I used to think that Good News was always a YES–that abundance-thinking was the way to approach life, and that positivity was to be preferred over negativity. Not so much these days, though. Now I’m tinkering with the idea that the Gospel can also be framed by NO’s, that maybe it should include some negative ideas and some scarcity thinking as well.
First, remember that gospel (euangelion) is an idea bigger than “saved from eternal damnation.” Because of God’s grace, there’s good news for here and now, too. When Jesus began his public ministry, his preaching of Good News also included insight into the injustices that plagued society, accompanied by healings of all kinds. When I look for gospel in the Scriptures, I must also reckon with the biblical condemnations of sin that warn me away from mindless YES’s. Think here of the Wisdom writings, the Law, the Prophets. Jesus—the Good News in human form—was also direct in his forewarnings and denunciations. Speaking personally, part of the good news I need is that the Spirit helps me to avoid sinful ways of living in the first place. Those NO’s can be part of the salvation that God offers.
Let me share some personal history here. When I started working in World Hunger and Stewardship, I was one of the abundance apostles. “There’s plenty of food in the world for everyone,” we would say. “It’s just not fairly distributed.” We recalled that God is an abundant giver, a profligate seed Sower—generous beyond our ability to receive. Scarcity? A near-heresy, born solely from fear and lack of trust. We were certain that abundance begat generosity, and that scarcity drew us away from others. Visions of cornucopias guided our proclamation of the gospel that God wanted us to live well. We were good stewards, sharing good news.
Over time, though, I found consistent data that suggested that scarcity was real, that we couldn’t have everything we wanted without destroying the planet. (A current example: Northern California’s almond growers are tearing out those thirsty trees because the state’s reservoirs can’t provide their allotments of water for irrigation. Perhaps soon, not enough for their drinking water or power generation, either.)
That more-insistent look at the state of the world’s resources yielded the unyielding truth that we are running out of some of the most basic elements for our lives. (Perhaps ironically, the declining birth rate in China means that we’re even running out of Chinese workers and consumers who will manufacture and buy our goods!) There’s no abundance—no good news—in worldwide desertification, plastic-polluted oceans, depletion of fisheries or forest fires.
Denying scarcities where they actually exist? A good way to blind my senses to reality, leaving me at the mercy of self-delusion and its harsh consequences. On the other hand, when I acknowledge life’s limits—something also necessary as I grow older—I see that “enough” is always a mixture of both YES and NO. That there’s always satisfying good news in sufficiency.
When it’s left unchecked, my abundance-thinking could become an excuse for gluttony and wastefulness. “I deserve this” can creep into my self-talk and legitimize self-satisfaction as a reason for my decisions. There’s not much Gospel in that mindset.
During this pandemic, NO! may have seemed to be the operational behavioral mantra. The opposite may also have been true. Because I was confined to home, I could slow down and examine my life and character more carefully. Not being completely free to associate with others as often as in pre-pandemic times, my spouse and I spent more time together, finding again the reasons why we have loved each other all these years. With fewer opportunities to spend money, Chris and I continued our generosities and our pared-down lifestyle. Realizing that this virus seemed especially deadly for people my age, I have come to cherish every day more fully.
In my estimation, this waning pandemic offers all of us another chance to adjust our lives to become more manageable—and thus more sustainable. We can become more honest about what the planet’s resources can support into the future. As we come into post-pandemic life, this will be a good opportunity to lower our carbon footprints, curb self-indulgent attitudes, provide equal justice for all, eliminate income disparities and draw together in common purpose.
All of those changes can be good news, rooted in God’s gracious love and accompanied by our mature self-denial and empathy for others.
By another name, our NO’s can be Gospel….!