom was for those who were wealthy. Even though the wealthy could be blessed by giving alms to the poor, the poor were not on the kingdom guest list.

Those who would enter the kingdom of God comprised an exclusive club: they were Jewish, male, religiously upright, healthy and wealthy. Jesus’ ministry ran counter to this narrative. Jesus blessed the poor, touched lepers, healed and forgave Gentiles (even female Gentiles), and notoriously sinful females!

The religious leaders were shocked. By associating with known sinners and non-Jews, Jesus was saying, “You are invited.” As L. Greg-ory Jones says, “because the cultically impure were welcomed at Jesus’ table, they were implicitly included in a relationship of communion with God.” The Pharisees grumbled and criticized Jesus for this, and Jesus responded with this little gem: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31).

How could Jesus say this? Because he is the kingdom of God. He is a living, breathing, tangible, touchable, real-life expression and embodiment of the kingdom. When he touches or dines with people, they have come into contact with the kingdom. Matthew, a former tax collector, and Mary, a former prostitute, are in his inner circle. They have entered into the kingdom ahead of the Pharisees.

Jesus’ Narrative: The Beatitudes Are Invitations of Inclusion

Think about a time you have been excluded from some group. What was that like?

The broken down, sinful, ragamuffins of Israel flocked to Jesus. They tore apart roofs, climbed trees and formed huge crowds to see him. They knew he offered a vast treasure and was giving it away freely to everyone. Jesus was roaming Galilee telling everyone that God loves them, that God wants to commune with them and bless them, no matter who they are or what they have done, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. And he was not just saying nice things; he is healing people too. This was no ordinary man; God was with him—and he proclaimed we too have access to God! Those not on the guest list are invited into the kingdom of God.

Now we can better understand what Jesus is saying in the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes, far from being a new set of virtues that further divide the religious haves and have nots, are words of hope and healing to those who have been marginalized. I will endeavor to explain what the Beatitudes meant to those who sat on the hill listening to this provocative teacher.

Blessed are. Each Beatitude begins with the words blessed are. Some translations say “happy are.” Neither one of these does true justice to the Greek word used here, which is makarios. Makarios means something like “truly well off” or “those for whom everything is good.” Blessed is a religious word to many of us today and is associated with being pious. Happy refers to temporary condition based on externals; it denotes a more shallow state of being. Today, the most accurate translation of makarios might be “well off.” This translation heightens the shock value: “The poor in spirit are truly well off, because . . .”

There were other makarios sayings that Jesus’ hearers were familiar with. An intertestimental book says:

Blessed is the man who lives with a sensible wife. . . .

Blessed is the man who does not sin with the tongue. . . .

Blessed is the man who has not served as an inferior. . . .

Blessed is the man who finds a friend. (Sirach 25:7-11, my translation)

All of these conditions are favorable. It is a good to have a sensible spouse and not to be inferior. These beatitudes make sense, and they do not shock us.

The same is true of the rabbinic teaching that those who mourn will be comforted in the hereafter. The more we suffer in this life, the less we will suffer in the next. “Be comforted,” a rabbi might say to a person in mourning, “because you can look forward to a better life in the next.” This too makes sense. There is justice in this: One day you will get your reward. Again, this teaching is not shocking.

But Jesus gives us a jolt. The Beatitudes countered the rabbinic teaching of Jesus’ day. Jesus used words and phrases of and expressions similar to well-known rabbinic quotations, but in each case he turned them upside down. Alfred Edersheim concludes that Jesus’ teaching not only differed from the rabbis but was teaching “quite the opposite,” thus revealing “the difference between the largeness of Christ’s World-Kingdom, and the narrowness of Judaism.” Jesus’ teaching is different and new.

When Jesus delivered his Beatitudes, I imagine his hearers gasped. He looked out at the crowd of desperate, sad, broken and persecuted people, and called them makarios.

Poor in spirit. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor in spirit have nothing going for them. These are folks who are in a bad state, and Jesus is announcing to them that even they are invited to the kingdom. Poor “in spirit” sounds like something close to being humble, but in Luke’s version Jesus says bluntly, “Blessed are the poor,” which is more difficult to spiritualize. Dallas Willard translates “poor in spirit” as “spiritual zeroes,” meaning the kind of people who humans typically think have no place before God.

So the opening beatitude might read something like this: “Blessed are you who are feeling marginalized from God, who have nothing going for you spiritually—for you too are invited to the kingdom.” Anna Wierzbicka notes that Jesus demonstrated great sympathy “for those who were marginal to society or outcasts.”

