The Good Life – Derwin Gray

The Good Life Derwin Gray
The Good Life: What Jesus Teaches about Finding True Happiness by Derwin Gray
Also by this author: How to Heal Our Racial Divide
Published by B&H Publishing on June 2, 2020
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life
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What is true happiness, and how can we find it?
Everyone wants to be happy. We spend our money, time, and energy chasing after “the good life,” and we run ourselves into physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion on the way. But what if the happiness we’re all striving for isn’t the happiness we were created for?
Pastor and author Dr. Derwin L. Gray believes there is a path to true happiness. It is a life lived with Jesus by embracing the Beatitudes found in Matthew 5:1-12. As you walk through these words, Jesus invites you into a new life-giving rhythm that cultivates a flourishing, happy, transformative life. 
Discover the good life you were meant for. 

What comes to mind when you hear the term The Good Life? What is it that makes a life good? Family, friends, financial success? Is it having a job you love or enough free time and money for vacations? Is it power and control? Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, envisioned “the good life” as consisting of achieving all the goods — health, wealth, knowledge, friends, and so on — that lead to the perfection of human nature and to the enrichment of human life.

Some time after Aristotle, there came an itinerant Jewish rabbi named Jesus who upended that whole system of thought. That’s the good life concept that Derwin Gray is exploring. Not the natural good life of Aristotle, but the supernatural good life of Jesus. A good life that isn’t always easy to understand.

The Good Life is a pretty straightforward book: a chapter of introduction, a chapter of conclusion, and one chapter for each of the nine beatitudes that Jesus gives on the Sermon on the Mount. Gray writes passionately and personally, talking about how each of these countercultural statements have played out in his own life.

Each chapter ends with a prayer, some discussion questions, and a few summarizing thoughts. This structure makes it perfect for a devotional time, however you want to structure it. For me, it was a chapter a day from beginning to end—just about ten minutes for the reading and then however long I felt it necessary to reflect on the questions.

The difficulty with writing about the Sermon on the Mount—and the beatitudes in particular—is that saying something new and exciting about the most famous part of the most famous sermon can be difficult. Every pastor ever has preached over these passages. What does Derwin say that not only stands out, but is worthy of publication?

The highlight, I think, is Derwin’s personal story. Life is story, after all, and Derwin’s is particularly captivating, detailing his journey toward and then in the faith. His writing style is very engaging, like having a conversation with a friend.

However, I do have a few criticisms. Gray mainly treats the beatitudes on a superficial level, never really digging down deep and exploring the issues with much depth—either biblically or applicationally. Unfortunately, it begins at the root. I admittedly didn’t read much about this book before diving into it. It came highly recommended and that was enough. If I had known beforehand that it was an exploration of happiness using the Beatitudes, I may have passed on reading it because I simply don’t think that’s a great interpretation of Jesus’s meaning.

I don’t think Jesus is talking about happiness in the Beatitudes. And that affects how I read the rest of the book. It’s not that Derwin is wrong in any of what he says, I just think there are better passages that support his claims. Gray uses the Beatitudes as a launching pad, but that launch is successful only if the blessedness Jesus is talking about means “happiness.”

The Greek word translated blessed in the beatitudes is “makarioi” which means to be fully satisfied. It refers to those receiving God’s favor, regardless of the circumstances.

What Jesus is saying is that God’s favor rests upon those who are part of his kingdom, and these are the types of people that make up its citizens. A better translation, one that fully grasps the meaning of this biblical blessedness, may be “God’s favor is upon…”

This removes the beatitudes from some sort of subjective emotional expression beginning in the self and changes it into an objective expression of identity rooted in God’s position toward the believer. The opposite of happy is sad. The opposite of God’s favor is God’s disfavor. Reading the beatitudes as simply about happiness infinitely lowers the stakes in living out the “blessed” life.

In keeping with this low-stakes interpretation, Gray’s exegesis of “blessed are the poor in spirit” is worked out in a chapter titled “Happy are the Beggars.” A fair portion of this chapter is spent discussing how believers should empower and encourage the poor. This comes after a closer, but still not quite focus on the sin of pride.

In the end, Gray’s writing is still engaging, enjoyable, and accessible. There’s nothing wrong with his theology, but I’m not convinced the Beatitudes are the best starting point. Since that structure is what guided the book’s content, it really affected how I read it. That’s kind of a technical point, I guess, and it’s one I tried to let go as I read the book. It’s good theology from the wrong foundation, but it’s fairly typical of how the Beatitudes are preached and taught at the popular level.