business-163464_1280God wants the best for you!

If you’ve spent much time in and around evangelical churches, chances are you’ve heard this phrase or some derivative of it on quite a few occasions. Maybe you’re going through a tough time with your health or finances, or perhaps you’re struggling to feel optimistic about the future. Whatever the specifics of the situation, when you feel trapped in a corner and everything looks bleak, isn’t it nice and encouraging to be told that God wants the best for you?

While this innocuous-sounding expression is undoubtedly well intentioned and may indeed sound reassuring, if we stop and think for just a moment, it’s easy to see that it masks some quite problematic ideas.

First off, the idea of “best” only really works inside a system of exchange.

If I’m going to be the best in my class, it follows that no one else but me can occupy that top spot. Similarly, in order for me to have an above average income, someone else (or rather a lot of someone elses) has to earn less than the average. Seen from this perspective, the very idea of “best” only makes sense within a hierarchical system. And in any hierarchical system there are inevitably winners and losers, the powerful and the powerless.

It follows from this that we can’t all have “the best”, whatever that might be and in whichever area of life it might apply. Simply put, if we all had “the best”, by definition it would no longer be “the best”; it would simply be the norm or the average.

That being the case, does God perhaps want some people to have the best but not others? Well, Romans 2:11 tells us that God has no favourites. Hmmm.

Second, underneath the idea that God wants the best for us lies the unspoken assumption that God is just itching to intervene on our behalf to make sure we get it. This is problematic because it tends to make God into a genie whose primary role is to fulfil our desires. And, of course, it raises the vexed question of why, if God is prepared to intervene to get me that dream job/house/partner/grade/miracle I so desperately want, is he apparently content to sit back and observe while millions die of starvation and disease? One might go so far as to say that if God really wants the best for people, he’s spectacularly bad at doing anything about it.

Third, in our acquisitive, greed- and success-driven consumer society, it’s hard not to think of “the best” in the way that the prevailing culture understands it: most expensive, most impressive, most influential, most inspiring of envy in others, and so on. Do we really believe God is remotely interested in helping us attain any such thing?

Like many nuggets of Christianspeak, then, this little phrase collapses into meaninglessness as soon as you poke and prod it a bit.

It’s my firm conviction that God is not the slightest bit concerned about helping you, me or anyone else have or be “the best”, partly because to think that he is concerned about it introduces the kinds of problems and contradictions set out above, but mainly because that’s just not how God operates in the world.

I do believe, however, that there is one kind of best that God desires for you. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with your bank balance, marital status, career advancement, physical health or even happiness. The only kind of best that God wants for you and me is this: to be the most complete, whole human beings we can possibly be – which is to say the most loving, compassionate, patient, kind and merciful people we can be. But even here, there are no magic prayers we can pray or shortcuts God can open up for us to fast-track us to the finish. How God can and will help us become these kinds of people is by nudging us by his spirit so that we learn to let go of grudges and forgive those who hurt us, and by loving and encouraging us so that we dare to expose and receive healing for our wounds. Oh, and by the way, be warned: while the destination might be desirable, the journey to it often hurts like you wouldn’t believe.

So much for well-intentioned encouragement.