The poor in spirit were in the crowd. Jesus was looking at them. They are the type of people this world overlooks. Jesus starts with them and says, “You are very well off. You are welcome in the kingdom of God.”

The eyes that normally looked down in shame suddenly gazed at Jesus with hope and joy. Females, sick people, the poor, the second-class half-Jew, the person whose life had been broken by bad choices—all heard the good news. “Who me? Is he talking about me? I am welcome in the kingdom of heaven? It is here for me, now?” This was very good news.

Those who mourn. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Those who mourn may refer to people who have undergone loss and are feeling overwhelming grief. It refers to a person “whose situation is wretched.” Imagine a young woman who has lost her husband to cancer and is angry, confused and drowning in depression. Jesus is taking a very negative state and proclaiming that it can be turned into something good. People who grieve in the kingdom grieve altogether differently than those not in the kingdom. As Paul said, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

In the kingdom we find comfort because God is in control, God gets the last word, which is heaven. Heaven changes how we grieve. We still feel pain, but we take comfort in knowing that we will see our loved ones again, and there will be no more tears. Laughter and joy await us. As in the first beatitude, Jesus says an unblessable condition can be blessed.

Those who are meek. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Because meekness (or gentleness) is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), we think of it as a virtue, and of course it can be. But there is a dimension of meekness that is not necessarily a virtue. Scholars believe Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and the word he likely used for “meek” is praus, which refers to those who cannot retaliate when harmed. The kid who is not able to stand up to a bully is praus. He is not merely humble or gentle, but has no capacity to resist.

This is not a good thing to be in the eyes of this world. Certainly a person in this condition is not blessed. But Jesus calls this kind of person blessed because a praus will inherit the earth. This likely refers to land. The people in the crowd were too poor to own land (as most people were in that day). The landowners were often oppressive, charging large fees and asking for a lot of work simply to live on rented land. So when the praus hear that they will “get their due,” it was very good news. This beatitude promises that “the kingdom of the heavens enfolds them, the whole earth is their Father’s—and theirs as they need it.”

Those who hunger for righteousness. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness certainly desire a good thing: righteousness. But these people do not merely desire righteousness, they “hunger and thirst” for it. Hunger and thirst are conditions of great need. These people are starving for something they do not have. They yearn for things to be made right. Perhaps the wrong is in them or is an injustice foisted on them. This is an admirable but not an enviable condition.

But as before, there is good news available to them. Jesus has a promise for people such as these: their hunger will recede. God will restore them to a new place where forgiveness and love will dominate. Jesus says to them, “I have come to make the world right, to make you right and to make all things new.” That place is nothing other than the kingdom of God.

Those who are merciful. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Jesus is not describing people who are simply nice in this beatitude. He is describing people who give until it hurts. I think of my paternal grandfather who ran a fix-it shop in small-town Indiana. According to people I have met, he was generous to a fault. People quite often could not afford to pay their bills, and he did not force them to do so. As a result, he and his family could barely survive financially. We all admire people who give of themselves for others, and most of us strive to live that way. When we do, however, we make ourselves vulnerable, and someone usually takes advantage of us.

As in every beatitude, the merciful are given a promise. Those who are merciful will receive mercy. In a society bent on revenge, being merciful is not often seen or highly valued. But God is merciful and loving and forgiving, and he will show mercy to the merciful. In the kingdom their kindness does not go unnoticed.

Which of the Beatitudes do you most relate to? Describe the negative and positive.

Those who are pure in heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Most of us strive to be pure in heart. We live in a broken and depraved world, and we find a lot of darkness in our own hearts. In “As the Ruin Falls,” C. S. Lewis wrote, “I have never had a selfless thought.” Our motives are mixed and often selfish. We would like to speak without guile, to love with pure intentions and to serve with the right motives. But it eludes us. We find that we are a mixture of good and evil. We long to do right, just as the person who hungers for righteousness, but in this case our yearning is to be pure so that we can see God.

This beatitude is built on Psalm 24:

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

And who shall stand in his holy place?

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully (Psalm 24:3-4)

Who can stand in God’s presence? Those who “have clean hands and pure hearts.”

Jesus is addressing people whose longing is never fulfilled. They are never perfect enough. God seems to elude them. They grit their teeth and resolve to do better because they want to see God so badly. Jesus informs them they will see God. Of course, he knows that this is not just a future promise. When they look at Jesus they see God. They have found what they have been seeking and are truly well off.

