A Myth That We (Unfortunately) Live By: The Idea of the “Limited Good”
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. -- John 10.10b
I have been thinking a lot about abundance and scarcity lately. OK, mainly scarcity. With Kegan about to go off to college, we will be suffering a double-whammy of “maltuition” for some time. And there are aging vehicles. And we just had to replace some flooring at the house. And I think there’s a leak in a corner of our roof. And… Well, there’s always something, isn’t there
The reality is that all of these are what we might call “first world” problems. None of them are “existential” problems; that is, my life is not endangered if the carpet continues to fall apart or if the car “gives up the ghost,” and no, though I still haven’t figured out how to cover the year (or two) of overlap with two in college, my life does not actually depend on figuring that out.
But they sure feel like existential problems in my little emotional world sometimes.
At those moments, I’m buying in to something anthropologists and sociologists call the idea of the “limited good.”
About fifty years ago, an anthropologist studying peasant cultures came up with (or at least, put words to) the idea of the limited good. One aspect of those peasant cultures was that the people in them seemed to live by a zero-sum mentality – there’s only so much of any of life’s good things, whether material or not. Now, it is true there’s only so much land, for instance. But somehow that concept is transferred to other things we desire, even need; things such as love and friendship, honor and respect, influence and status…there’s only so much and they will always be in short supply.
The defining quality, then, of such a life is scarcity. Such a life is a life of “can’t,” not “can.” It is a life that focuses on limits, that is afraid of loss, and that sees other people as competitors for what is available.
Unfortunately, it turns out the idea of the limited good is not restricted to “peasant cultures”: We are not so far removed despite our economic success and technical prowess.
The Galilee of the first century AD, the Galilee of Jesus’ day, was such a peasant society. And that’s what makes Jesus’ message stand out so much against that backdrop.
He comes talking about abundance. Not a material abundance, but an abundance grounded in God’s gracious, loving generosity.
He goes around saying things such as
Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7.7-11)
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6.25-33)
This is not “health-and-wealth gospel,” the idea that God wants you to be a winner, a rich winner at that, in life. No, Jesus is pushing back against the idea of “limited good.” God is not limited in his ability to give us what we need, when we need it. And he gives us what we really need to thrive, not just wealth (and aren’t we culturally conditioned to think that wealth is really all we need to thrive?).
What difference would it make in our lives if we approached the world not as a place of tremendous limitation, but as a world of potentially vast abundance because God cares about his people? What difference would it make in how we live if we took Jesus’ words – just the words we’ve read in this post—seriously?
In this country, we are tempted every day to pursue self-centered dreams of lavish prosperity, a prosperity measured most often by having more than others.
And we worry – constantly – about not having enough, even when we have all we need. Our self-centered dreams seem to breed fear.
(By the way, in Jesus’ story of the “Rich Fool” (Luke 12.13-21), this man apparently sees excess abundance as something to be hoarded, since God might not provide so well in the future. And this story seems to address the very contemporary issue of mistaking God’s goodness for an entitlement to wealth. Isn’t the guy in the story living a self-centered dream of lavish prosperity?)
In stark contrast, in the gospel of Christ, we are called to live every day in a generosity born of confidence in God’s provision for us. In the gospel, we are invited to live in the idea of the abundant, loving, providing God.
There will always be opportunities provided by life for us to operate according to the idea of the “limited good” and to become nervous and take our eyes off God’s goodness and get all negative and down about it all. I know, because I do that often and well. I am well-practiced at it. But I’m trying to learn a new practice. I’m trying to learn to listen to Jesus and relax in God’s loving provision of all I really need.