The Hidden Pothole In Our Affluent Culture

Almost a decade ago, just before the release of the film Son of God, I interviewed the co-producers—Hollywood power couple Roma Downey and Mark Burnett. He’s the brains behind SurvivorShark TankThe Voice, and many other successful TV shows. She’s an actress best known for Touched By An Angel. I asked what might be behind the cultural resurgence around interest in Jesus (The Chosen is a contemporary example of this). Here’s what Downey said:

Well, I think that we’re all experiencing a great disconnect with all the things that we think would satisfy us in our culture. You know, we’re right now driving through Hollywood, where so many things are presented to us that that promise to make us happy. Or we’re told over and over that there are products that we have to have or we won’t be happy—all the things that are presented to us that will complete our lives. I think it’s just becoming clearer with everyone that none of these things that are offered to us are true, or will feed our spirit, in the way that a walk with Jesus will.

Downey and Burnett work in Hollywood—“Excess Central”—the land of “you can have anything and be anything you want.” So her perspective on the source of true joy is an insider’s insight. Affluent Americans represent the most difficult mission field in the world—people who have it all, or think they do, are not desperate enough to turn to a Jesus whose best friends are always the most desperate people in the room. The more affluent we are, the more convinced we are that we can buy our way to happiness. And that means we’re at great risk for losing our “foundational hope.” Here’s what I mean…

Researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK and Hamilton College in New York have found that countries ranking high on the “happily affluent” scale also have the highest suicide rates. Denmark is often used as a primary example, but this ironic dynamic is also true of Canada, the U.S., Iceland, Ireland, and Switzerland. In the U.S., researchers found that states that have people who are generally more financially satisfied with their lives tend to have higher suicide rates than those with lower average levels of life satisfaction. For example, Utah is ranked first in life satisfaction, but has the ninth highest suicide rate.

The University of Warwick’s professor Andrew Oswald, co-author of a report on the tie between suicide and apparent “life satisfaction” published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, says: “Discontented people in a happy place may feel particularly harshly treated by life. Those dark contrasts may in turn increase the risk of suicide.” This matters a great deal to those of us who are ministry leaders—every person in our congregations lives in the most affluent society in the history of the world. That means they are constantly comparing the reality of their life with the standard of happiness their affluent society says they should be enjoying. It’s a kind of cultural whiplash—when the stuff that promises to make us happy doesn’t do the job once we have it, “how deep is our darkness” (Matthew 6:23). The words of Jesus that immediately follow this snippet from verse 23 get right at the core of our joy: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

And the reason we cannot serve these two masters simultaneously is that we can trust only one God—one of these makes promises it can never keep, the other makes promises that are insured by His outstretched arms on a cross. Thriving congregations are made up of thriving people—people who have tapped into a deeper well of joy than affluence can deliver. Our journey to joy, like the “treasure buried in the field,” follows a path that leads directly to Jesus, where His scarred hands are waiting to wrap us in a long embrace, just as the father in his Parable of the Prodigal Son foreshadows…

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution,The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.


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