Those who are peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Peacemakers stand amid those who are fighting; they are “caught in the middle.” A police officer allowed me to ride with him for about three hours, which was about all I could handle. During that time he dealt with several people who had or were in the process of committing crimes. The officer had to step in and use as much force as necessary to deal with people who were less than polite.

The officer is a peacemaker. He goes where we would not, and does it because he believes in protecting the innocent. This is what Jesus is addressing in this beatitude. Using force to make an enemy bow is not peacemaking. Peacemakers are willing to suffer and even die for the cause of peace. Peacemakers will be called the sons and daughters of God because they do what their heavenly Father does. Our God is a peacemaker, and human peacemakers resemble him.

Those who are persecuted. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The last to be blessed are the persecuted. We rightly esteem those willing to suffer for their faith. I read with awe the stories of men and women who accept martyrdom with courage and even joy. But this certainly is not valued in this world. We are easily offended by a slight criticism. We want everyone in it to think well of us. We want praise, not persecution.

Jesus observes that those who pursue righteousness are going against the grain of society, and that will result in persecution. Following Jesus is dangerous—if we lead the kind of life he calls us to. When we choose to fight for justice and peace or not to lie or judge others, we will face backlash.

The promise in the last beatitude is the same as in the first: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When we align ourselves with Jesus and observe his ways, we are in the kingdom.

Blessed Because They Are Poor?

The people mentioned in the Beatitudes are not blessed because they are in those conditions. They are blessed because of Jesus. They have hope because the kingdom is available to even them. Their character traits are not highly valued by the world. As my friend and colleague Matt Johnson put it so well, the Beatitudes “are characteristics that won’t lead to power, prestige, or possessions.” Jesus opens the Sermon on the Mount with the radical teaching that these people are invited to the great banquet.

People are not blessed merely because they are poor in spirit. The condition is not important. What is important is that these people are not cut off from God. Their life situation does not prevent them from entering the kingdom. Most of Jesus’ teaching went against the grain of dominant narratives (“You have heard that it was said. . . . But I say to you . . .”). The Beatitudes are not different. The life circumstances Jesus called blessed are commonly thought to be anything but that. And the Beatitudes are radical because they teach that these people have the same access to the kingdom as the rich and happy.

What if I am not on the list? If I am not poor, is the kingdom of heaven mine as well? If I am happy, is there any comfort for me? Of course. Jesus does not include the rich in spirit because everyone already knows they are blessed. But they did not know that people who were poor in spirit had equal opportunity in the kingdom.

Warning to the Rich and Powerful

In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes Jesus offers a warning that is worth heeding, perhaps especially today:

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:24-25)

Jesus warns them not because God does not accept rich, satisfied or happy people, but because rich, satisfied and happy people often think they have no need for God.

Have you seen this in your life or in the lives of others?

Wealth, power and possessions can easily numb us to our need for God and make us overlook the needs of others. The wealthy must be concerned for the poor. Eating gourmet meals when others have nothing to eat should cause us to reflect a bit. Pursuing pleasure in a world with so much pain creates uneasiness in those who follow Jesus. God is not against fine food or having fun, but we ought to think deeply about our decisions—what and how much we buy, what is truly important— because we live in a world of great disparity.

The solution is not to close out our bank account and hand it all to a charitable foundation or to stop eating. Jesus’ stern warning is born of love. He knows that we try to find solace in our wealth and fulfillment in our bellies. And we confuse fleeting pleasure with joy. When all is well in the kingdom of this world, we are tempted to think we have no need of the kingdom of God. When the wealthy, full and happy share with those who have less, they find satisfaction in things that truly satisfy.

The Blessed Shall Bless

In the Beatitudes Jesus invites the down and out to live in fellowship with him. He invites them to the kingdom of God. Jesus is the kingdom of God in the flesh. He is Immanuel, God with us. He does not introduce people to a concept or a religious idea, he invites them into a vibrant, interactive relationship with himself. And Jesus embodies and fulfills the Beatititudes. He was poor in spirit, meek and pure in heart. He hungered for righteousness, mourned for Jerusalem and wept for Lazarus. And he was persecuted. Pope Benedict XVI explains this beautifully:

The Beatitudes, spoken with the community of Jesus’ disciples in view, are paradoxes—the standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in their right perspective, which is to say, in terms of God’s values, so different from those of the world. It is precisely those who are poor in worldly terms, those thought of as lost souls, who are truly fortunate ones, the blessed, who have every reason to rejoice and exult in the midst of their suffering. The Beatitudes are promises resplendent with the new image of the world and of man inaugurated by Jesus.

Jesus inaugurated and exemplified this upside-down world through his life and in his teachings.

