The Problem with God’s “wonderful plan for you”

One of the great Evangelical leaders of the twentieth century, Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru) and signatory of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, published a small booklet in 1952 entitled Four Spiritual Laws. It was used for over six decades as an evangelistic tool by literally millions of Christians worldwide. And it had – indeed, continues to have – a profound and lasting impact on Evangelicalism and the way in which that movement presents the Gospel to unbelievers and those who have strayed from their faith.

Even though I count myself among those whose spiritual journey was shaped by Bright’s vision and his call to share the good news of Jesus with family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, I have come to believe that Bright’s first spiritual law – “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life” – presents a misleading depiction of what it means to follow Jesus.

It is true, of course, that the teachings, life, and person of Christ offer to the world a compelling vision of how one ought to love, hope, and believe. But the joy that Christ promised us (John 15:11) is not a “wonderful plan,” but a peace that “surpasseth all understanding.” (Phil. 4:7). The message of the Gospel is not Norman Vincent Peale’s The Positive Power of Jesus Christ. Rather, it is Christ’s final answer in his exchange with the rich young ruler (Mk 10:17-22), who, initially, asked our Lord, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

The young man replied that he had followed all the commandments since his youth. Our Lord, looking at the him with love, offered this final rejoinder: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the moneyto the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The text says that when he heard Jesus say this, the young man “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

After telling his disciples what was coming – his suffering and death at the hands of the religious and political elite, followed by his resurrection on the third day (Lk 9: 21-22) – Jesus said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Lk 9:23-26)

           Bill Bright at UCLA in the Fifties (Olympian Rafer Johnson is center)

In that light, “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life” doesn’t quite seem right, does it? And yet, for some reason, this trite and superficial way of evangelizing has been the staple of American Christianity since the 1950s. It was, I believe, largely successful, because in the era in which it arose, the moral and cultural sensibilities of the Christian faith, though certainly not explicitly embraced by everyone or even lived with total integrity by those who claimed to embrace them, were considered uncontroversially true and the appropriate standards by which one’s conduct could be fairly judged.  Thus, there was no need to bring up the cross, since there didn’t seem to be a hill to die on.

But the decades long near-absence of the truth of the cross and the Gospel of suffering and transformation – that following Jesus is as much about getting heaven into you as you getting into heaven – resulted in generations of American Christians who spend half their Sunday services singing “hymns” to a Jesus that sounds more like their boyfriend than their Lord. 

For this reason, as the hostility to Christian faith continues to mount in the United States – especially on issues that will require government coercion in matters of religious conscience –many of our fellow believers, unwilling to entertain the possibility that they must suffer as Christ suffered, will continue to acquiesce to the spirit of the age and construct a Jesus that conforms to that spirit. This Lord will wind up agreeing – or at least, not disputing – any of the pieties of the secular intelligentsia.

The economic, social, and familial pressures will seem so unbearable – so inconsistent with that “wonderful plan for your life” – they will quickly and enthusiastically distance themselves from those brethren who choose to pick up the cross and not check the “like” button. Whatever it is that hangs in the balance – professional honor, academic respectability, securing a lucrative business contract, or thirty pieces of silver – it will surely be described as the place to which “the Lord is leading us.”

Although they will claim to be devout “Evangelicals” or “Catholics,” they will nevertheless embody the beliefs that H. Richard Niebuhr once attributed to what was at the time the most dominant religious force in America, Liberal Protestantism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).