Those who are in Christ become living beatitudes, walking, talking blessings to the world. Immediately after the Beatitudes Jesus says, “ You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world. . . . [L]et your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus not only invited these ragtag people into the kingdom but calls them the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Those who live with Jesus in his kingdom are destined to be witnesses for another way of life, where the last are first and the greatest are least.

When I heard Kevin speak in church I was watching a living beatitude. His condition seemed unblessable in the kingdom of this world. According to society’s values, he has nothing going for him. He is marginalized, ostracized and neglected. No one would choose his situation. And yet he is welcomed, esteemed and valued in God’s kingdom, which is why he smiled. It is also why he never competes—there is no competition in the kingdom. We are all on the same team, all members of the same family, where everyone wins.

How has God used you, especially in your weaknesses?

Kevin lets his light shine in our congregation through his compassion for people who have lost their spouses. Many people in this congregation were elderly, and every few weeks one of our members would pass away. Kevin would look the surviving spouse in the eyes, touch his finger to his eye and run it down his cheek, to indicate tears. Then he would put his hands together in a posture of prayer. Finally, he would give them a big hug and walk away. Without words he conveyed, “I am sad with you. I am praying for you. I love you.” The people who receive his blessing say the same thing: “Of all the people who tried to help me after I lost my spouse, Kevin helped me the most with my grief.” Kevin, rejected by the world but one in whom Christ dwells, brings comfort to those who mourn.

Soul Training


The Beatitudes invite marginalized people into the kingdom of God, and hospitality can help us practice this essential aspect of the kingdom: God cares deeply about those who are left out. The kingdom is inclusive, but the world we live in is exclusive. And if we are honest, we likely are more exclusive than inclusive in our own lives. The authors of Radical Hospitality note:

When we speak of hospitality we are always addressing issues of inclusion and exclusion. Each of us makes choices about who will and who will not be included in our lives. . . . Our entire culture excludes many people. If you are in a wheelchair, for example, you are excluded because there are places you can’t go. If you are very young, if you are very old, you are excluded. In high school you can be excluded if you don’t wear the right shoes or listen to the right music. Women are excluded, as are people of color, and those who practice a different religion from our own. . . . The poor are always excluded; they are our embarrassing little American secret.

Living in the kingdom of God involves loving others, because our King is a God of love. Living in the kingdom of God involves forgiving others, because our King is a God of forgiveness. In the same manner, living in the kingdom of God involves hospitality— inviting and including others—because our King is a God of hospitality.

Practicing hospitality makes us vulnerable, and this is why we refrain from it. As long as I spend time with people I know, people who are like me, I feel relatively safe. But if I open myself or my home to someone outside of my comfort zone, I may encounter something I do not like. This does not mean that we put ourselves in situations of risk: “Opening yourselves to the stranger is not equivalent to leaving your door unlocked and bringing strangers into your home. Hospitality does not mean you ignore obvious threats to personal safety.”

That said, we will still likely feel a bit uncomfortable. When we open ourselves to someone else we become vulnerable: What if they reject my hospitality? What if the situation becomes awkward? Knowing this is going to happen will help alleviate those fears. Simply remind yourself that feeling a bit uncomfortable is normal. Once you do it a few times, those fears will diminish.

Try to do two or three of the following suggestions this week.

Reach out to someone outside of your comfort zone. Ask if they want to have coffee or go out for lunch. This might be a coworker you seldom connect with or someone who has few friends. Intentionally connect with someone who is different. Who might that be?

She is the liberal if I am conservative, and rich if I am poor. He is the guy who does not go to the same places I go, the family that does not worship where I worship or shop where I shop. The other is the person from the neighborhood I avoid; the guy I don’t want sitting next to me on the plane.

If you feel uncomfortable stretching this much, then back off a bit and connect in small ways with someone you have never met.

Listen to people. Become aware of the people around you and become a great listener.

Be a “preparer.” Preparing involves doing small things that show you care for other people.

You prepare for others when you plan a quiet time with your child, when you set candles on the dinner table, when you shovel your sidewalk, or trim the tree away from the street sign. These are ways of preparing to receive others—in other words, through these activities you prepare a table for others. When we are preparing a table, we are also preparing ourselves.

My wife is great at this. When people come to our home, she does little things (candles, special appetizers, nice table settings) that communicate “You are welcome here.” She never has to say it; her preparation speaks loud and clear.

Pay attention to the people you love: “You can put down the phone and listen to your coworker talk for a minute. You can shut off the radio and play checkers with your child. . . . How much do people matter? How important is it to make room for others?”

Welcome others into